Apparat Chic: Talking with Gary Shteyngart
For a guy who has spent the past few years writing a corrosively funny and deeply horrified vision of our networked lives, in his new novel Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart has certainly taken to the new media with aplomb. Starting with his cameo-crammed author video, the most chattered about of the year so far, and continuing with regular Facebook updates, it won't be long until he can leave the smelly world of books behind and become a 24/7 show on the web, like the rest of the world.
Whatever he's doing, it's working: SSTLS has been solidly lodged in our top 100 since it came out. It's also, for what it's worth, one of my Best of the Month picks for August. I got to talk with Shteyngart when he was in Seattle back in May: the audio versions have been live on the site for a while now, but I wanted to post them here along with a (lengthy) transcript, which provides plenty of room for his standup act (I cut out all the "[laughter]" notes from the transcript, since they happened pretty much in the middle of every sentence), but also, as you'll find in the book, some heartfelt sentiment too, especially about the loss of empathy that might result if we lose the habit of reading.
Amazon.com: So, we're in New York in Super Sad True Love Story and when are we in New York?
Shteyngart: I was envisioning a time when semi illiterate America completely collapses, so next Tuesday or something like that.
Amazon.com: You started writing this...
Shteyngart: I started writing this in 2006, and I wanted to set a novel slightly in the future because I feel like the present is happening so fast that we're only living in the future. There's no present left. So I decided to set it in the future, but the problem was everything I was writing about started happening. So I started in 2006 and I was envisioning the collapse of GM and Ford. That began to happen. Then I envisioned the collapse of the banks. That began to happen. I have one airline left in America called UnitedContinentalDeltaAmerican, and yesterday that began to happen. As I wrote it, I began to think of worse and worse scenarios because everything I kept imagining was actually right out my window in New York.
Amazon.com: Did you have to change things that didn't seem extreme enough?
Shteyngart: Well, I just added a couple of more extreme scenarios. Tanks in the streets, angry Chinese creditors, a Norwegian hedge fund buys the whole country.
Amazon.com: But not an Icelandic hedge fund.
Shteyngart: No, thank god I didn't say Icelandic.
Amazon.com: I think of this a little bit as William Gibson land. But one thing that he's done over his last few books is he's not writing science fiction anymore. What happens in his books has stayed the same, but the world has caught up to what he imagines.
Shteyngart: This has been a big problem when I started writing this book, is that I am no William Gibson. I have fun with satire, and it was fun to write a satire about America versus my usually stomping grounds, which is Russia, the former Soviet Union. But let's face it, I have an iPhone but I barely know how to use it. These apps are killing me. But I did try to write about technology a little bit, but to make sure that I didn't write about any of the specifics of it because I have no clue. So in the end, my editor, who's wonderful--I have a wonderful editor at Random House--kept saying, "It's a love story. It's a love story. It's a love story." That's really what I wanted to write about because I've never written a straight out love story before.
Amazon.com: Was that always the title? Is that where you started, that you knew this was going to be a love story?
Shteyngart: Yeah, there's a lot of love in titles. I wanted love in my title. I thought, "Oh, you know. I'm so sick of... "Absurdistan." Let's have some love in it. I can't remember some of the other lovely titles, but that four letter word was definitely in there.
Amazon.com: Is that hard for you to keep that goal, to remind yourself to write about love? Did you have to steer yourself back because you wanted to go in these other directions?
Shteyngart: Yeah. It's hard to write about love because that's all that's been written about since the beginning of time. But every book that I love is in some ways a love story, from Madame Bovary on. Russia feels like my own little personal game preserve or parts of it, like the Caucasus and stuff like that. But subjects that are much larger, like love and America for me, which is a country where I've been since I was a child and yet in some ways don't fully understand. So for me this was quite a stretch, and this book took quite a while to write. But in the end I wanted to make myself feel uncomfortable about these issues, and hopefully the reader as well. My goal is always to make the reader laugh uncomfortably. If I've achieved that, then I think I've done what I've set out to do.
Amazon.com: Well, one discomfort I felt while reading your book was when I went to make a Facebook status update, I felt very dirty. I felt my soul was being sucked out of me.
Shteyngart: See, I don't even understand Facebook. Now I have to start a Facebook page for my...
Amazon.com: No, you understand Facebook. I can tell. Without ever having done it, you do understand it.
