Express In Conversation
1984 2.0: Gary Shteyngart with Alessandro Cassin
Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park are the protagonists of the unlikely romance at the core of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. He, a schleppy 39-year-old Russian-American, and she, a beautiful 24-year-old Korean-American, meet in Rome before returning to New York. What awaits them is Shteyngart’s dystopic vision of the near future. The U.S. is reaching the point of implosion, precipitated by the ruling Bipartisan Party’s policies, Secretary of Defense Rubinstein’s failing military campaign in Venezuela, and a near-worthless Yuan that’s pegged to the dollar. Everyone wears an äppärät hanging from their neck, a device which allows them to stream live information, shop, and measure each other’s key indexes: fuckability, credit, and personality. In a world where High Net Worth Individuals obsessed with life-extension and homeland security hog all the power, Lenny and Eunice fall in and out of love. The Rail’s Alessandro Cassin recently sat down with Gary Shteyngart in the East Village:
Alessandro Cassin (Rail): So what is this novel about?
Gary Shteyngart: This novel, like an äppärät, contains many different things: dystopia, a love story, East meeting West, immigrants, technology. Even the cover looks like some kind of electronic device!
Rail: The novel takes place in some unspecified time in the near future. Yet as you read on you realize that the action is really in a kind of made-up tense, the present-future. A lot of the writing reads like reporting.
Shteyngart: Any kind of speculative fiction is not about the future—it’s about right now. Absurdistan was a real act of journalism. This is almost the same thing. I had a research assistant who helped me try to understand the present. He taught me about social networks, the iPhone, and the science behind this anti-aging movement that really exists. I am completely addicted to technology—kind of like trying heroin and then writing about it.
Rail: Is there a specific reason you chose to have Lenny and Eunice meet in Rome?
Shteyngart: I wanted it to begin and end as a kind of Americans-in-Europe story. Rome was once an empire of great stature and America is today an empire with many problems.
Rail: What is the function of the character of Fabrizia in the novel?
Shteyngart: For Lenny, Fabrizia is the old world: she sweats, she has actual breasts, an ass and everything—and then he meets Eunice, the new world, Asia, not America, who just streamlines her device.
Rail: As the United States crumbles and human communication is reduced to electronic data exchanges, what is most moving is the unlikely love story between individuals who seem worlds apart. What do they see in each other?
Shteyngart: What they see in each other is that they are both from very dysfunctional immigrant families, so they connect on that level. For Lenny she is just beautiful. That will never change, no matter what we do to our bodies or to our technologies, a small furry man will always love a beautiful woman. If, how, or why she will love him back is the crux of it.
Rail: Why does Eunice move in with Lenny?
Shteyngart: He is not that attractive, so she feels safe. She hates herself very much. With parents like hers, who wouldn’t? It is very important for her to fall in love with someone who is not intimidating, because she has been intimidated by men all her life.
I was thinking of 1984 and A Brave New World. Julia and Winston are memorable. Brave New World is perhaps a better novel of ideas but I can’t remember who the hell the characters were. I remember 1984 because the love story is very strong. There is a horrible society prying them apart, same as here.
Rail: The episodes in which Lenny and Eunice meet their respective families tell us more about who they are than pages and pages of their diaries. Family dynamics, even if dysfunctional, seems to be the thing that defines them most.
Shteyngart: They think technology is somehow going to be the solution to everything. In the world of this novel people go through all this technological change, yet they are their parents’ children. Ultimately all they do is process their parents’ problems over and over. Technology gets vanquished only by the fact that we all have parents.
Rail: Having moved here as a child you are a first generation immigrant. Why did you make Lenny and Eunice second generation?
Shteyngart: I was trying not to write about Russia. Lenny is of Russian ancestry but I didn’t want this to take over. In my first two books I attempted to understand my own questions of identity. This book asks questions about America. Enough about Russia for the time being. Russia still fascinates me, always on the verge of collapse, while America has rarely been as low as now. A country of this magnitude with this messianic belief in itself facing the idea that it might not be the top banana anymore.
