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Birnbaum v.

Gary Shteyngart

Our man in Boston talks to the author of Super Sad True Love Story about writing in the near-future, signing readers’ e-readers, and abusing a six-foot bong.

Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

As writers of fiction go, Gary Shteyngart belongs to that endlessly interesting subclass known as immigrants/exiles.

Born in Leningrad of the former Soviet Union in 1972, he left his homeland at a time when the fate of Soviet Jewry was much in the international news. Shteyngart grew up in New York City during the Morning in America of Ronald Reagan. He began writing his debut novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, while in college. It received critical acclaim and was awarded the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction as well as the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. He followed with Absurdistan and now Super Sad True Love Story. Erudite Princeton mentor Edmund White lauds the new novel:

“This is one of the funniest and most frightening books I’ve ever read. It pictures a New York dystopia that is scary because it’s already happening…. Gary Shteyngart is our greatest satirist, but he also knows how to write about love and vulnerability in a way to make the angels (and ordinary mortals) weep.”

One of the manifold illuminating insights to be gleaned from the conversation that follows is Shteyngart’s devotion to travel journalism, which he makes a point of stating that he takes seriously. You can find his ruminations on the various exotic places to which he has traveled—such as Bangkok or Montana—in Travel + Leisure. Shteyngart currently lives in New York City.


* * *

Robert Birnbaum: When you woke up this morning what were you anticipating? Were you hoping for a happy day?

Gary Shteyngart: I woke up very tired. I was hoping to find—I have this perpetual fight against—I try to find pockets of sleep during the day.

RB: Uh huh. Do you have a sleep disorder?

GS: I wonder. I don’t know. I get very anxious, so it’s hard to sleep, especially in a foreign city like Boston.

RB: Do you go to sleep at a regular time?

GS: Fairly regularly.

RB: And you sleep three, four, five, six hours?

GS: It depends on how many Atavans I have taken.

RB: That’s terrible. Sleep disorders seem to be epidemic—many undiagnosed cases. Big problem in this country tormenting people.

GS: The society we live in is so stressful. Civilization is getting worse and worse and worse. All this useless data.

RB: Maybe that’s your generation’s burden. I am a little before you. I think I have figured out how to block it out. I seem to have all the current gadgetry but I don’t feel as propelled by it.

GS: I spend a lot of time in upstate New York and while I’m there it all just disappears. I sleep like a baby.

RB: There’s the trick—move out of New York. Your novel ends in Italy; what I imagine is your ideal place to be?

Czechs aren’t funny. And they try to be.GS: There is this retreat run by the Baronessa Beatrice Monti della Corte Rezzori—

RB: Is she related to the writer [Gregor von Rezzori]?

GS: Yes, and she has this beautiful estate and it’s where I have done a lot of my best work.

RB: How do you judge that?

GS: It’s the stuff that I think most people can connect with, and the more complicated stuff. Also, it allows me to get a bird’s-eye view of what I am working on. I have a lot of people—a month and a half there and I’ll just—

RB: When I thought about your writing the thing that most puzzled me, and I find this with writers from Eastern Europe—you have an odd sense of humor that seems to be tuned in to a kind of reductio ad absurdum: you take many situations and reduce them to the most absurd place. Another writer who comes to mind is Andrei Codrescu—do you know him?

GS: I know his work. What about Aleksandar Hemon, maybe? Not so much.

RB: Based on the The Lazarus Project? There are streaks of humor in Codrescu and in your work that is based in the real world, and if it wasn’t funny—

GS: It would be pretty awful.

RB: Right. To what do you attribute your sense of humor?

GS: It’s just Russian Jewish—or I should say Soviet Jewish humor. Growing up one of the first things I remember was a Brezhnev joke. We grew up with a sense that the system is stupid and everything around it is stupid. You have to constantly make fun of it. And that makes it—not bearable, but it makes you feel like you have a little bit of dignity.

RB: Certainly many writers grew up and live under such regimes. I think of the Czechs—but the Czechs aren’t funny.

GS: Czechs aren’t funny. And they try to be.

RB: The Serbs—Hemon is not funny that I have discerned.

GS: He has some funny bits, but yeah.

