in conversation with Alex Shephard
Born in Leningrad in 1972, Gary Shteyngart has resided in New York City since 1979, when he and his family emigrated to America as “grain Jews”: Soviet citizens who were essentially traded for wheat.
Shteyngart’s globe spanning biography – especially his Russian upbringing and his sojourns in the former Soviet Union – are essential parts of any story about him and his work, in part because they are subjects he returns to again and again.
Reviews of Shteyngart’s work often labor to find comparisons on both sides of the Iron Curtain – to Bulgakov, Goncharev, and Chekhov on one side, Vonnegut, Bellow, and Roth on another, and Nabokov in between. This tends to overemphasize a divided identity while overlooking that both Shteyngart and his protagonists do not so much move between decaying empires as float between them.
Immigrants today, Shteyngart tells me, “move back and forth all the time and live in a kind of limbo.” In Super Sad True Love Story, his latest novel, all of the characters — not just immigrants — live in this limbo. Permanently wedded to äppäräts – a somewhat more sinister descendant of the iPhone – the characters struggle to relate to one another and, living in a world in which their personality and “fuckability” are constantly and publicly being rated by others. In this sense, Shteyngart perhaps more than any other contemporary writer understands the appeal of social networking: it promises the connection that we crave, but never quite delivers.
I spoke with Shteyngart about the role technology plays in Super Sad True Love Story and our lives, the state of the novel, and the Real Estate section of The New York Times during a recent stop on his book tour in Philadelphia.
You’ve said that you think of yourself as being an entertainer as much as an intellectual. Can you talk about that distinction? And how did that idea of yourself develop?
It used to be that novelists wanted to entertain. Huckleberry Finn: helluva read. Portnoy’s Complaint, a big monologue aimed at an unsuspecting audience: hilarious. If it wasn’t funny, who gave a shit? Some dude has problems with his mom? Whatever. So that’s always at the basis of what I’m trying to do. I don’t want literature – literary fiction – to be ghettoized, to be this tiny little thing that’s only read by the people who write it. That’s the worst thing – poetry is basically already in that condition. But I don’t know – I don’t see too many great things on the horizon. More and more people work in academia like I do and it’s becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Do you find it ironic that a book about the decline of literature has, at least for this day and age, been so successful?
Yeah, I think it’s really funny. I’m shocked. I’ve toured the country and hundreds of people have shown up – a lot more than showed up for my last book, certainly. We embrace this technology so quickly and to such an unprecedented degree. I spend a lot of time upstate where there are a lot of older, wealthier people, and I’ll go to a restaurant where there are a lot of people in their fifties and they’re talking about apps! And I’m like “What the fuck? You’re in your golden years: you should be talking about grandkids or what you just read or the exhibit at blank.” No! They’re talking about apps! In [Super Sad True Love Story], technology is supposed to cure us of death. But I think that that’s how people approach technology: that this really is the end-all, cure-all for everything that’s ever ailed us. Humanity has benefited from technology a great deal, but it’s a falsehood to believe that it’s going to take care of all the problems that make us human.
How does being “connected” all the time via your iPhone or Facebook affect you?
I don’t mind the Facebook so much – I just don’t want it to be the sum total of my creative output. I wonder if at some point it will become the dominant art form of the day. And it will consist of many other things – texts or pictures. But that’s how people will be known: by their Facebook page. I don’t use Twitter; that’s too much – you’re constantly being notified. I want to participate in a slow food movement in a way, but for technology. It’s very hard right now because I’m in the middle of a press onslaught, so my mission for about half a year is to make sure people know about this book and read it. I enjoy some of it – people putting dachshund pictures [on my Facebook page]. But I don’t get the satisfaction I get when I finish a day of work. The internet is a great time-waster. What do you get in the end? When you think about the hours and hours you spend. What do we get? Is it a sense of entertainment? Or is it just a constant hoping that people will approve of who we are?