Rail: Do you think this focus on America accounts for the novel’s success?
Shteyngart: Certainly I think the demise of the U.S.A. is an idea that resonates with readers. It is no coincidence that this book is on the bestseller list and the ones about Russia are not. It is hard for Americans to understand why they should care if Absurdistan is burning, but if Duane Reade is burning that’s quite another story.
Rail: While Absurdistan deals with the effects of politics on the outer edges of the former Soviet Empire, here you talk about the imperial center imploding.
Shteyngart: The empire always strikes back; as the British discovered, strife always comes home.
Rail: Lenny’s mother cannot make much sense of her son’s career: on their first meeting she asks Eunice, “Who is my son by profession?” Can you tell me about becoming a professional writer and the support or lack thereof within your family?
Shteyngart: “Who are you by profession?” is a very Russian phrase that I find very funny. I know a lot of immigrants: Koreans, Russians, Indians who have chosen to become writers, film people, etc. It is so much more difficult to do it than if you are a native-born American, especially if you are an only child and a boy, because it is incomprehensible to the parents. Now my parents are okay with it because I’m successful, but it was always very, very tough. All of this raised the stakes, failure was unthinkable. Writing feels like such a decadent thing to be doing, even if I probably work harder than most lawyers I know.
Rail: I am an immigrant myself, Jewish, and I live in New York. I’m an avid reader of your novels, but I wonder what Middle America sees in them.
Shteyngart: [Laughs] I don’t know. My publicist was very happy when we got positive numbers from the Midwest. Literature exists in America as little archipelagos: the Northeast, the West Coast and these little clusters of academic towns with great readers as worldly as anyone in New York or London. The good thing about America is the university system. I hope it doesn’t get bought up by the Chinese, like in the novel.
Rail: How is writing about love different?
Shteyngart: Very, very different and much more difficult. I ended up falling in love with my characters, yet as I was writing I began to get depressed because I was going to do horrible things to them. Take Misha (the protagonist of Absurdistan): I made him suffer but, what the hell, he is so fat and rich he deserves it. But what did these people do to deserve the life they were given?
Rail: The other large theme is coming to terms with death. On one hand there is the stinging satire—of our delusional obsession with life prolonging hopes—on the other, the characters’ inescapable realization of their own mortality.
Shteyngart: The sections dealing with death are the most autobiographical parts of the book. I grew up very, very sick in Russia; I was always taken by ambulance to the hospital with terrible asthma. In Western countries this would be easily solved, but in Russia people were dying of it. When we got to the West, a doctor handed my parents my first inhaler. I spent the first years of my life thinking I was going to die.
Rail: Did you continue to think about your own mortality after you moved to the U.S.?
Shteyngart: All the time! We were a very small, isolated family: just three people. My parents always thought something terrible was going to happen to me in typical neurotic Jewish fashion. And I kept thinking, “What is going to happen to us? What if they died?” At the end of the novel Lenny also thinks of his parents passing. For all these reasons plus having had entire branches of my family wiped out by a dictator, mortality is something you think about.
Rail: In your novel, the United States has collapsed with a bang. What is taking place is hopeless and grotesque. You describe a world in which books and reading are obsolete, yet you do it with a novel the critics are raving about. In describing a bookless world it does exactly what literature has always done: it highlights who we are, makes us despair and laugh and even care about a character whose main social activity is shopping online.
Shteyngart: Pessimism is my default mode. In Portland, Oregon, during my book tour, some people brought their Kindles and iPads and asked me to sign those. Others had me write in their books, “I promise none of this will ever come true!”
Rail: Writers have been announcing the death of literature for a very long time.
Shteyngart: The secret to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is not so much that the government bans reading but that nobody really wants to read anymore. To scream about this all the time is part of defending an art form. Literature’s place in culture has ups and downs: this is a very bad down!
Rail: I agree with you about the marginalization of literature, but I question if this implies a diminished quality in the novels that are being produced.
