If anyone can pull off the role of satirical, socio-political prophet and shnooky belletrist, it’s Gary Shteyngart. The author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, Shteyngart is one of the punchiest and funniest young novelists out there. His writing, colored and coarsened by the blunt cynicism of his 1970s upbringing in the Soviet Union, draws on intricate tessellations of classic Russian literature, self-deprecating Semitic humor, and current global politics. Being a Jew born in 1972 in the anti-Semitic Soviet Union and having immigrated to Queens in 1979, he has achieved status as a perpetual outsider, who can observe from remove and criticize with greater perspicacity.
With Shteyngart teaching a creative writing class at Princeton this semester, I decided to catch him for a lunchtime interview in his 185 Nassau office. When I walk in, I am confronted with a short man with thick-framed glasses, a dark beard, and a kiwi-green Penguin shirt from which an open button allows bristly chest hair to emerge. Through bites of his Zorba’s sandwich, he discusses the trajectory of his literary career, his predictions about the rise and fall of the United States, and his third novel in the works.
To comprehend Shteyngart’s political and social criticism, it is important to understand from where his literary shtick derives. Yet the exact origin of the influence on Shteyngart’s fiction is difficult to pinpoint as a duality exists therein. He is simultaneously connected to the classic Russian literary tradition and the American Jewish tradition: his novels are intertextually buffed-up with allusions to Goncharov’s Oblomov and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot while he injects his work with the Yiddish invective and the verklempt mishegos of Philip Roth or Saul Bellow fiction. In his work, he can at once consider Pushkin and an abortive bris.
This juxtaposition of American and Russian influences finds its root in his early reading habits.
“One of the first things I remember reading as a kid was a Russian translation of Tom Sawyer with an introduction by Stalin,” he explains, “and I think that set the mood for the sort of clash of civilizations that I would undergo.”
The folk satire of Twain’s writing made him a hit in the Soviet Union, and Shteyngart does not divorce this social satire from his own work.
Shteyngart points to the satirical Don Quixote as the first monumental work of fiction, and in this clarification, it seems fitting to place Shteyngart within the picaresque tradition continued by Mark Twain.
Whether a Castilian spoof of the chivalric romance as with Don Quixote, a critique of racism in the ante-bellum South as with Huckleberry Finn, or a derisive glance at twenty-first century oil politics as with Absurdistan, the peripatetic picaresque structure of these novels presents a certain unfulfilled quest, a striving for something greater.
The hidalgo ingenioso, Huck, and Misha Vainburg of Absurdistan are all quixotic wanderers, all delightfully pitiable and invoking a disposition to mockery. Whether mockery for mere humor or for political commentary, the meandering protagonists and narratives invoke a widely cast net of observation and scrutiny—whether across the Mississippi or the Volga.
But using the juxtaposition of Stalin and Tom Sawyer as a microcosm, the satisfying flavor of entertainment in Shteyngart’s fiction is always marinated in political satire. His first novel intrepidly derides Arthur Anderson LLP and his second Halliburton. Politics for him are part and parcel of the satire, and he wears his political satire on his rolled-up sleeve. Let’s face it: he began writing his first book while a politics major at Oberlin.
“I grew up with Brezhnev jokes…I grew up with satire,” he says. “And writing during the time of the Bush administration is the perfect time to be a satirist, because it’s where evil and stupidity collide.”
His voice, a cadent tenor, has a stark New York verve to it, and when politics are the topic, it deepens, pops more at the lips in incensed modulation.
Shteyngart sees himself immersed in a tradition of this political fiction, following, for example, the Gogolian works that spoof Russian governmental bureaucracy and serfdom during the second half of the nineteenth century. He cites the Canadian satirist Mordecai Richler as another major influence in this realm.
Though Shteyngart has had his works treated with the utmost seriousness in reviews and criticism in major literary journals and newspapers, he realizes the danger of humorous writing for those producing works of serious literary merit.
“Comic-fiction is sort of a dirty word in literary circles,” he says. “It’s like writing science fiction or something. My next book, a comic science fiction book, will surely raise the heckles of some people.”
Shteyngart has been called the Jewish Nabokov, and his next work’s surfeit of self-referencing reinforces the connection.
Jerry Shteynfarb (to Shteyngart what Vivan Darkbloom is to Nabokov), the writer character who steals Misha Vainburg’s Latina girlfriend in Absurdistan, may make a brief appearance in the new novel. In the work, a son of Russian immigrants in dating a daughter of Korean immigrants and placed before a complicated kaleidoscope of global modernity with the rise of the East.
“It’s a comedy about the collapse of the United States,” Shteyngart explains. “It’s set in the very near future. Things fall apart economically mostly, but also politically. It’s about the decline of literature. It’s about the hyper-connectivity that people now have. And it’s a love story. It’s about trying to find a form of love in a society that is just completely divorced from real intimacy.”
The two main characters each take a turn at narrating the novel, and this collision of old and new, East and West, is the precipitate found in his polyphonic novelistic concoction. The symbiosis of the two worlds finds its route in the versatility of language.