RB: But Romania borders the former Soviet Union. Codescru grew up under Nicolae Ceau?escu, the same kind of dysfunctional totalitarian system the same response to a like environment.

GS: These days living in the United States—especially from 2000 to 2008, there was stupidity and evil combined into one big thing and that just struck a chord—it felt great, you wait for something like this.

RB: An article in the Times about Jon Stewart had him claiming that things were only going to get better for him—referring to the wealth of material available—meaning things are going to get worse. (laughs)

GS: The first book I wrote [The Russian Debutante’s Handbook]—I started when I was a senior in college. It was ‘94. The economy was humming along, things looked really peppy. I think in some ways that book, whatever sadness there is, comes from the subject matter—assimilation, alienation, and the immigrant shebang. But overall there was an upbeat feeling. Russia was undergoing a period of transition that wasn’t working out so well but, you know—

RB: It still looked hopeful.

GS: It still looked hopeful. I spent sometime in Prague—that seemed hopeful. Absurdistan started in that period where my take on the world became much more jaundiced. Very corrosive. And the only way I could balance out how terrible what was happening was by injecting ever-larger amounts of absurdist humor.

I have been on this tour and it has been really wonderful. People have been coming out and having me sign their Kindles and iPads.RB: And in this novel?

GS: In this book I deal with something that to me is even worse than the political and economic calamity, and that is the possibility that we are entering a post-literate age. The thing I value the most, which is literature, ever marginalized, sidelined. I have been on this [book] tour and it has really wonderful. People have been coming out and having me sign their Kindles—

RB: Sign their Kindles?

GS: Yeah, and their iPads.

RB: Does that affect your sense of gloom and doom about literary culture, literature?

GS: Well—

RB: For the moment?

GS: I always start out with the worst possible scenario. That is the Soviet Ashkenazi way: you start out with the very worst and then you quietly come to something good happening. This book was published, I was going to pack up my laptop and go home.

RB: How do you continue to write if you truly feel it’s a dying enterprise?

GS: It’s the only thing I can do.

RB: When did you start writing?

GS: When I was four or five. My grandmother—

RB: Four or five? In Russian?

GS: In Russian. My grandmother asked me to write a novel.

RB: You could read?

GS: Oh yeah.

RB: You could read and write at the age of four?

GS: Yes, a very literate family. I wrote a little novel about Lenin, who I loved—there was a big statue of Lenin outside the apartment where we lived. Lenin meets this magical goose and they escape to Finland or something—it was a lot of fun to write. Grandma gave me little pieces of cheese for every page.

RB: Do you still have that writing?

GS: No, sadly.

RB: Where is it?

There was nothing to do but write. And abuse a six-foot bong.GS: When you move from Russia, the last thing you want to do is bring potentially subversive material—a young boy writing about Lenin and a magical goose—

RB: Your family was really skittish about that?

GS: I don’t know but I can imagine that would be the reason.

RB: And from that point you continued to write.

GS: I wrote in Hebrew school where I felt like a big freak; I had a big fur hat from Russia, I was in a very repressive kind of rabbinical environment. I wrote a satire of the Torah called the “Gnorah,” Exodus became “Sexodus,” and that won me my first American friends because I was considered this oddball, but an oddball who could make people laugh. The rabbis weren’t too happy but the kids were overjoyed.

RB: Ever see a movie called The Believer?

GS: I want to see that—it’s by the Coen Brothers?

RB: No, no it was written and directed by Henry Bean. It’s about a very bright Orthodox Jewish kid who rejects his upbringing, and in his school he’s always shown arguing and showing up the teachers, and he ends up becoming a neo-Nazi skinhead. What was your schooling like?

GS: You know I bought the religious life, hook, line, and sinker—

RB: Until?

GS: Until I graduated from Bedford Stuyvesant. That and then I discovered all these things—America, American Literature. It was very exciting.

RB: And you had it in your mind at that time what you were going to do for the rest of your life?

GS: Not at all.

RB What were the possibilities?

GS: With immigrant parents? Doctor, lawyer. I was not bright enough to be a doctor.

RB: Dentist?

GS: Dentist. [both laugh] All those were possibilities, but I went to Oberlin College.

RB: In Ohio—how was that?

