A muscular discussion with hilarious writer/satirist Gary Shteyngart.
“Throughout its seventy-year tenure, bureaucratic Sovietspeak has inadvertently stripped the language of Pushkin of much of its greatness and might,” Gary (Igor) Shteyngart writes in his memoir Little Failure. The Russian New Yorker is doing a decent job of keeping the Russian literary flame burning. In conversation—via phone from Room 692, Goodenough Club, London’s Mecklenburgh Square—the insatiable satirist is super simpatico. His use of language is ever vivid, entertaining, and illuminating: “Russia’s like having a girlfriend or a boyfriend that you think will change if you just give them enough time, but that never happens.” Illustration by Matt Kambic.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: Philip Roth talked about how reality out-fictionalises fiction. DBC Pierre (Ludmila’s Broken English, Vernon God Little) told me: “Reality is implausible.” Which is true with Rob Ford?
GARY SHTEYNGART: [Laughs heartily] Rob Ford has completely reinvigorated my belief that anything can happen. He’s made the world real again. At first I thought that all the possibilities had been closed off to me because many of the things I’ve written about in Super Sad True Love Story have, for example, come to pass. But with Rob Ford it seems like the world is full of possibility again. Every city needs a Rob Ford. Is there one in Auckland or Wellington?
AB: He is unique. He’s the story that keeps on giving, isn’t he?
GS: It’s wonderful, every day something new. I follow it the way I follow events in the Ukraine; it’s just riveting.
AB: Portnoy’s Complaint is an influence on a lot of people, including you?
GS: Any book where a Jewish man has sexual congress with a liver is something I’m going to want to read.
AB: The fall of Elliot Spitzer: there did seem to be a bit of a resonance with that book?
GS: Elliot Spitzer was okay. I was more interested in Anthony Weiner because it had a very contemporary flair. Spitzer was just a prostitute, it doesn’t matter. But this guy was tweeting pictures of his junk and that was fascinating to me the way that was updated. That was such a fresh look at the way a politician’s ego works in the 21st century.
“Really the only way to write about the present is to write about the future, because the present doesn’t even exist any more. We’re in the future all the time now.”
AB: Yeah, the technological aspects you’ve explored so sharply in books like Super Sad Love Story?
GS: Yes, it’s great. My fiction is marching right along with the present. Really the only way to write about the present is to write about the future, because the present doesn’t even exist any more. We’re in the future all the time now.
AB: Well put. You’ve been described as Chekhov meets Borat. What would you discuss with Sacha Baron Cohen if you run into him during your time in London?
GS: Gosh, the only thing I’ve seen is Borat, which was a big hoot. God knows I love writing about Kazakhs run amok or former central Asians or people from The Caucasus run amok. What I like is entertainment and I think that literature should be entertaining. Not necessarily just funny, but should have, as in the 18th and 19th century, when people would pick up a book to have a jolly good time and to feel something and to learn about something.
I don’t like it when literature becomes dull and theoretical and abstract and academic. In America, of course, so much of literature is written inside academic programmes, that we writers all end up working in. There’s stuff to be learnt from Sacha Baron Cohen and certainly from the new crop of brilliant television series like The Sopranos, The Wire, True Detective, and Girls. All these shows are wonderful ways to look at narrative again. And plot, because these things have gotten so missing from different forms of writing, and whether one may love or hate my writing, I certainly do try to give the reader something entertaining to read.
AB: The Wire or The Sopranos? In Little Failure, you quote Tony Soprano on panic attacks: “Ginger ale in my skull.”
GS: The Wire, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos—those three are sort of the granddaddies of the genre. They give you exactly what you would want from a novel, this incredible narrative.
AB: They’re very exciting and inventive and novelistic, these series? Eleanor Catton says they inspire her.
GS: They really are novelistic. The Sopranos almost feels like a Flaubert novel—you get introduced to this whole substrata of society and it’s just amazing. I really miss that show. For me, it could go on forever.
AB: Me, too. James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman dying cut me deep.
GS: Yes, oh that was so sad. Oh, gosh [emotionally]. Very, very sad.