The comparisons between Super Sad True Love Story and 1984 have been interesting. In that book technology is “Big Brother” but in yours, characters seem to think of it as “best friend.”
The society in both of those novels is what’s oppressing them. One is modeled after Stalinist Russia and the other is modeled on right-wing, techno-obsessed America. That’s something that I want to stress: this is a right-wing country. When we talk bipartisanship, we’re talking two parties that are already fairly right-wing – one cartoonishly so, and the other much less so. So that’s the dystopia here — the political angle mixed with complete decline in literacy. Where those things interact is the decline of journalism, the inability of a press to monitor what’s happening. Most people don’t care anymore because they’re beyond caring. The endless cult of self-expression that makes people stream or write about themselves day in and day out without any kind of filter. If you write a novel, you’re often writing about yourself as well, but you’re clearly filtering it through a bunch of things, not least of which is technique. So it’s not an entirely plausible future, but in some ways it could be. What if all the worst things happen politically, socially, and in terms of our literacy?
How would you characterize the present political climate? Do you believe it’s characterized by complacency or trumped up antagonism, or perhaps both?
Both. One leads to the other. Because you stop caring as much about the country, about the civilization that we’re in. All it is is really dumb people taking the stand and basically working off all the things that have always been submerged in the American consciousness: racism, nativism, the hatred of the Other. Even a multicultural society like this has all these things. When times are good, we’re better at avoiding the airing of them. It seems uncouth to air them. But when times are bad – and times will continue to get much worse I believe – then we’ll see a lot more of it. I grew up in one failed empire, the Soviet Union. As things were coming apart, the patriotism was amped up to 11.
I saw you speak during the financial meltdown in 2008, and you were joking that you kept having to change the plot of Super Sad True Love Story because everything that you were writing about kept coming true.
That’s the problem with writing dystopia: we live in a world where it all just happens so quickly. That everything that I began writing – the collapse of the banks, the car companies in deep shit – all of that happened so quickly that I had to go back and change things around to make things worse and worse… It’s tough being a writer these days, writing in a slow medium like the novel.
Of course, the “decline of literature” has coincided with a kind of democratization.
But what if very little of it is any good? That’s the problem. Just because you create a technology doesn’t mean that the quality of the output has been rising. You may discover some hidden talent that otherwise may not have surfaced. But you may also lose a lot of talent because when there’s so many people shouting it drowns out some of the talent. So I don’t think that there’s any kind of net gain here. I’m still interested in good writers, but I’m not going to find them on the internet.
One thing I found interesting about the novel is that Eunice and Lenny’s responses to technology – overblown self-consciousness and self-awareness, respectively – have often characterized the heroes of what are often called “immigrant novels.”
Technology does make you self-aware because you’re always being ranked and rated. The äppärät does seem like an iPhone, but the one stab I make is that as soon as you enter a room, your attractiveness and personality and “fuckability” is ranked. Because that’s something that I’m seeing, not in this kind of communal space, but I have a credit ranking – I just applied for a mortgage — there’s ratemyprofessor.com. Facebook started off with people being able to say who’s hot and who’s not… We’re so scared of the world and trying to give a digital – and by digital I mean a numerical expression – [ranking] to things. We’re trying to put numbers to things and what we’re saying is, “We’re scared and we don’t know how else to gain any kind of control.”
The undercurrent of that – and to some extent the undercurrent of your novel – is the loss of the authoritative voice we could once count on from, say, journalism.
Well, pick up a magazine, even a decent magazine and open it up – I’m not talking about The New Yorker – and it’s just a bunch of blobs, different colors, with little pieces of information embedded in them, almost like the cover of my book. It used to be that an average person was supposed to have a certain understanding of the world, a certain knowledge about things. And a lot of knowledge was communicated through words. And that is now in decline.
There’s a sense in your novels that words are becoming unmoored from their context, that people are having a difficult time communicating with one another.