GS: Eh. There was nothing to do but write. And abuse a six-foot bong. That was about it.

RB: Oberlin is known for being a music school.

GS: Great music school.

RB: You wrote and wrote at Oberlin, and then?

GS: Senior year I began The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. I was very ashamed of it—at the time there weren’t any other books from Russians of my generation. I was very afraid of airing dirty laundry. Since then a lot of Russian Americans have written, but I was very afraid. But I applied to an MFA program at Hunter College where my hero Chang-Rae Lee was teaching—I loved his book very much. He said you could get this published now. He sent it to his editor and two months later—

RB: Wow, that’s what you need, I guess. That’s an interesting program now—Peter Carey, Colum McCann—

GS: A really great program.

RB: So here you are the published author of three novels—your first was well reviewed.

GS: And it sold decently, and [sales] seems to have built with each book, which is nice.

RB: And you teach.

GS: I teach at Columbia [University].

RB: I remember this from the video you made for Super Sad True Love Story, James Franco was featured as one of your students.

GS: He was a former student of mine—he’s great. He’s so good—a really good guy.

RB: That video made me wonder if you were committed to just writing—or if your idea of story telling extends beyond the printed page. Who’s idea was it?

GS: Mine. I was up at Yaddo after one night of 10 drinks too many and this idea just sprung upon me. I thought, Oh my god, illiteracy, James Franco. It’s garnered a lot of attention.

RB: It’s quite funny and strikes me as not being the base, coarse, hucksteristic sales device that trailers can be. Though I haven’t seen many book promos that are bad.

GS: I’ve seen a couple. (laughs)

RB: Maybe it depends on the book?

GS: It’s harder to take it seriously. For films you can sort of get away with this stuff because there are scenes that are inherently visual that lend themselves to a trailer, but with books—

RB: Right, in your trailer don’t talk about the book at all; the focus is you, the author. You’ve never read anything—

GS: [with Slavic accent] “I can’t read.” (Both laugh). Somebody thought I should talk about the book and I thought about it—

You come home, the quest for narrative is still there—you want narrative. What’s the water-cooler discussion about? Mad Men, which you can sit and passively take in—it’s a wonderful show—as opposed to something that requires a mass of concentration and effort.RB: Should we talk about the book?

GS: Sure.

RB: What do you want to say about it?

GS: It’s OK.

RB: Absurdistan, was that OK?

GS: That was OK.

RB: Russian Debutante’s Handbook?

GS: That was OK too.

RB: What you have read in the last few years rises above OK?

GS: I loved Junot Diaz’s The Wondrous Life… Edwidge Danticat—

RB: She’s amazing. She has a new book out, Create Dangerously, taken from her lectures at Princeton and other sources.

GS: I just got it—it’s a beautiful book.

RB: I think there is a video discussing the cover art, or a website.

GS: Everything is linked now; you can’t just be writer, you have to be a multimedia—

RB: Though I don’t see the word “hypertext” anymore.

GS: Who understood what it is?

RB: (laughs heartily) I think in the cyber world, at least, it is a word or phrase linked to another or different level of information.

GS: Sounds like it has been superceded by everything.

RB: Its fun when you are writing online to link to videos, old movies and songs and relevant citations.

GS: In future books, in electronic books there will probably be some value-added content.

RB: You think? Do you have an e-reader?

GS: No, iPhone. I’m holding out as along as I can. I travel a lot—it would be wonderful for that.

RB: That makes sense.

GS: What a beautiful technology—amazing.

RB: What about your fears? It’s reasonable to be concerned about the degradation of various aspects of culture. But in some way sophomoric—as undergraduates we would regularly bemoan the darkening and end of civilization—

GS: Sure the novel has survived. Television, radio, telegraph, film—just about anything that has been thrown at it. It’s a very durable form. And the novels are getting better and better. I am shocked at the quality of literature. What I worry about more than anything is—maybe this anecdotal “living in New York”—is the exhaustion of people.

RB: New York is the universe’s center of ambition.