“The conversation around me is always about one thing, it’s always about technology. It doesn’t matter who’s doing the talking and what industry the people are working in next to me but this is it. This is the way, I guess, in the 13th century people talked about God or something. It’s omnipresent.”
AB: You’re still working on the Super Sad TV series script?
GS: Yes, very much so. I’m going to be doing that all day long on the plane today. I’m heading back to New York, in about an hour I have to go.
AB: I recently profiled Spike Jonze. I see similarities between Her and Super Sad Love Story: Changing times and the role of technology in relationships, sadness, and so forth.
GS: Right, yeah I agree. I think it was very well done and I think that that’s the stuff that we’re looking at these days—just how human we’re going to remain in the future, just how much digital technology is going to be a dominant part of our lives. Where ever I go in London right now and I sit down at a nice restaurant, the conversation around me is always about one thing, it’s always about technology. It doesn’t matter who’s doing the talking and what industry the people are working in next to me but this is it. This is the way, I guess, in the 13th century people talked about God or something. It’s omnipresent.
AB: Spike Jonze talked about Woody Allen being an influence on him. Similarly, in Little Failure, how you mix tragedy and comedy so well. Though you’ve done different exciting things to what he’s done and what he does, do you see him as an influence?
GS: Yes, of course. There’s such a lot of delight in the world. His characters are so set adrift, their nebbishness, their inability to cope with the world of everything, of technology, of love, of parents, of parental expectations. It’s just wonderful!
AB: Are there any Woody Allen films that you’re particularly fond of?
GS: Annie Hall is the work of genius. But Crimes and Misdemeanours is one of his films that doesn’t bend completely in the direction of either hilarity, sadness, or introspection. It nicely combines all of the above, which is a nice model for the kind of work I try to do. Especially in Little Failure, I try to create a kind of balance between the two, which is not something that comes naturally to somebody who’s a satirist, but that’s what I tried to do in this book, for sure.
AB: You succeed. People make comparisons between you and the great (dead) Russian writers like Gogol. “Americans have tricked the Russkis into sending us Gary Shteyngart, their greatest export since they rocketed Laika and all those other cute little dogs into outer space for the Soviet cosmonaut program,” Interview magazine enthused. A contemporary Russian author who I enjoyed interviewing last year was Masha Gessen.
GS: I love Masha. I spent a week with her in Moscow once. Three years ago, I don’t know, time is so weird.
AB: She can be weirdly mean-spirited. One of her impressive qualities, she has some dry Russian wit.
GS: Yes she does [laughs], which is wonderful. It was wonderful to spend time with her, she’s somebody really understand Russia and continues to—she left, hasn’t she left?
AB: Eventually. She lives in New York, and just released her book on Pussy Riot.
GS: Oh great. That’s the thing with Russia: that one should really try to leave it. That’s what it’s there for, to be left. A lot of people I know are journalists who cover Russia, who write about it, often very beautifully, but they get very attached to it. They become a part of it. They become very invested in what will happen to it next. My theory, though, is that nothing very good will happen to it next. Russia’s like having a girlfriend or a boyfriend who you think will change if you just give them enough time, but that never happens.
AB: Masha told me, “I have three kids and it’s one thing to bring up your kids in a place that’s risky and difficult. I think in many ways it’s enriching them and I’m glad my kids have that experience. It’s another thing to bring up your kids in a place that’s hopeless. Now that I’ve lost hope, I need to take them out.” That’s a very Russian parent idea isn’t it?
GS: Well, I think living in New York or London has its own difficulties. I’m not comparing them with living in Moscow. But the upper middle class, and certainly the elite in Moscow, doesn’t live a terrible life, other than the climate. Almost all the Western stuff is there. You know, you have to bribe people a little left and right.
It’s more the feeling of overall oppression: the idea that, in the end, the things that a society can decide for itself is not going to be decided by you, by any democratic stakeholder. That’s what I think creates such a feeling of oppression. I loved my Soviet travelling, it was amazing. It was better than my American travels in a sense; it was full of interesting things. The system doesn’t oppress children, it’s when you reach adulthood and are sucked into the lies and the bureaucracy and the hopelessness, that’s when things really begin to fall apart.
