Ashkenazi pessimist

American novelist Gary Shteyngart has helped turn ironic immigrant literature into a trend.

Ashkenazi pessimist (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Ashkenazi pessimist
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
“Comedy is the most important form of Jewish expression. More than the Mishna and the Gemara, I’d say it is comedy. Italians do pasta and we Jews do humor. Without these things, life would be unthinkable,” American novelist Gary Shteyngart tells The Jerusalem Report in an interview in Jerusalem.
Shteyngart, a 39-year-old acclaimed writer of three best-selling books, was in the city for the Writers Festival, a biannual event at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Shaananim cultural center. A self-proclaimed “Ashkenazi pessimist,” who knows basic Hebrew, he seemed at ease interacting with the Israeli public, occasionally peppering his speech with Hebrew and Yiddish phrases.
Shteyngart hit the literary big time with his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, published in 2002, which follows the exploits of one Vladmir Grishkin, an underachieving 25-year-old Russian Jewish American who travels to the mythical Eastern European city of Prava (a.k.a Prague) to work for a local gangster. Written in a flowing, confessional style and laden with pop-culture references, it was named a New York Times Notable Book and a winner of the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction.
Its success heralded Shteyngart’s entrée into the literary scene and also marked the beginning of a spate of similar stories published by other young, hip authors.
Shteyngart helped turn ironic immigrant literature into a trend.
His second and third books are also told through the eyes of self-deprecating Russian Jewish men. In Absurdistan, the hugely overweight Misha Vainberg struggles to leave the country of Absurdistan and return to New York to pursue his love of American pop culture and his black ghetto girlfriend Roueena.
Super Sad True Love Story, published in 2010, is set sometime in the near future, when a sinister ultra-conservative American president named Rubinstein is in power and Facebook-like social media outlets have taken the place of more traditional forms of communication. Lenny Abramov, the aging, balding protagonist who still reads books, falls in love with a troubled young Korean American woman.
For him, she embodies the era’s wish for eternal youth and its focus on instant gratification.
Although Shteyngart has become known for humorous writing in the nebbish tradition, in person, he has a confident presence. Both on stage and in private conversation, he repeatedly went into stand-up comedy mode, firing off jokes in quick succession, knowing just when to pause for laughs.
At the festival, he regaled the audience with impressions of his traditional Russian parents criticizing him for imagined slights. “They ‘Google’ me and print out all the negative things people are saying about me online,” he pretends to whine.
Later, he complained about the poor academic level at the yeshiva day school he started attending shortly after his family immigrated to Queens, New York, from the Soviet Union in 1979. “After years of yeshiva, I could barely speak Hebrew. My math skills were also really bad. I could barely add. When I got to high school, my father had to teach me math from Soviet textbooks.
They didn’t teach much at yeshiva besides davening [praying], and I wasn’t a very good davener either,” he quips.
An avowed “non-religious” Jew, it is comic writing that appears to be Shteyngart’s true calling. His three novels follow on the tradition of other witty Jewish scribes; he sees himself as part of the literary heritage of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and his personal favorite, Mordecai Richler.
Yet, Shteyngart ’s work often goes a step further, moving into satire and depicting outrageous scenarios that class him with today’s more experimental postmodern authors. Another aspect of his mass appeal lies in his skillful depiction of the contemporary immigrant experience. He was seven years old when his family emigrated from the Soviet Union, and he says it took him years to do away with his heavy accent in English. Although he eventually acclimated, attending arty Oberlin College in Ohio and later becoming a writing instructor at Hunter College and then Columbia University, he continues to express feelings of alienation through his writing.
In all of his books, the heroes are nerdy immigrant types poised between a fading traditional culture and a fun, but ultimately hollow, contemporary world. This narrative persona, a younger, immigrant Woody Allen, seems to have struck a chord with many readers. Shteyngart believes his writing’s immigrant sensibility goes deeper than the plots of his book; it can be felt in the very style of his prose. “If you look at the way I write, you will notice Russian cadences and a Russian influence in the sentence structure,” he says.
Even when describing his creative life, themes of alienation and assimilation come up repeatedly. In fact, he says the very act of writing functions as a way for him to connect with others, despite feeling different. His first “book” was written at his yeshiva day school as a new immigrant in an attempt to win friends. He composed the “Genorah, my own version of the Torah,” which brought laughs and admiration from his classmates. Since then, he says, he has been hooked on writing.
Yet even after many years of literary success, he still uses the voice of the immigrant to express himself.
In an unusual marketing move, Shteyngart teamed up with some well-known personalities to create several humorous promotional videos to advertise his latest book. One short video, which scored about 7,000 hits on YouTube, features actor Paul Giamatti and Shteyngart arriving unannounced at a women’s book club meeting in yuppie Brooklyn Heights with the intent to pick up women. Shteyngart plays a satirized version of himself, speaking with a thick Russian accent and behaving boorishly, embarrassing the staid women at the event.
The role he plays in the video is purely ironic, a foray into an imagined identity. In person, Shteyngart is polite and cultured, with a decidedly pleasant appearance and expressive eyes.
When asked about his reactions to the political atmosphere in Israel, his response is detailed and thoughtful. “When I started out in life, in yeshiva, we were told the Arabs were the enemy and, at that time, if you would have given me a gun, I would have gone out and shot someone. And then I went to this liberal college and it was the opposite – we were told we were these horrible oppressors. Now, I kind of feel nothing. I don’t think anything is going to change any time soon in this country.”
Before the Writers Festival, a number of fans posted messages on Shteyngart’s Facebook page asking him to boycott the event due to “human rights violations by the Israeli government.” An active social media user, he read the posts, but disagreed with the arguments presented. “I go to writers festivals in China and other countries where there are human rights issues. The fact that issues exist does not mean I can’t go to a festival there,” he says pointedly.
“The [political] situation is complex and I don’t have anything to contribute to that discussion. I can only say b’hatzlacha [good luck], people!” Although he feels somewhat disconnected from the Jewish state, his sense of community is centered in New York, which he calls “a Jewish city.” His latest book, Super Sad True Love Story, is homage to that city, although it depicts a dark futuristic version of it, in which humanity has taken a back seat to extreme self-involvement, and the arts are all but dead. Critics have noted the strong emotional charge of his latest work.
He agrees with their assessment, and attributes it to the passion he feels for the city he calls home.
“My first two books dealt with the fall of the Soviet Union, and I was like: Who cares? Let it go. With New York, I care much more. I don’t think it deserves a terrible end.”
Among other aspects of American culture, Shteyngart is worried about the future of fiction, as other forms of communication eclipse the traditional pastime of reading for pleasure, and sales of books are at an all-time low. “Everyone wants to be a writer, but no one wants to read anymore,” he complains.
“Every night from 11 to 12, we writers call each other on the phone and cry about the state of publishing. We call it the crying hour,” he jokes.
As he approaches middle age and enjoys the rare success of a writer who has been embraced by his readers, Shteyngart has found a new persona to inhabit – the antiquated man of letters in an MT V world. On stage at the festival with his friend, Israeli writer Etgar Keret, he compares American and Israeli attitudes to fiction writers, saying that he admires the fact that Israelis still see writers as honored figures, whereas in New York, “I can’t even get a table at a restaurant.” He suggests that new forms of technology and rampant social media usage are partly to blame for the current dip in interested readers.
“Just when I became the person I wanted to be, the world changed,” he grumbles.