GS: The difficulty people have of opening up a book after a day of being bombarded with bits of information, most of it useless. And much, if redundant, certainly information that is ceaseless. Ceaseless waves of it. You come home, the quest for narrative is still there—you want narrative. What’s the water-cooler discussion going to be about? It’ll be about Mad Men, which you can sit there and passively take in—it’s a wonderful show—as opposed to something that requires a mass of concentration and effort. That’s my fear. Who knows, maybe it’s completely unfounded.

Baltimore is absolutely fascinating. I was passing through Baltimore one time and I just wanted to leap out of the train.RB: It‘s one thing to be concerned about the human nervous system and another to worry about [certain aspects] of the Western culture. Certainly there is more noise but the constituency for story and narrative seems constant. Like for the Jews there are always 12 honest guys.

GS: (laughs) Yeah, if there are 400,000 honest people then I am very happy and I will always write for them. In some weird way as you have noticed in the trailer it’s almost like we have to raise our voices to be heard. It’s important to be out there—which may be OK; it keeps us honest, also.

RB: If you didn’t go out on a book tour, you might be more pessimistic, not meeting the readers who are moved by your work.

GS: I wouldn’t sell any books either.

RB: Really.

GS: I mean I’d sell some. Contact with the media has accounted for a big portion of these sales. You don’t just have a fan base any more just because you are a literary writer. Other forms of media too have the same problems. Independent films for example, the trashing they have taken in the last decade. I have friends in film who say, “The $60 million film is dead.”

RB: This is the place where the technology has been really helpful—making a film or video is cheaper and more accessible. There is the [apocryphal] story of Richard Rodriguez’s El Mariachi being made for $7,000. I suppose those things can happen. Was it ever easy for artists?

GS: In the Golden Age in this country it was really true, where literature had more of a—it was what educated people did with their spare time. It had a much more—you would talk about the latest Dos Passos. Now you talk about Tony on The Sopranos—which I think is a brilliant show.

RB: The Sopranos got old for me after the first season. Only one show held up for me—

GS: The Wire.

RB: Yes.

GS: How’d I guess?

RB: The perfect Tolstoian epic drama.

GS: Tolstoian and Dickensian—

RB: Everything about it was great. I taught school in ghetto Chicago and The Wire’s season in the Baltimore schools brought back the sights and sounds and smells of my own experience.

HBO has made the writer king. It’s a fabulous time for us. You create the tune and others play the instruments.GS: That’s the best season. Heartbreaking too. That one guy who had no money and had to use the shower at school—Dukie. Some people remember that show better than any work of fiction—it’s a masterpiece.

RB: Have you watched Treme?

GS: I have—I didn’t get quite into it. New Orleans is like taking a bit out of a very rich éclair. Baltimore is absolutely fascinating. I was passing through Baltimore one time and I just wanted to leap out of the train. I was so in with the smell and the light and everything about it, because of that show.

RB: The Wire also expanded the possibilities for quality work on TV.

GS: It’s interesting how many novelists are making the leap—for The Wire, Richard Price and George Pelecanos—

RB: Dennis Lehane.

GS: It’s a very natural transition.

RB: In the past, at least in Hollywood, writers were tossed around in filmmaking.

GS: This is what is so bizarre. HBO has made the writer king. It’s a fabulous time for us. I am considering doing something—I don’t know what yet. It’s such a natural transition—you create the tune and others play the instruments.

RB: FX has a couple of interesting new shows—Justified based on an Elmore Leonard character [from his novel Riding the Rap] and Terriers, which reminds me of Hal Ashby’s last and great [theatrical] film 8 Million Ways to Die with Jeff Bridges.

GS: Oh yeah? There is that show, Boardwalk Empire.

RB: The Scorcese/HBO series. All this is hopeful, no? Has it expanded the audience for this kind of thing?

I went to these Army bases and constantly took pictures. That’s a good thing about the iPhone—it looked like I was make phone calls or texting, but I took pictures of generals walking by.GS: We were talking about the magical 400,000 literary readers; there have been a magical four million Wire lovers.

RB: What was the Sopranos audience?

GS: Nine to 13 million, I think.

RB: I lost interest in The Sopranos.

GS: It came back for—there were some characters I could not stop watching—Christopher [Moltisanti] and his girlfriend.

RB: Any interest in making your novels into films?

GS: Russian Debutante has been optioned. There’s singing and there is dancing—

RB: Do you care what happens? Or do you want to control what it becomes?

