Super Sad True Love Story - Gary Shteyngart interview
An interview with the author of Absurdistan, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Super Sad True Love Story
Gary Shteyngart is on the phone while taking a cab to a meeting at Columbia University, where he teaches writing. He breaks off to pay the driver, whose roots are unclear but, given that this is New York, could be anything from a Berliner to Bangladeshi. Shteyngart chats and talks as he wanders towards his workplace, noting the myriad of nationalities represented at his faculty: ‘I’m walking around the campus and everyone seems to be from somewhere else; I’m passing the engineering building now and everyone there is from an Asian part of the world.’
Issues of where people come from and who they really are beat at the heart of Shteyngart’s writing in his three books to date, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story. And little wonder. Born in 1972 in Leningrad (which he prefers to call St Leninsburg) to an engineer father and pianist mother, he spent the first seven years of his life there before moving with the family to seek fortune and freedom in the USA.
There is no discernible trace of it now, but Shteyngart only lost his thick Russian accent in his teenage years. Now he speaks with the same urbane chatty wit undercut by flecks of self-doubt of his fellow Jewish Manhattanite humourist, Woody Allen. ‘I have a love/hate relationship with just about everything, but certainly with America,’ he states. ‘It’s interesting when you see something on the way up and see it on the way down and those feelings are different. In a relationship someone is always in charge and dominant and that’s how it feels with the US; it’s like a very powerful girlfriend who has been brought down to size, and I kind of feel sorry for her.’
He may have settled very comfortably into his role as a leading light on the New York books scene, but does he ever wonder what life might have been like had his family stayed put in the USSR? ‘Hopefully I would have become a very powerful oligarch. I do wonder because, as with most American writers, I’m a physically weak liberal arts person but had I been living in that harsh society would I have been conditioned and become a real bastard? Maybe. I’ve always liked airplanes, so like certain oligarchs such as Berezovsky, I would have tried to buy up all the “babyflots”, the small air operators, and turned them into one large miserable airline.’
Russian air travel’s loss is American literature’s gain, as Shteyngart is clearly one of his adopted homeland’s rising stars. Described in one review as an ‘antic, supercaffeinated’ writer (‘yeah, I’ll take that’), his plot synopses alone set the mind whirring. In Absurdistan, we meet amateur rapper Misha Vainberg (aka Snack Daddy), the dangerously overweight son of the 1238th richest man in Russia, who is unwittingly made minister of multicultural affairs by a warlord in a little-known but oil-rich state. Last year’s Super Sad True Love Story is set in the near future where an increasingly illiterate USA is about to topple into oblivion while the blissfully ignorant Lenny Abramov continues to work on a project where the disgustingly rich can be made immortal.
Billed as one of The New Yorker magazine’s 20 names under the age of 40 to watch (he currently has one year of his 30s left), his books have been almost universally lauded. Like a fashion mag where you have to fight through an acre of glossy adverts before landing on the first bit of journalism, the paperback editions of his novels are rammed with page after page of critical acclaim.
‘I’m still shocked and sometimes almost a little disappointed that the satirists aren’t saying, “Oh my god, I can’t believe he’s writing this crap.” Whenever I write anything the first thing my dad says will be, “Is this going to be good for the Jews?” I think, “Is it going to be good for anybody?” and expect derision. But a lot of people seem to be catching on to what I’m doing.’
Shteyngart appears at Aye Write on Sat 5 Mar; Super Sad True Love Story is published by Granta.