Shteyngart: Well, my intern set up this way so I could access it. So I was like Cyrano de Bergerac. I could write things to other people without, well, being him. You know, I just don't get it.
Amazon.com: You don't feel the impulse yourself.
Shteyngart: [whispers] I don't get it! I'm going to do it now to promote this book, but why? Why do this? You go outside. You meet people. You flirt with people, all these different possibilities. Why on earth would you do this? Am I stupid? I don't understand what this virtual promise is when there's no real connection. I think there was an article in The New Yorker about some NYU freshman class where they had this seminar on How to Talk to People Without Facebook. And these two guys would sit up on the stage. The other man would say, "Well, talk to each other." And they couldn't do it. Then, "Ask him where he's from." "So where are you from?" "Long Island." "I'm from Long Island!" And they would just talk, and it's so beautiful.
Amazon.com: Yeah, let's talk about--there's no Facebook in your book. There's no iPhone. Actually, there is an iPhone but its so old school it's laughable.
Shteyngart: Oh, yeah. The iPhone is laughable.
Amazon.com: So could you describe the social media of your next Tuesday?
Shteyngart: Is this a family newspaper?
Amazon.com: This is a bit of a family newspaper.
Shteyngart: OK. Well, then let's say it measures your attractiveness. There's another word for it. So the moment you walk into a room, everyone has this device called the "äppärät" which they wear either tucked into their pocket or usually as a pendant. The moment you enter a room everyone judges you. So it has what's called "Rate Me Plus" technology. So you're rated immediately. Everyone can chip in and rate everyone else, and everyone does. So my hero is not very attractive, Lenny Abramov. He enters a room, and his whatever that thing is rating attractiveness, Male Hotness let's call it...is always somewhere around 200 out of 800. The whole system is based on SATs. 800 is the top score. So he's around 200.
The woman he pines after who becomes his girlfriend, Eunice Park, is always in the 600, 700, 800 range. And then there's another indication, is how rich you are, what your credit rating is. That's called sustainability. Anyway, the moment you enter a room, you automatically know where you rank. So, let's say, you're the 34th ugliest person out of 37 people. That's automatically known to everyone.
Amazon.com: Speaking of sustainability, Lenny has a very good job, which is why he has such a nice credit rating.
Shteyngart: Lenny has a great job. He is working for a company called Post Human Services. They're a subdivision of a larger corporation which is hopefully going to be bought by the Norwegians. But their job is to create, basically, immortality for its clients through all these different strategies that they have. And it costs billions of yuan. The dollar is now pegged to the yuan. The dollar is on its way out. It costs billions of yuan to be able to do this. And Lenny's dream is to one day become immortal himself. Because his life is, I think, so miserable that the only thing that gives him hope is the idea that it won't end.
There's three things that he loves, I think. One is books which, in this society, do not exist. They're considered smelly. Nobody likes them. And they don't even exist in a Kindle sense. Nobody knows how to read basically. So, in this society, books are out. But Lenny loves them so much he still has bookshelves and bookshelves of them. And Eunice, when she sees them, is quasi disgusted by this. And he has to spray it with Pine Sol to make it so they don't smell so bad. Another thing Lenny loves is Eunice. So that's the other part of the love story. And the third thing that he loves is, of course, the idea that he doesn't have to die. So he's an idiot.
Amazon.com: He's doing fine, but he's not doing well enough to be immortal.
Shteyngart: Yeah. Lenny's in this sort of service class that is basically what New York really is. It's just a bunch of people at the next echelon servicing this tiny, tiny elite.
Amazon.com: You were talking about Russia as your game preserve and writing about America. Do you think of America as a game? Do you have that kind of dominion over America?
Shteyngart: I think only Glenn Beck has that kind of dominion over America. I'd like to know America more because I've been living in New York for so long. And that has nothing to do with the rest of this country. We are a kind of ruling elite in a strange way that infuriates people. It should, I think, infuriate people across the political spectrum. What is interesting to me is leaving New York a lot, which I've been doing more and more. I spend my summers upstate. Upstate still has its connections to New York, but it's not the Hamptons, let's say. So I want to understand how this country works a little bit and maybe for future books, because I've only known one thing. And that's this striving class of people, mostly immigrants, who came when they were my age, seven or eight years old, who know English but who also know their original culture and language. And that's given me a huge boost up as a writer because it's given me this amazing range of things to write about.