GS: I’d like to see it in good hands. The problem is that these are very expensive properties to make. Each one requires something different—the first two are set abroad and the third one is futuristic—

RB: What is the near future?

GS: Next Tuesday—I don’t know.

RB: In the things I have read about Super Sad, it has to be set in the near future—which is not helpful to me.

GS: You see it as far future?

RB: No, I just can’t get my head around the phrase. Ten years from now? Fifteen?

GS: A bunch of people have somehow come up with the figure eight years from now.

RB: (laughs)

GS: I have heard weird explanations based on the dates mentioned. But I haven’t looked up those dates—I certainly have no idea.

I don’t like novels that relish the details, that fetishize them. Where you are suppose to come away thinking there is a genuine reproduction. That I don’t need.RB: Do you have some kind of container—real or imagined—that you keep snippets or scraps of paper or ideas about future projects or works? Do you start things then set them aside?

GS: I start things but I tend not to collect them. One of the good things is that any visual stuff that I need is quickly snapped up. I was invited by the U.S. Army to read at a base in Germany. First they said Afghanistan—

RB: You demurred.

GS: Yes, but then I went to these Army bases and constantly took pictures of everything I saw—

RB: You weren’t concerned about being arrested for espionage? (both laugh)

GS: That’s a good thing about the iPhone—it looked like I was make phone calls or texting, but I took pictures of generals walking by—it was all interesting. I don’t know if I will ever use them for anything—

RB: That’s like taking notes. There is an application for voice memos.

GS: I would probably mess those up and erase them.

RB: Would you write a historical novel?

GS: Not really. Although that’s where all the dollars are, the historical novel. It’s not that I don’t care; I care a lot about history. There is something false—if I am reading a novel about the present day I can see it—I can’t do that about a historical recreation. If someone wants to write about serfdom in the 1860s Turgenev was the guy to go to—he did this. I don’t need someone to recreate it. I understand how some of them can be really brilliant, but of all the novels that I really love I would say that most of them are set in the present whatever time they are written in—Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version, to me that’s Montreal. I go to Montreal, that’s the book that’s in the back of my mind. He wrote it as it was happening and it’s all real and I can trust it. That’s important to me.

RB: Have you ever come across Edward Jones’s book The Known World?

GS: I want to read it—it’s on my list.

RB: Good. That was a masterful historical novel, based on some facts but many made-up. The only standard to be applied, I think, is plausibility and coherence.

GS: I don’t like novels that relish the details, that fetishize them. Where you are suppose to come away thinking there is a genuine reproduction. That I don’t need. The production values are unnecessary—The Remains of the Day was excellent, obviously—it would not be playing to my strength. I obsess about the present and the future.

RB: What is your vision of the future for yourself?

GS: I like what I am doing. I have a great time doing it.

RB: Is it hard?

GS: It’s very hard.

RB: So why is it such a great time? (laughs) You start with blank piece of paper and you fill it up?

GS: You feel like you’ve done something. If I did anything else there would be no sense of it being finished. In a sense when you write a novel it’s not finished either. That’s what’s so great about having a contract, you have to finish it. It’s the only thing I am really good at. I worked for a civil rights law firm after college—I was a paralegal. I was awful. I was the worst since Bartelby, anyway.

RB: How bad can you be?

I don’t need every hero to be some 30-something nebbish.GS: Pretty bad. The whole thing revolves around details at which I am terrible.

RB: Do you reread your novels?

GS: Snippets, when I do readings.

RB: Why do you have to read from them?

GS: Sometimes I am asked.

RB: Well at least they are remembered—I am thinking about your assertion that a novel is never finished. Do you reread your novels for the softcover editions?

GS: No, except if I come across something in my readings. I write those down.

RB: Do you change your mind about how you want a story to go—even after it’s published?

GS: I do, but—what the hell. It’s time to give it up and move on to the next book. “Fail better” being the operative phrase. I am a writer with a book every three or four years I want to continue—I have a bottomless amount if things I want to write about.

RB: Do you do nonfiction, journalism?

GS: I do a lot of nonfiction—for the New Yorker, Travel and Leisure. I do a lot of travel writing—I take it seriously.

