Why are the bleakest of literary landscapes sometimes the most fertile ground for comedy? This is a question I posed to a master of dystopian satire, novelist Gary Shteyngart, the best-selling author of Super Sad True Love Story, who will be in Houston Monday for the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.
I had to ask this question of Shteyngart because his latest novel paints the grimmest of pictures of a future United States at the brink of bankruptcy about to be foreclosed on by our Chinese debt holders, a U.S. government that is both suppressive and incompetent, and a population mindless in its consumerism and self-obsession. Yet Shteyngart’s terrible, unfortunately vaguely familiar, world is also hilarious.
"I was kind of excited to learn that Sweden had an underbelly with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I had no idea they had all those troubles, but I’m glad they do because that’s good for literature.”
Shteyngart’s parents immigrated from Soviet Union to the U.S when he was 7. Perhaps it’s this background that makes him comfortable creating dystopian worlds. Of his own writing he observes, “Everything I write whether in the future or the present has a kind of dystopian gloss.”
Talking to Shteyngart I found the dark comic sensibility present in his work also prevalent in his comments about that work and writing in general. In fiction, at least, he has no use for utopian worlds, or societies where “everything works” because that would be so boring.
He believes, “That’s why there’s not so many Norwegian or Danish novels. I was kind of excited to learn that Sweden had an underbelly with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I had no idea they had all those troubles, but I’m glad they do because that’s good for literature.”
Misery makes great writing
According to Shteyngart our misery is why America has produced great writing, saying “We’ve always been a wealthy power but we have a huge amount of inequality and that kind of inequality spurs the tension that’s required for good fictional work. If everyone was middle class, it would be a snoozer.”
There’s little danger the sad romance in Super Sad True Love Story will cause snoozing. Lenny Abramov, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, and Eunice Park, the daughter of Korean immigrants, have very little in common and an age gap between them, yet they do find some fleeting moments of true human connection in an America where people have willingly given up books and privacy, and no longer have the ability to just be quiet and think.
“That’s the big generational shift from the '60s of ‘I am not a number’ to 2012 where I am a number but hopefully I’m a good number. I’m a high number.”
Perhaps one of the scariest aspects of this future is that it’s not some totalitarian government that has forced people to carry äppäräts (a kind of future smart phone) that broadcast their vital statistics, credit scores, cholesterol count, and fuckability rating for the entire world to know. Instead in Shteyngart’s imagined world people have willingly given up even the privacy of their own thoughts so that they might announce their self to the world. In fact these numbered ranks and ratings seems to be an individuals only form of identity.
The future of Super Sad, where instead of Orwell’s Big Brother watching, everyone has become their own “little brother,” is satire of what Shteyngart sees as our growing obsession with ratings and numbers. He believes, “There’s a kind of anxiety I think. When you’re ranked you sort of know who you are and where you stand, and people become obsessed in their rankings. The quantitative takes the place of qualitative.”
I asked Shteyngart if that means we are going from past the belief that we will never be just a number to everyone only able to identify themselves by the numbers that label them. He laughed and said, “That’s the big generational shift from the '60s of ‘I am not a number’ to 2012 where I am a number but hopefully I’m a good number. I’m a high number.”
This thought leads him to admit: “I often feel I don’t belong to this time. I’m an immigrant from another planet, not just the Soviet Union, but from a pre-digital time.”
Fact vs. fiction
While the similarities between Shteyngart and his creation of the book-loving, death obsessed Lenny might make it seem that Lenny’s voice came easiest to him, he says that is not the case. “When I started with Eunice it just kind of took off. I was a great pleasure to capture her voice and guide her along. It was my mission to make her deeper as the novel continues. I really kind of fell in love with her as I was writing the book. . .She’s the one who has the most growth.“
“(Houston) is a great place. I just don’t understand any of the geography. It seems to have no beginning or end. It’s everywhere.”
Along with Eunice’s growth, Super Sad True Love Story does have a glimmer of hope for novels and literature at its end, and when we discussed whether there’s hope in the present, Shteyngart talked of his “well read,” “committed” and hard working students at Columbia University where he teaches writing and literature. He says, “Teaching is one of the things that makes me happy for the future of literature. Somebody will continue to do this.” He just hopes that there will be always be people ready to read.
Shteyngart knows that completing a novel is just the beginning. Only half jokingly he says, “These days you can’t just be a writer. You have to be a multimedia sensation and you have to know James Franco, or it’s all over.”
James Franco, his former student, along with a cast of celebrity novelists, starred in the first trailer for Super Sad. The second trailer for the paperback edition stars Paul Giamatti and Felix the daschund. Both trailers were written by Shteyngart and also star “Gary Shteyngart” the famous Russian writer who can’t read.
As our talk ended, he turned his satirical focus on his coming visit and gave me one of the funniest and most accurate descriptions of Houston I’ve ever heard. “It’s a great place. I just don’t understand any of the geography. It seems to have no beginning or end. It’s everywhere.”
Gary Shteyngart and Téa Obreht, recent National Book Award finalist for her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, will take the stage at 7:30 Monday in Cullen Theater, Wortham Center. Following their readings, an on-stage interview will be conducted by novelist and UH Creative Writing Program faculty member Mat Johnson.
Come along with "Gary" and Paul as they go cougar hunting at book clubs.