“I love the English language,” he says. “English can tackle anything. It’s so far ranging. And it’s so able, because it’s so universal, to bring in so many other parts of other languages. It’s like a smorgasbord. I have Korean friends who banter on with Yiddish all the time: ‘Oh, I bought some schmatas from this yenta.’”
Shteyngart is known for writing with definite, calculating plot points that all change throughout the course of the novel. With this novel, though, he explains that he has a particularly rich selection of options.
“There are so many ways to blow this country up,” he says.
Foreseeing, with prescient eschatology, the demise of the U.S. in this new novel, Shteyngart also claims to see the atrophy of this country firsthand during his Wednesday trips from New York to Princeton.
“I’ve been taking New Jersey Transit over here,” he says reflectively. “You feel like you’re entering a kind of Rothian America coming over here. You know, passing Newark. What’s interesting about it is that this country really had its peak, and a lot of that peak you can see in the industry—those big iron bridges you pass, the container ports. All this stuff, it rings of a past, a really mighty past. But the world is moving at a hyper-speed and it’s not happening here….You look at the decline of the Spanish Empire, the British Empire, the Dutch Mercantile Empire; it’s never pretty.”
Shteyngart scorns nationalism and feelings of religious or political superiority in favor of viewing the downfall of great nations as inevitable.
“And there’s no question that this century will belong to the Asian economic renaissance,” he says. “What happens in those societies is not just that they go down the road of hyper-modernity, but that they stumble head first into it. And it’s interesting as a writer. I want to read more fiction from that part of the world.”
In fact, Shteyngart is intricately involved with immigrant writers; Chang-Rae Lee played an instrumental role in editing Shteyngart’s first book and placing it with his publisher.
For Shteyngart, the cardinal sin in the modern world, and symptom most indicative of its maladies, is the culture of consumption. This consumption—with cultural and economic colonialism—will cause of the fall of the U.S. The perfect distillation of this situation can be found in Misha Vainburg, the 300-pound protagonist of Absurdistan, who achieves the moniker Snack Daddy during his own continued consumption of foodstuffs and Americana. He’s part massive Russian from Sergei Dovlatov’s Ours and part burger-munching juggernaut.
Shteyngart finds this culture of consumption in Russia today when he visits his native Petersburg.
“It’s pretty depressing,” he laments. “Everyday I see the worst aspects of Western culture being brought over there and being consumed with great fanfare.”
In order to connect with the bacchanal debauchery of this consumption, Shteyngart actually wrote much of Absurdistan in Rome.
“Rome was so important,” he says, “because I was writing about a very decadent fellow [Misha Vainburg]. And it was very helpful also to be surrounded by people who indulged in drink and sex in copious amounts and who, at the same time, had very few responsibilities. There was a certain scene I fell into there.”
Obsessed with chronicling and critiquing this consumption and Saturnalia, Shteyngart has his new book actually starts out in Rome.
What emerges from this social-ontological residue is the reemergence of a world inhabited by the superfluous man—an idealistic hero who is too aloof or omphaloskeptic to be bothered with global social problems. The term “superfluous man,” coined by Turgenev, appeared as a nineteenth-century Russian literary archetype beginning with Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin that, quite Byronically, emerged from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
“We are living in a world where a certain kind of man is superfluous,” Shteyngart says. “You could say man has always been superfluous. We live in a time where anyone who wants to contemplate the world instead of just contemplate oneself is the odd-man out. We live in a world of hyper self-expression.”
He cites a culture of self-involved literary workshops across the country and world and the navel-gazing blogosphere to indicate how people have reseized the pen. With the emergence of this self-consumption in graffomania, Shteyngart sees an uncertain present in literature.
“I think literature is in a huge state of flux right now,” he says. “And it’s very difficult to say what’s going to happen to it as reading declines exponentially and writing expands exponentially. Everybody wants to write, no one wants to read, and I think that’s part of the culture of self-expression in which we live.”
Some, he admits, speculate on a grim outcome to this trend.
“Philip Roth always said the novel’s going to die in fifteen years, but then again, he may also die in fifteen years,” Shteyngart says with a smile.
The decayed state of literature is not endemic to the U.S. alone.
“Russia has also seen a crisis in literature,” he says. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union when the most important thing was passing around samizdat, now it’s a commercial activity like anything else.”
With the unimpressive efforts of Victor Pelevin or the limp prose of Victor Erofeyev, Andrei Bitov, and Vasily Aksyonov, the living old guard of Russian literature has taken a self-contented and impotent move in literary realms. Hell, even Vladimir Sorokin’s Blue Salo, in which the clones of Stalin and Khruschchev engage in sodomitical acts of homosexuality, is one of the only daring displays of literary insurrection to emerge in post-Soviet Russia.
But Shteyngart has found himself on the right side of the world for his literary emergence. In the States, Shteyngart’s genre of Jewish-rooted fiction is thriving. Take Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2002 Everything is Illuminated and Michael Chabon’s 2007 The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; two of the most celebrated books of this decade fall into this category. And, indeed, it is this genre of Semitic cynicism that resonates still further now with Shteyngart’s prediction of the undoing of America and the slow but sure unraveling of the American dream.