AB: In terms of the Putin regime, are you less hopeful, more hopeful, or you just see it as a constant?
GS: In a sense it’s business as usual. It always reverts to something like that. When’s a period in Russian history when—more than a decade or two—when there’s been any kind of democracy or populism or anything? I mean it’s always an autocracy. That’s the Russian way, people hold out hope, but there’s really no track record to show that something better can happen.
AB: Gessen agrees with the Winston Churchill quote: “Trying to fathom Kremlin politics is like watching a fight among bulldogs under a carpet, you can hear much growling but have little ice what is going on.” How do you follow Kremlin politics, what are your good media sources to get an idea of what’s happening out there?
GS: There are newspapers online, like Gazetta. The one thing I do like about technology is that I can follow the stuff from far away, get a good perspective on what’s happening in Crimea, wherever, so that’s good stuff.
AB: David Remnick is very good on Russia.
GS: David Remnick and Julia Ioffe, who writes for The New Republic, are wonderful.
“A lot of people I know are journalists who cover Russia, who write about it, often very beautifully, but they get very attached to it. They become a part of it. They become very invested in what will happen to it next. My theory, though, is that nothing very good will happen to it next. Russia’s like having a girlfriend or a boyfriend who you think will change if you just give them enough time, but that never happens.”
AB: I talked to Seth Rogen about the Jewish flair for comedy. One of his lines was, “Thousands of years of oppression, Jews have developed a defense mechanism, laughter instead of crying.” Thoughts?
GS: Yeah, a defence mechanism perhaps: just a way to filter through the various levels of barbarity that have followed Jews throughout Europe is humour, this ‘laughter from the edge of the grave’ if you will. One can internalise them and become aggressive and go to war, or one can laugh it off, and the latter is certainly preferable.
AB: Rogen should be Misha Vainberg in an Absurdistan film?
GS: I’d really love that.
AB: One of the problems with technology is one’s bombarded with this idea one’s supposed to have this amazing life. Although it’s not really like that for most people, most people are imperfect and their lives are imperfect. One of your strengths in Little Failure is you’re humorous about the harder parts of life.
GS: Yes, I think if this were one of those sad ‘woe-is-me’ memoirs, I’d be ashamed of it. Life is so hard for a lot of people and so to bring reserves of pathos you don’t need is not good. I think that one can look at this life I’ve led, and find something humorous at almost every turn. My parents were, and are, very funny people. People can hurt one another and offend one another, but there’s always something funny going on there.
AB: You are one of the great, generous writers of our current post-national, inter-cultural, cross-contaminated age, like Pico Iyer. (“Our world full of shifting borders reminds me of a Jackson Pollock canvas, everything is happening all at once and in every possible direction.”) I enjoy your travel writing, too.
GS: I love travel writing. It’s one of my favourite things. I’m very excited to travel the world. It was almost something that’s left over from being in Russia, not being able to travel, is this huge wanderlust. I love to travel. But my parents were stuck there for a long time without the ability to go anywhere. And I think that once Russians are let out, they just go. I’m in London right now, walking around London, Russian and Polish seem to be the second and third languages of the realm.
AB: Yeah. Your most recent Travel and Leisure article on sex in hotels resonated. You finish with a poetic last line, “When I’m asleep in her arms, the universe has no reason to taunt me. Enjoy the silence.” There’s no reason why good travel writing shouldn’t have the respect any other good literature has.
GS: Travel writing’s very important, especially nowadays when we’re all constantly on a plane. I think the age of mobility has increased the visibility of travel writing. Everyone has a stake in travel writing in a way because we’re always on the move. It’s one of the few non-digital pleasures that has really increased in this age.
AB: TripAdvisor can be useful and funny, like scuzzy Paris accommodation. The problem is corporations thinking we don’t need to pay for travel writers anymore?
GS: This is true. Things seem to survive at the high end. The very high end magazines continue to survive and pop write-it-all babble will continue forever, but what I worry about is sort of the middle ground. The same way one worries about midlist authors. The people who don’t have a track record are no longer welcomed to the table because the Internet sort of takes care of it, reduces people’s income, because so much of it is free and only the top can survive. That’s a very different ecosystem to the one that even existed when I started out, when the Internet was just beginning.
