From Russia with Funny | Chronogram Magazine

From Russia with Funny

From Russia with Funny
Gary Shytengart

Hailed as “a droll Kafka” by the Portland Oregonian and favorably compared to sliced bread by the usual suspects, Gary Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972. When he was seven, his family of “small furry immigrants” came to America, settling in Little Neck, Queens. Shteyngart’s novels include The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (Riverhead, 2002), Absurdistan (Random House, 2006), and Super Sad True Love Story (Random House, 2010), an instant New York Times bestseller that appeared on more than 40 “Best Books of the Year” lists and probably caused a great deal of food to come out of readers’ noses. Winner of the Stephen Crane Award and National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, Shteyngart was also named a New Yorker Best Writer Under 40, an honor he finds rather ominous at age 39.

Super Sad True Love Story’s hero, Lenny Abramov, is the book-loving son of Russian expats who “literally immigrated to the United States with one pair of underwear between them.” Now 39—stop me if this is sounding familiar—Lenny meets Eunice Park, a “nano-sized” Korean-American Valley Girl, at a party. She calls him a nerd, rebuttons his shirt cuff, and tells him how to brush his teeth. Of course he falls in love with her.
Their mismatched romance unfolds in an all-too-foreseeable future in which a stumbling America, governed with a rusting iron fist by the Bipartisan Party, owes its soul to the Chinese company store. Personal privacy is extinct—everything from credit ratings to cholesterol counts and “fuckability” rankings is displayed on handheld communication devices called äppäräti; the Village Voice called the novel “the finest piece of anti-iPhone propaganda ever written.”

So it seems entirely appropriate to interview Shteyngart by e-mail. Though he lives on Manhattan’s Gramercy Park with his fiancée and an unspecified number of dachshunds, he’s been spending a lot of time in Germantown lately—except when book touring and researching magazine features in Europe.

Where are you now and what kind of electronic device are you using?

i am in madrid eating tapas for a travel story and promoting my last book in spanish. My iphone broke down in denmark. i now have a truly awful spanish phone which is just a glorified alarm clock. all I want to do is get back to germantown and buy sardines at otto’s.

How was the airport security?
i’m always stopped at security because i look so explosive. i just ate a barnacle.

I’m always curious about how writers start. What was your first idea or image for Super Sad True Love Story?
a very young television repairman came to my apt, saw the wall of books and said, “oh, man, why you got so many books, and such a small TV?” i realized that many youths find books kind of gross.

What’s your own relationship to books?
i like to burn them when it gets cold in germantown, but otherwise I like them very much.

In SSTLS, they’re called “doorstops,” and Eunice is freaked out that Lenny can spend as much as half an hour looking at one. Their 15-year age difference is a technological generation gap—she’s a digital native, and he has an immigrant’s nostalgia for the outmoded. Did you always plan to alternate Lenny’s diary entries and Eunice’s chat posts, or did that evolve as you worked on the book?
always planned it that way. writing eunice was totes fun. i (heart) her character.

You’ve said it was hard to satirize political and economic events when your dire predictions—bank failures and American auto manufacturers collapsing—kept coming true. Which of the new developments in your novel would you least like to see in real life?
the fuckability ratings in bars. i know i wouldn’t do so well.

How do you think the Bipartisan Party would fare in the current election scrimmage?
i think they’re winning already.

The cover of the paperback Super Sad True Love Story cites kinships with Nabokov, Orwell, Chekhov, and Judd Apatow. That’s quite a quartet.
thank god andy rooney’s not on the list.

Your (hilarious!) YouTube book trailer features cameos by Edmund White, Mary Gaitskill, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jay McInerney, not to mention your former Columbia student James Franco. You play a heavily accented, cheerfully ignorant Gary Shteyngart clone, kind of a literary Borat. How did this come about?
during a drunken night at yaddo I jotted down some notes about my being illiterate. in the bleak light of a saratoga winter morning, the notes seemed to make sense. several thousand dollars later, we had a video.

You also appear on YouTube skewering the ubiquitous author blurb. But you wrote one for Paul LaFarge’s Luminous Airplanes.
i blurbed luminous airplanes because it’s amazing. and amazing books aren’t written very often. so buy it.

What can local audiences expect from your reading with Paul LaFarge at the Hudson ArtsWalk on October 9?
i’ll probably have a cold and sneeze a lot. then I’ll pass out. paul will carry me from the artswalk and into a waiting subaru forester.

What are you working on now?
i’m working on a memoir, which is hard cause i don’t remember anything that’s ever happened to me. if anyone has any ideas, please send them to
[email protected].

Is it ever a burden being funny in interviews? (That’s a serious question.) You’ve said that the satire came first in your novels, that your teacher Chang-rae Lee challenged you to go deeper with The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and your editor on Super Sad True Love Story urged you to explore the love story. Should I be making more of an effort to dig beneath the funny?
beneath the funny is more funny.

The multilayered Gary Shteyngart and Paul LaFarge will read on Sunday, October 9, at 6pm at the Hudson Opera House. Admission is free. This event is part of ArtsWalk Literary 2011, which also includes appearances by L. S. Asekoff, Helen Benedict, Sarah Falkner, Mary Johnson, Dara Lurie, Carole Maso, Stephen O’Connor, Melissa Holbrook Pierson, Francine Prose, Suzanne Snider, Dana Spiotta, and Mark Wunderlich. (518) 671-6213;