I teach at an MFA program at Columbia, and I teach a class on immigrant writing. And it's interesting how many immigrant students we have who already come with a prepackaged story which, now, they have to write it. So I've been very blessed, but in a sense I also let myself get a little too caught up sometimes in where I come from, because it's been so fascinating. And this book is an attempt to take it back a little bit. My character, he's the son of Russian immigrants but he's born here. He doesn't really speak Russian. Russia doesn't really interest him at all. And, to mix it up a little, I also always wanted to write about another immigrant group. So, in this case, Lenny's love interest is Korean American. It's very rare for immigrant writers, I think, to write about anything other than their own brood and how that sort of matches up with America. I wanted to a dual perspective, from two different immigrant groups. It was a lot of fun.
Amazon.com: Yeah, I love the way that worked. Did you research...?
Shteyngart: I know many Korean people. Look, I went to Stuyvesant High School in New York where everyone was Asian except me.
Amazon.com: Did you find growing up--did you compare immigrant parents? Like, Korean parents are like this and Russian parents are like this?
Shteyngart: Yes, yes. Well, actually the Koreans and Soviet Jews, they reminded me of each other quite a bit, good and bad. I think there's a lot of anxiety about status and succeeding in America, which was true of a lot of immigrant groups. But here it's almost to a kind of hyper function. It's out of control. There's a scene where he talks about how if you can't get into the University of Pennsylvania, which was considered the lowest of the Ivy League schools, the parents would smack you across the face.
Amazon.com: Safety school.
Shteyngart: Safety school, yeah.
Amazon.com: That's where I went.
Shteyngart: There you go.
Amazon.com: It was my safety school.
Shteyngart: I didn't even get in there. I went to Oberlin.
Amazon.com: You're obviously a satirist, but there was a moment in this book that I felt like I was hitting bone a little bit. There's a line when Lenny takes Eunice to visit his parents. When he says, "The floor beneath my feet was clean, immigrant clean. Clean enough so that you understood that somebody had done their best." And I was like, "Is that Gary Shteyngart? That's awfully sincere."
Shteyngart: Yeah, yeah. No, isn't it weird? There's I think a couple of moments in this book where I go for that kind of sincerity. And I think it's really surprised a lot of the people who are reading it. I remember there was a review of Absurdistan, a very nice review, in Elle magazine. I think the title was "International Man of Misery." A very nice review. And it really struck home because he was talking about the fact that Absurdistan he thought was a great book, but the hitting bone part, that lapse into emotional sincerity, that happens rarely in that book. And it happens more in this book. You know, I'm getting older. And there's only so much Williamsburg L train hipsterness I can keep up. It takes a lot of effort. And sometimes, yes, you can see through and there's real emotion. Right now I'm working on a memoir like collection of essays. And I'm also finding myself confronting certain things that I feel are very raw. I think a writer can bounce back and forth between different volumes, between different levels of sincerity. It took Evelyn Waugh a long time to write Brideshead Revisited before he wrote a lot of very funny books.
Amazon.com: Right. A thing about immigrant literature, especially as someone who writes it and teaches it as you do--I tend to think of it as a pretty realist genre. And clearly that's not the way you approach it. I think of someone like Junot Diaz: both of you, I feel like you think of the English language as this playground, this fantastic tool that you can jump in and out of registers. That's again maybe a benefit of being an immigrant, that you don't feel like you have this natural voice that you must follow.
Amazon.com: So I'm a little surprised that more immigrant writers don't do that.
Shteyngart: Well, I think there are some immigrant writers that are very playful with language and identity, but they don't often have the kind of audiences they should. Akhil Sharma, a brilliant writer, a friend of mine, who wrote An Obedient Father. Mohsin Hamid, who actually did very well with Reluctant Fundamentalist. But it's his first book, Moth Smoke, which I think is pure genius. They're out there. But I think it's very strange. Americans have a very strange attitude toward stuff that's not Americanized. We translate fewer books than anyone else in the world. Countries in Europe translate 35, 40 percent, if not more in Germany, of their works. We translate two or three percent, if that, probably less.
