Interview: Gary Shteyngart

Dystopia is a strangely familiar place for the Russian-born New Yorker


By Simon Round, February 24, 2011
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Gary Shteyngart: “I’ve never met anyone who had a good Hebrew school experience”

Gary Shteyngart: “I’ve never met anyone who had a good Hebrew school experience”

Gary Shteyngart is having great difficulty dealing with a problem he never thought he would encounter. At 39, the brilliant Russian-born, New York-raised author has published his third novel, Super Sad Love Story to rapturous acclaim from the New York Times and others, while his previous novels, The Russian Debutante's Handbook and Absurdistan, have sold well enough to enable Shteyngart to move to a million dollar apartment in Manhattan.

Therein lies the problem for a writer who has always leaned heavily on self-deprecation. His whole writing style has been built on a solid foundation of failure and he is finding the process of actually being a success slightly unnerving. "When I was writing my first book I felt like a loser so it was quite easy to capture that feeling. I deal with failure far better than success - I've been pre-programmed that way. The characters I write about are all losers in one way or another. But it's getting harder as the books keep on selling."

Still, if all else fails (or should that be succeeds) Shteyngart always has his looks, or lack of them, to fall back on. The main character in his latest novel, the satirical Super Sad True Love Story is, physically at least, a fairly true representation of Shteyngart himself. Lenny Abramov is also a short, greying, balding Russian-born New Yorker who is nicknamed Nerd Face by his young Korean girlfriend, Eunice Park.

The book is set in the near future, in a world where the USA has descended into a chaotic police state. It is a world in which books are considered "smelly", where one's mobile device, called an äppärät, automatically displays everyone's credit ratings and cholesterol levels - a place where consumerism rules, where Brave New World meets Clueless.

Snapshot

Born: Leningrad, 1972
Early life: Lived in the Soviet Union with his engineer father and pianist mother until the age of seven when his family emigrated to the US. He studied at Hunter College of the City University of New York, where he earned an masters in creative writing.
Career: His first book, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, won the the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. His second novel, Absurdistan, was chosen as one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review and Time magazine.

Shteyngart drew on his own experience in creating this dystopian novel. "I went to a very dystopian yeshivah in Queens," he jokes. "At the same time I was also catching up with Orwell and Huxley. I remember thinking that the ideas in Brave New World were exceptional. 1984 struck a more visceral chord in me as a 12-year-old because it was a love story."

While he envisaged his book as a nightmare glimpse into the future when he started it in 2006, he was disturbed to find the future catching up with him even as he wrote. He says: "By 2008 when I was deep into writing, it was already coming true. So as I wrote the book I had to make things even worse. One of the conceits of this book is that there is absolutely no present and no future anymore. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Did you think one month ago that Mubarak would not be in charge of Egypt anymore."

But Super Sad True Love Story is as much about the times we live in as the future. When Shteyngart started to write the novel, George Bush was still in power. His presidency was a powerful influence. "My parents grew up in the Stalin era in the Soviet Union. It was evil but there was terrible incompetence too. There is an echo of that in Bush-era America. What you had was a presidency unequalled in its incompetence but also matched with a horrendous world view. That is the stuff of great satire."

At the centre of the world Shteyngart creates is Lenny's relationship with Eunice - another echo of the real world, in which Shteyngart's fiancee is also from Korean stock. Although on the surface, the Russian-Jewish and Korean cultures may seem to have little in common, in Shteyngart's view these are two peoples united by their love of education and the humble brassica. "Both are small ethnic groups surrounded by larger ones. Soviet Jews were a small minority in a huge empire, Korea is surrounded by China and Japan. There's also the craziness about the written word and learning. The Jewish and Korean worlds are overwhelmed by it in a way that's almost unparalleled through history. And finally there's the love of cabbage. The Korean version, kimchee, is much tastier because it uses actual spices. In my book. Lenny represents the Russian cabbage and Eunice the kimchee."

If the book satirises US politics, it also takes a hefty swipe at pop culture and the new technology. Shteyngart, a convinced bibliophile, had to do plenty of research to get up to speed with the online world. "I got an iPhone and I went on Facebook to research the novel. I've been immersed in technology for a while. Now that I've finished the book I want to get out of it again. It's a terribly harsh mistress. It expects you constantly to upload, to download, to update. There's no end to it. I just want to sit down and read a book."

He has been attempting to catch up with both technology and the American way of life since he arrived from Leningrad as a seven-year-old in the late '70s. He lived with his parents in a New York apartment without a television, speaking only Russian at home. Indeed, he claims that his English was thickly accented until he was 14. While he developed a great affection for his adopted city - a love which is apparent in the way he writes about New York - he is more conflicted about his Jewishness. He says: "New York is a Jewish city . Everyone uses Yiddish here. That's why for me Israel is a fake Jewish country. All the Jewish stuff is in America - this is where the imprint of Jewish civilisation is mostly felt. Israel is a Middle Eastern country and I'm not a Middle Eastern person. What, we're supposed to meet and fall in love or something?"

He is equally scathing about his Jewish education. "My father was very into Jews and so I went to Hebrew school for eight years. It was horrible. I've never met anyone who had a good Hebrew school experience. Why don't they just shut those places down?"

But throughout the challenges of his childhood, Shteyngart's love of literature was constant. He says he always knew he was going to be a writer. "When I was four or five, my grandma asked me to write a book for her. So I wrote a small novel about Lenin. There was a statue of Lenin outside our building and I loved him a lot. So in my book Lenin meets a magical goose, they bake cakes together and create a socialist revolution in Finland - it's the usual stuff."

Super Sad True Love Story is published by Granta at £7.99. Gary Shteyngart will be conversation with David Schneider at a Jewish Book Week event at the Royal National Hotel on Sunday, March 6 at 5pm. Details at www.jewishbookweek.com

    Last updated: 10:26am, February 24 2011