Words are harder to come by in terms of dialogue. One thing Lenny loves about Eunice – he calls her “my reluctant sentence-monger” because she uses a subject and a predicate. I always talk about this seminar – I think it was at NYU – where they had first-year students who had only talked to each other on Facebook and put them on stage [to learn how to talk to each other]. “Where are you from?” “I’m from…” “See, that was easy!”
You can develop relationships with people online now, through Facebook and Twitter, without ever actually speaking to them for longer than 140 characters.
I meet a lot of my Facebook “fans” or whatever. They’re adorable, but it’s a very strange thing. “Thanks for that cabbage recipe…” Still the best thing is that New Yorker cartoon: “On the internet no one knows you’re a dog.” I just saw that movie Catfish…
The previews for that are hilarious: “If you are a member of the internet generation you must see this movie.” But in a way, that’s how your book has been marketed as well.
What’s interesting is there is no internet generation. Obviously younger people are better or more adept at it, but everyone’s on this damn thing. It’s easy and there’s a lot of instant gratification. As a culture, that’s what we’ve always wanted: instant gratification and self-expression. Those are in our Bill of Rights, practically.
You focus on ex-pats in your first novel, immigrants in your second, and the children of immigrants in your third. Why are you drawn to these groups and what are the differences between them?
In a sense, write what you know. Why does Philip Roth write about Newark over and over again? Because he’s from Newark. But also, we live in a globalized world… Immigrants is a more difficult term these days because so many people, because of jet travel and Skype and the internet and everything else are able to go back and forth all the time and live in a kind of limbo. It’s much more effective than a world where we had to assimilate or die, the world I knew when I was growing up, the world that Call it Sleep by Henry Roth [takes place in]. Call it Sleep is a very different novel than Portnoy’s Complaint and Portnoy’s Complaint is a very different [book] than Interpreter of Maladies. A lot of this has to do with how far things have changed. I’ve always believed in global literature. There was someone, I think it was a Norwegian writer, was talking about how… he tries to have characters like “Jimmy” because he’s already thinking about the world market.
The “immigrant novel” and the “Jewish novel” to some extent defined American literature in the 20th century. Do you think that kind of literature is possible today?
I teach a course on immigrant fiction at Columbia. Junot Diaz, Chang-rae Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri… What’s interesting is someone like Jhumpha Lahiri. She’ll sell a million copies, how do you ghettoize that? That’s as mainstream as you can get. Midwestern ladies in their book clubs will parse the latest collection of stories. We are now in some ways in the mainstream of literature and partly it’s because America doesn’t really translate works from abroad the way other countries do. We translate maybe 2%. France, Germany do 40%. So immigrants are a strange bridge. They’re sort of like us. They speak the language; they went to Brown. But, on the other hand, they also have a funny smelly story to tell.
Your protagonists tend to float between worlds – often the two empires you just mentioned. How has your upbringing – spending your first decade or so in the USSR before moving to America – affected you or, for that matter, your work?
Well, it’s worked in my life in the sense that I’m never completely an American… For me everything is fascinating still. I come with these virgin eyes, especially because I’ve lived in New York for so long, which is its own city state. This is the first book where the two characters aren’t immigrants themselves — they’re children of immigrants. In the other books they were real immigrants. So what I tried to do was to create for Lenny the sense that he is also an immigrant, but an immigrant from another planet: the analog planet, the planet of reading, and introspection and computation. That was the difference.
Did you speak English when you moved to the US?
No. It took me a while. And I was about fourteen when I finally lost the accent to the extent that I have. But it’s fun. When you write it’s nice to have a second soundtrack in your mind… Because I’ve kept up my Russian that serves that purpose.
Does that “second soundtrack” affect your novels?
Yeah, that’s why the sentences are so fucked up! Tugging away at their structure, there’s always a different cadence, a different way of looking at words. So it’s helpful. There was an article in Psychology Monthly or Psychology Today about bilingual writers. Our brains just work in a very different way and I think it’s very helpful to writing. You don’t want to just write – you want to have an adventure with language.