AB: That’s why you’re happy to be the “Balzac of blurbs,” to give other writers a leg up? (I keep chuckling about your blurb for How to Be a Person: The Stranger’s Guide to College, Sex, Intoxicants, Tacos, and Life Itself by Lindy West, Dan Savage, et al: “Suck it, Proust. This book about stuff is much better than those things you wrote.”)
GS: Yes, will blurb anything, anything.
AB: Vladimir Nabakov’s another inventive, important writer who wrote stuff not in his mother tongue. Do you ever dream in Russian about Nabokov?
GS: Not about Nabokov, no. My dreams, even my erotic dreams, do not feature Nabokov. It’s very hard to have him wander into your dreams. I just think about him in English.
“The very high end magazines continue to survive and pop write-it-all babble will continue forever, but what I worry about is sort of the middle ground. The same way one worries about midlist authors. The people who don’t have a track record are no longer welcomed to the table because the Internet sort of takes care of it, reduces people’s income, because so much of it is free and only the top can survive. That’s a very different ecosystem to the one that even existed when I started out, when the Internet was just beginning.”
AB: I know your book tour is already 149 days, including the Sydney Writers’ Festival. We’d love to have you down here in New Zealand.
GS: The thing is, I’m going to Australia and they wanted me to come to New Zealand. But I have a little kid about four months old and there was just no time. I’ve got get back and see him every once in a while. But I was very keen on going and very sad that I couldn’t work it into the schedule this year. But for the next book, I’d love to come down.
AB: With all the technology and everything, sometimes it’s nice to go into the middle of nowhere with some sheep. New Zealand could help you out?
GS: What I love about upstate New York is sheep. I’m surrounded by sheep as well, but I think your sheep would kick my sheep’s ass because they’re just the greatest sheep in the world, apparently.
AB: They are, and there’s 60 million of them in the world today.
GS: I wish I could hug every one.
AB: Juicy roast lamb. Primary produce economy. I think the quality of our meats is such that even Misha Vainberg would be content.
GS: [Laughs heartily] Well, I would love to gorge on all of your country’s meats. That sounds like a real plan.
AB: Well I’m confident the invitation is open anytime, Gary.
GS: Thank you. Please tell them to send me some mutton before I come.
AB: “I’m married to a Korean woman. Her parents have stories of such brutality during the war that nobody could understand them except for someone who has lived through Hitler and Stalin,” you told Korean novelist Lee Chang-rae.
GS: Hitler and Stalin are a good sort of Masters and PhD in cruelty, so I think a good degree to have.
AB: North Korea’s still fascinating isn’t it?
GS: [Chuckles] Yeah, yeah. Shooting your uncle.
AB: Documentaries like Crossing The Line, Korean War defector Joe Dresnok staying there. It’s the real deal model Stalinist state.
GS: Yeah. It just keeps on giving.
AB: The Russians do have over the edge over the Koreans in terms of vodka versus soju?
GS: Soju’s a very weak alcohol. I don’t understand the point of it. But it’s okay, you just have to drink a lot more of it with your kalbi, with your beef.
AB: Louis C.K. said he didn’t want his daughters to have iPhones.
GS: I think it’s impossible to prevent them from getting technology, so there’s nothing to be done. One can limit to some extent, but in the end, what are you going to do? It’s the world we live in.
AB: When you’re in New York teaching Nabokov at Columbia or attending media engagements, what’s one of your favourite things about living and writing there?
GS: Oh, I like the food, it’s great. There are so many great new restaurants. Thai food. It’s just an island of millionaires at this point so there’s not much to like except it’s busy. I guess when you’re young there’s still something about it that’s wonderful. But Berlin is, I think, where people go now to lead creative lives.
AB: Well, the rent ain’t too damn high. Your New Yorker essay on Google Glasses—musing on being “the limited Nostradamus of two weeks from now”—you approached bar-goers and told them you were from the NSA and nobody cared?
GS: Nobody cared [chuckles]. Nobody cares, it’s so funny. People are actually, “Can you please read my emails because no-one else does? I’m very lonely.” People like the NSA because it’s like a little phantom friend that they have that keeps them company.