So the immigrant here has a kind of weird function I think, which is to create a bridge between--we're American enough that people can handle our stuff, but we're exotic enough too that we're interesting. So I think a lot of writers fall into that trap of trying to please everyone. You want to get your American audience to like you. You want to write nice stuff about your own culture because you don't want them to be upset. It's in some ways sort of the Philip Roth dilemma. He wasn't an immigrant but in Portnoy's Complaint and in Goodbye, Columbus he broached the walls of what would be considered respectability for an ethnic group, Jews, who were just becoming fully assimilated into America.
For some reason my feeling was always I don't give a hoot what people will think of me. I survived Hebrew school in America. And, after that, it's all--what else could happen? What other horror can befall me? So I think I'm ready for anything.
Amazon.com: When you talk about Americans don't read enough or don't read much--we're not going to put a value judgment on that--don't read much translated literature. I know Aleksandr Hemon has been editing these anthologies of European fiction. Do you read much Russian literature that's coming out these days?
Shteyngart: Yeah, I do read Russian literature. I can't say I've been terribly impressed by a lot of it. There are still the big writers who have done incredibly well. Some of them translated well here, sometimes not. Vladimir Sorokin is a wonderful writer. Tatyana Tolstaya is a wonderful writer with a very fancy name. So it's happening. But I think Russia was so dazed by the collapse of the Soviet Union that it's very hard to be any kind of artist in Russia. In some ways, Russia is maybe a precursor to what's happening here because there's just no sustainability there for writers, for artists.
And that's something that I see more often here. In America, everybody wants to be a writer. Nobody wants to read anything. People really want to be writers. The MFA programs are going off the hook. Applications are soaring despite the fact you're paying tens of thousands of dollars for something that cannot be monetized, as they say. As a country also but partly as the whole planet, we're so interested in being the avatar, in being whatever it is on the screen, the hero, the heroine. But what we don't want to do is take time out to enter into somebody else's realm, enter into somebody else's mind, really have a sense of empathy with others. There's no time for that. And, seemingly, there's no purpose for it.
We all are now our own creations. And no matter where we work, whether we're serving lattes or on the Supreme Court, we're always our own brand and we're trying to represent ourselves. This has always been the case of course. But it's become magnified to such an extent, and these virtual realities, I think, are magnifying it too. I'm not a Luddite. I'm happy with technology. But I sometimes think that civilizations jump ahead a little too quickly in terms of technology and have this gap between what they can achieve as human beings and what they can achieve as a society. As individuals, it's just very big right now. And some of the stuff worries me quite a bit.
Amazon.com: You have a piece just up in Publishers Weekly about imagining Book Expo 2024, where it's at somebody's apartment and there are four books on the shelf. But the thing that really hit home about that was there's a child who has never read a book and doesn't--
Shteyngart: His name is Download.
Amazon.com: Right. And it wasn't that books are going away as this kind of object, but it was that sense of entering another person's consciousness was so foreign because he's been told that he's a superhero. It's all projected out from him, and that there's no way to intake someone else's--
Shteyngart: You see that's the thing. We're all superheroes. But if we're all superheroes, who are we going to save? There's no one to save! We could save each other I guess. I don't want to have any kind of letter stenciled on my chest. I'd rather not.
Amazon.com: But yet here you are. You're an author. You're a brand.
Shteyngart: Yeah, a small brand.
Amazon.com: Your book's coming out this summer. How do you negotiate this brave new world of authorship?
Shteyngart: I've decided, with this book, that I'm just going to go whole hog. Yeah, I do have to protect the brand. So we're talking website. I'm going to enter this Facebook thing as myself, I guess. I'm making a promotional movie starring some famous actors and writers in which the premise is I don't know how to read and they teach me how to read. So I want to have fun with it. But I'm quite aware that the thing that I'm satirizing, I'm slowly becoming. It would be interesting to have done it earlier, to enter all this stuff. But I wanted to enter from a very naive place because my characters are always naive. That's not autobiographical because I think I'm not entirely naive, obviously. But I do like characters for whom the world is a mystery.
Amazon.com: Yeah. I always think of your characters as walking around with their arms wide open. They just want to hug somebody.
Shteyngart: Yeah, they all want a big hug. And the world just doesn't give it to them. Or gives to them and then it retracts the hug. And then they spend the rest of the novel trying to get that hug back. Pretty sad.
Amazon.com: Yeah, it's very sad. But it is a love story.
Shteyngart: It is a love story.