Shteyngart: A lot of what is being produced is great: think of Franzen, Junot Diaz, or Philip Roth who can all still create a great book. I can easily think of 10 more authors who I really admire. The problem is that we are so bombarded by information that we are exhausted. We come home from work, our brains filleted—do we reach for a book? Or turn on Mad Men, or The Wire, which are novelistic shows. Knowing we have a lust for narrative, these shows try to bridge the gap. Some of them are actually written by novelists.
Rail: What are your fears?
Shteyngart: I just want to preserve some space for the novel as such. I don’t want fiction in America to become what poetry is: a small academic enterprise. As a culture we are obsessed with self-expression and we are heading toward the paradox of everyone writing and no one reading. There is a magazine in Portland called Tin House. They have a policy of requiring writers who submit unsolicited manuscripts to include a receipt for a book purchased in the previous month. I think it’s great!
Rail: After chefs and models, TV is now trying to groom painters with a reality show called Work of Art. Will there be one for novelists next?
Shteyngart: Can you imagine how boring it would be watching a writer sit and type? Myself, I work in bed. What are they going to do, show me lying there like a whale? Yet I can imagine it happening if they find a way of making it “sexy.”
Rail: What might it look like?
Shteyngart: A lot of writers are very good-looking and that helps a lot! Of course there would have to be a lot of backstabbing,Paris Review parties, people sleeping with each other. It’s not the writing, it’s the lives that catch people’s imagination.
Rail: Writers are not as interestingly dysfunctional as they used to be!
Shteyngart: Oh, not by a long shot. Imagine a reality show about Norman Mailer! Everybody just talks about their health insurance these days.
Rail: In the novel you grapple with technology’s alienating pitfalls. What can you tell me of how your writing process has changed in the age of the Internet?
Shteyngart: Technology has an impact on the whole way we live: the way I walk down the streets with one of these gadgets on, the way I relax, the way I look at things, and of course on how I write. Maybe at some point someone will come up with a new art form derived from it. Myself, I can only write about it the way a visitor to an alien planet would.
Rail: You began promoting the novel with a mock trailer on YouTube, a digital equivalent to the blurbs on the back of books.
Shteyngart: That trailer got the entire conversation going. It’s crazy; I think about 100,000 people have seen it.
Rail: What made it such a hit?
Shteyngart: Having James Franco, the actor [and a student of Shteyngart’s at Columbia]. I also had four brilliant novelists, but who cares about them, right? Without Franco, maybe 8,000 book nerds would have watched it. When the video came out, I got 800 emails about it. Someone came up to me on the street and said “Hey, you’re that guy who can’t read and has a book out!” It really shows where people’s priorities are.
Rail: In this novel Lenny quotes Chekhov a lot. Can you tell me about your relationship with him?
Shteyngart: He is one of the greats! “Lady with a Lapdog” is one of my favorite stories ever: in a very short space all of love’s impossibilities are laid out, as well as the fact that we torture ourselves over and over for some unobtainable idea. When I think of Lenny, I think of him as a sort of Chekhovian character: he is not bad, not particularly good, but the world is on his shoulders.
Rail: What was the most difficult thing about writing this novel?
Shteyngart: Writing from the perspective of a woman; trying to leave behind Soviet Jews without totally ignoring them. In my first books I used the Russian world because of my own fascination with it. This novel required abandoning this literary crutch and just focusing on writing as truthfully as possible about America. Much tougher: it’s personal. I live here.
Rail: What’s next?
Shteyngart: I have been writing essays; I want to fashion them into a book with a real arc to it. Fiction is hard, constantly facing doom and gloom while trying to work it into a satire. Not that nonfiction isn’t, but it’s a different kind of hard.
Rail: The humor of the novel often comes from recognizing the truth of your observations. You laugh because it’s true, and then you experience relief having laughed at it.
Shteyngart: That’s what humor is supposed to do: bring you to the heart of something terrible and allow you to leave it behind a little through laughter. The “True” in the title, (I could have called it just Super Sad Love Story) is what makes it important.