AB: People have allowed the post-privacy world already in many corporate respects?
GS: It’s gone. We gave it up without blinking an eye and nobody really cares.
AB: In 2012 you wrote in The Guardian about how you thought Obama had done well, given the terribly dysfunctional political system he’s operating in. I profiled Steve McQueen recently. He thinks a lot of the criticism against Obama is motivated by racism.
GS: Yeah, there’s no question about it. It’s very hard for people to accept a black president, very hard. I think if he wasn’t black, the Tea Party would not really exist in the way it does.
AB: In Super Sad Love Story, your satire of the ridiculous talk of bipartisanship, with the Bipartisan Party is right on.
GS: Really, it’s awful. This whole idea we have to all get along, and the Republican party has used it for its own means. They see everything as weakness that’s not an assault. So for them, this was just their direction to pounce. And pounce they did, to their own detriment in the end. And to everyone’s detriment. We barely have a government anymore.
AB: People compared Super Sad with George Orwell’s books about state surveillance. I prefer to compare it to Down and Out in Paris and London, both are sad and hilarious.
GS: Yeah, I love that book. Oh God, it’s one of my favourites of his books. What a commitment to being poor. It’s great.
AB: I love the honesty and self-awareness of it, and his commitment to being a writer.
GS: Yeah, I don’t have that commitment. Being a writer, just living that life, choosing to live that life is a very fascinating thing to do. Nowadays the [top] writers complain if they don’t get business class tickets.
“It’s an honour to be compared to Philip Roth, obviously. He was one of my most influential sources when I was starting out to be a writer. I thought he was very bold. And I thought he was able to write about one’s place in the world and one’s people without any worry about what would happen. That to me was fascinating, the fact that one could be so brave. When I started writing there weren’t many books about the Soviet-Jewish experience. I was very worried about being the first one out there and writing about the ‘dirty laundry’.”
AB: [Laughs] Reading Little Failure, your maternal grandfather descended from twelve generations of Russian Orthodox churchmen. What would he think about Pussy Riot?
GS: I think he wouldn’t have been pleased with Pussy’s performance. But I think it’s nice. I like their outfits very much. The baklavas [mispronounces balaclavas], is that how you pronounce it? Those are very nice. Also the church that they sang in, it’s not my favourite church, it’s very grandiose. I like some of the smaller [Russian Orthodox] churches. Beautiful churches in the countryside, little wooden ones.
AB: What do you think when people compare you with Philip Roth?
GS: [Laughs] It’s an honour to be compared to Philip Roth, obviously. He was one of my most influential sources when I was starting out to be a writer. I thought he was very bold. And I thought he was able to write about one’s place in the world and one’s people without any worry about what would happen. That to me was fascinating, the fact that one could be so brave. When I started writing there weren’t many books about the Soviet-Jewish experience. I was very worried about being the first one out there and writing about the ‘dirty laundry’.
But reading Roth and realising that it was okay to backlash against them from the American Jewish community, as the community assimilated, as it became more aware—a part of the country without any feeling of outsider-ness. (If that’s a word?) It was very inspirational. You could write about anything and get away with it. That’s the big lesson from Roth.
AB: In Little Failure, on the question of “Why writing?” you say, “Who wouldn’t, under the circumstances?” Will circumstances allow in 50 years time; only for a very limited group of people?
GS: Very limited. The way we read poetry now, very few people do it. The people who do it are very involved. They’re real fans. But there are very few of them, and fewer and fewer of them, and so I think the same will happen with fiction. Enjoy it while we can.
AB: Now that you’ve fully exorcised your past with Little Failure, you’re thinking of working on a thriller?
GS: That’s right. I have to do something exciting after the memoir. Now I’m free, I’m free to do anything!
AB: Your offended some Canadians with your drunken remark about how Canadian literary subsidies make some writers conservative. Have you thought of anything to offend New Zealanders yet?
GS: All I know is that The Hobbit things are made there. But otherwise you’re a sweet peaceful place apparently and there’s no reference. Canada I go to all the time so I can always make fun of it, but you guys are so far away. If you invite me over, sure, I’ll find a way to insult you. But for now it’s all just theoretical.