Has teaching at Columbia, or for that matter, your students, affected how you write young people?
Not my students per se, but hanging out at campuses and hearing how people talk… Language evolves and I’m not against the evolution of language. I love TIMATOV [think I am about to openly vomit] and JBF [just butt fucking.] ROFLAARP I didn’t invent, that’s “rolling on the floor looking at addictive rodent pornography.” There’s a scene [in Super Sad True Love Story] where Lenny walks outside and this old woman says, “Oh my god, it’s blustery.” That was a scene I took from life – I did live in those co-op buildings. I heard that and thought, “Wow, what an amazing thing to say.” Even my generation would say “it’s cold” or “it’s windy” or some nondescript adjective and here’s this woman and she just nailed it and did it very naturally. She wasn’t particularly educated; it was just how she spoke. And it made me sad. Language evolves, but the best parts of it often have to disappear.
What amount of your success do you credit to getting an MFA?
I spent a long time in the wilderness. I started my first book when I was at Oberlin. I was very shy, it took me a long time to send it off – to Chang-rae Lee, actually, who’s my mentor at Hunter. I sent him the manuscript and he liked it so much he got it published two weeks later…. In a sense MFA programs are gatekeepers for literature, which is weird. Because, again, it creates the academy: We educate them then they educate the next generation and there’s this nice, very circular environment.
Which can be dangerous…
Look at the poets. Dangerous in term of the audience and dangerous because of the practitioners themselves. It’s interesting — we’ll see what happens with this. But it’s very clear that there’s no more Hemingway and Fitzgerald hanging out with Gertrude. It’s a very formalized process.
What did you do between college and getting an MFA? I know you worked for an immigration non-profit.
Non-profits, law firms… the whole gamut.
How did that period in “the wilderness” affect your novels?
The first book was all about [working for non-profits.]… You’re always looking for material, so it’s important to work in an office in America. That’s why I love books about office culture like Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End and Ed Parks’ Personal Days… So few things get written about our working lives. Novels are the province of family, etc. Well, that’s fine, but even television, shows like The Office are way ahead of books.
Of course, Ferris’s novel is more concerned with the reality of office life than The Office.
In some ways I think Mad Men is a much more accurate portrait of office life.
What do you think of the post-Sopranos boom in serious television that, to some extent, infringes upon territory we usually reserve for the novel?
They’re great. They’re amazing. In fact, they make a lot of sense, given what the internet has done to us. As white-collar people we are bombarded day and night by little packets of information and little things popping up on the screen. And it takes a toll on the brain. The brain is rewired and responds in a different way. So when that person comes home the last thing she wants to do is pick up a 300 page bound media artifact known as a book and start reading. Whereas, something like The Wire or Mad Men delivers the narrative that we still crave. In fact, some of the best [episodes of The Wire] are written by novelists: Richard Price, [George] Pelecanos. It becomes a substitute for the book. In a sense this is the book of today. And I will say, on the record, that The Wire is better than most books I read as a work of fiction… When I go to Baltimore, I feel like this is a city I sort of know from [The Wire.] When was the last time I could say a novel has introduced me to a setting with such precision and such depth?
In the period in which Super Sad True Love Story is set, The New York Times has become The New York Lifestyle Times. Is that a dig at the article that was published in the Real Estate section about your apartment?
(laughs) If you read The New York Times, you really want to know what this city is about. It’s about power. And what you really want to read is the Business section and the Real Estate section. The rest of it is cute and fun, but the real action is in what gets sold, who’s buying, who these people are. Making that section is a very strange and surreal experience. I didn’t provide any of that information…
Did they speak with you at all?
They called and I said “I’d rather not talk about it.”
That’s right. There was a somewhat barbed paragraph about how you had no comment.
Oh yeah, “Shteyngart had nothing to say!”