Super sad – and true

American author Gary Shteyngart spoke to ‘The Jerusalem Post’ about his fear of technology and more.

Gary Shteyngart 370 (photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe)
Gary Shteyngart 370
(photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe)
American novelist Gary Shteyngart says he feels at home in Israel – not because he is Jewish or even because he’s Russian, but because conflict is his familiar companion.
“I go to peaceful places like Copenhagen and I just get bored,” says the bestselling writer, who visited Israel last week for the third International Writer’s Festival in the capital. “I grew up in a tumultuous environment in the Soviet Union, so for me, unless there’s anger expressed all the time I feel strange.”
Born in Leningrad, the author of three award-winning works of fiction – The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), which he started writing as a senior at Oberlin College, Absurdistan (2006) and Super Sad True Love Story (2010) – immigrated to New York with his parents when he was seven years old.
Shteyngart, looking relaxed in jeans and a plaid shirt, sat down with The Jerusalem Post during the festival in Mishkenot Sha’ananim overlooking the Old City walls and talked about why HBO shows are the new novel, his fear of technology and what it meant when he received the tag line “balding traitor betrays motherland” from a Russian reviewer.
In all of his books, Shteyngart, who grew up in Little Neck, Queens, and teaches in the MFA program at Columbia University, places his immigrant protagonists in overblown situations and uses satire to mock nationalism, institutions, overblown religiosity and different ethnic groups. In Super Sad True Love Story, he chronicles a love story between a Russian and a Korean, while poking fun at little absurdities in their families, and says that nobody and nothing should be untouchable in satirical writing.
“If there are limits then you haven’t really done your job,” he says.
No limits also mean that when his father asks whether his latest book will be “good for the Jews,” he can honestly say that not only won’t it be good for the Jews, it won’t be good for anyone.
“I feel like I’ve been blessed with the ability to make fun of everyone,” he says. “From a Shteyngart novel nobody comes out looking good.”
The 39-year-old is changing pace from fiction and working on his memoirs as well as an original pilot for HBO (what he says many talented writers are doing these days), and says he would like in the future to try new characters, like writing from the point of view of a non-Russian woman.
In working on his memoirs, he is doing a great deal of family research, traveling to Russia and learning about how his parents became the people they are.
“One is never free from the past, which is stronger than religion and country and the rest of it,” he says.
Still, he is not losing the voice that catapulted him to literary fame.
“I think it’s always important to remember yourself at your sort of most cowering, lowest point, and for me that’s being a child in America [who] just emigrated from Russia, being in Hebrew school, being beaten by the local Jews,” he says. “That’s important to remember because that’s the interesting thing.”
Shteyngart has no shortage of material. In Super Sad, he creates a dystopia in which society is a purely visual culture and nobody reads anymore – a reality that Shteyngart feels already exists or is fast approaching. He theorizes that when major empires are on the decline they turn into visual cultures from literary ones, like the Roman Empire, for instance, and now the United States.
Reading is one of the first casualties in such times.
“We’ve led a very luxurious century in America and it’s doubtful that the next century will be as luxurious,” he says forebodingly.
When drawing attention to the absurdity in everything, particularly religion and nationalism, Shteyngart has seen a remarkable difference in reactions to his writing from those people or countries that feel secure in their identities and those that don’t.
He waited for American Jews, for instance, to take serious offense to the Holocaust museum he created in Absurdistan, but they didn’t. His intended meaning hit readers on some level, he said, but then they moved on.
On the other extreme, insecure “meganational enterprises” like Russia, where he received the tagline “balding traitor betrays motherland,” cannot handle being satirized.
The global trend of heightened nationalism, coupled with scarcer resources and a rising tide of natural disasters worries Shteyngart altogether. Gesturing to the row of Israeli flags on the next building over, he says, “I love Israel very much, but I don’t think we need a flag on every single piece of territory.”
In America too, he says, seeing giant flags everywhere only points out the insecurity and fear of the country, not its pride or happiness in itself.
“When you’re proud you don’t need to say it,” he says. “We can’t be defined by a bunch of flags.”
AS HE travels around the world for speaking engagements, Shteyngart sees the evidence of the visual culture he fathomed in Super Sad, as he finds himself begging people to pick up a book.
“There’s such good pornography now,” he says, that people argue, “Why should I read a book?” He answers, “My books are fairly pornographic. Give them a try.”
It’s technology that is killing his business, Shteyngart charges. Our brains are overloaded from looking at the computer, tweeting, watching television and more all day, he says, and people are so exhausted at the end of a work day that it’s much easier to go for the visual stimulation, rather than retrain our brains to sink into a good read, which takes work. Shteyngart says he falls victim to the barrage of electronica too, though he also struggles to keep up with it.
“I’m a better twitterer than I am a writer,” he jokes. “That’s what I’m known for. What I really need is to build a bigger Twitter presence. Then the readers will follow.”
As of press time, Shteyngart can boast 9,919 Twitter followers.
Shteyngart also understands the nightly appeal of keeping up with shows like Mad Men, The Wire and Breaking Bad, which he too enjoys, and praises for their novelistic storytelling – in particular The Sopranos, when it was still on television.
These shows however, he says, have become the center of intellectual culture.
Rather than being well read, educated people are expected to know these programs.
“When I saw The Sopranos I thought, Jesus Christ, this is Flaubert on the screen,” he says. “The attention to dialogue is just honest as you can get, as realistic as you can get. That’s something I often find missing from literary fiction.”
To make sure his dialogue sounds as authentic as possible, Shteyngart says he always reads it out loud, and even took acting lessons with Louise Lasser, an actress and Woody Allen’s ex-wife, to expand from just being able to do great accents (especially the Russian one).
Despite the popularity of television, he’s still keeping the torch going for fiction, and despite being a total pessimist when it comes to technology, the downfall of countries, cultures and the environment, Shteyngart derives hope from his Columbia students, who by reading critically and intelligently, restore his faith in humankind. He, in turn, advises them on their craft.
Shteyngart can count among his pupils actor James Franco, and even featured his students in a trailer on YouTube he filmed to promote Super Sad.
“I’m the kind of writer who tells people ‘this is boring’ or ‘this is pretentious, don’t go there,’” he says. “Boredom and pretention are the twin enemies of literary fiction, especially in an MFA kind of format people forget that there’s a reader out there who has to read this stuff.”
He also feels a mixture of pessimism and optimism from his pack of loyal readers, which he estimates at a quarter million people in Brooklyn, Seattle, Portland and Brookline, Massachusetts.
“You can make ’em laugh, but you ain’t gonna teach ‘em nothin’ new. Maybe you will.”
Shteyngart, who participated in a Generation X writers panel at the festival and in a dialogue with Israeli short story writer Etgar Keret, has been keeping readers entertained since he first started writing as a young boy in yeshiva looking to make friends.
“Being a Russian kid was the worst thing you could be,” he told the crowd at the event with Keret.
Though after eight years in yeshiva, Shteyngart says he had about enough of Judaism, including getting circumcised in the US, at the time he immersed himself in the religion, including the practice of burning chametz during Passover, which he says he became almost fanatical about.
“I became very religious, of course, because I wanted these people to love me.”
They didn’t.
“So I started writing a Torah of my own,” Shteyngart recalls. He called it the “Ganorah,” and it was quite racy. Exodus became Sexodus and Moses became quite the randy figure.
“That’s how I made my first American friends,” he says. “That’s when I realized that writing could be subversive and you could make friends by writing. I’ve been writing the same kind of crap ever since.”