RB: I can’t remember which writer said it but they claimed that all writing was travel writing. [Nicholas Delbanco, Harper’s September 2004]

GS: Ha—in a sense. I love going to foreign countries—there is a sense in which I get to repeat the experience that my parents had moving to America—being without language and not understanding the culture.

RB: When your parents don’t have the language they become as childlike as their children.

GS: Exactly in my family we didn’t speak English in the house because they wanted me to maintain my Russian. When writing something like Absurdistan and going to the former Soviet Union—I couldn’t have written it—I owe them a lot for keeping Russian going.

RB: How many languages do you speak?

GS: Just two.

RB: That would be Russian and Hebrew.

GS: Yeah. (laughs) “I can’t read.” (with a Slavic accent)

RB: Do you fall into that accent often?

GS: Yeah, I love the accent. I love hearing people talk in that accent. I am going back next month.

RB: What’s Russia like now? It sounds awful.

GS: Ha, it’s always awful. There is a restaurant in Petersburg called 1913. I ask, why 1913? “The only good year in Russian history.” (Both laugh)

RB: Do Jews run it?

GS: They had a gypsy band; the moment I walked in they struck up “Hava Nagila.” The schnozz says it all.

RB: Tell me about anti-Semitism in Russia? Still the same?

GS: A good strong strain. They are very happy with it.

RB: Thank god the French are picking on the gypsies (Romany) now.

GS: Oh wow, that’s really uncool.

RB: It was Arab women before; I guess they like to spread the joy. I am surprised there is not a reaction in this country.

GS: We have our own problems.

RB: Dumping on the French is an American sport—remember “freedom fries”?

GS: They were as tasty as ever.

RB: Have you started your next novel?

GS: I think I am going to write a book of essays—it will probably be a memoir at the end. I have written a few for the New Yorker and other publications, and I want—I feel like I want to get some stuff out if the way in terms of my own background. It will allow to me to progress beyond the—

RB: Some kind of psychological cleansing.

GS: I don’t need every hero to be some 30-something nebbish.

RB: So if you work this thing out your characters in the future will resemble James Franco?

GS: Yes, me and my team of social workers will cleanse me, and I’ll be James Franco.

RB: You mentioned some books that you admire—do you read a lot of fiction?

GS: Oh my god yes—Josh Ferris, Jhumpa Lahiri—

RB: Another immigrant—

GS: Wells Tower.

RB: I’ve heard of him—his book made some kind of splash this past spring [Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, 2009]. Short story collections still are being published—

GS: The MFA effect—those programs are geared to short fiction.

RB: Tobias Wolff has made a life writing stories.

GS: Well, there was This Boy’s Life. The Things They Carried is good example of stories that almost fall into a novel—when I was in the Army bases I was surprised that so few of the enlisted men had read them. I imagined if there were one book in the army it would be Tim O’Brien’s book.

RB: Have you read Matterhorn [A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Malantes]?

GS: I am dying to read it. This tour has been taking up my time but I want to spend a month—I’d love to read it.

RB: It was terrific.

GS: Did you like Tree of Smoke?

RB: I like Denis Johnson but when I picked up that book I didn’t get very far. It didn’t grab me at the time so I put it down. There is so much to read—

GS: Matterhorn is definitely high, high on my list.

RB: I wonder what effect any of these Vietnam narratives had. Did Super Sad True Love Story turn out the way you wanted?

GS: Nothing ever turns out the way you want it—I wanted to do something I hadn’t done before which was to tell a love story from two points of view—there being two versions of truth. And to the best of my abilities I did that.

RB: Do see the 1984 parallels that some reviewers have brought up?

GS: I grew up with a lot of dystopian literature—Brave New World as a novel works a lot better, prognosticates a lot more, whereas in 1984 Orwell is working with Stalinist Russia set in London 40 years into the future. When I was thinking dystopian love that was not far from my mind.

RB: My recollection was that 1984 is not very good—

GS: It isn’t. Growing up in Russia, I read that book and almost memorized it. And the film came out (the 1984 version) and I remember watching it more than once. The acting is amazing—it’s Richard Burton’s last film. He died a few months later.

RB: Good. Thank you very much.

GS: Thank you.


Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum