Friday, September 24, 2010

An Evening With Gary Shteyngart: The Art of Reading

I've read my work in public once, and only because I was forced to by an evil Program Director who thought all writing students should prepare themselves for eventual fame. I approached the requirement much the way I imagine a condemned man approaches the electric chair, sans the extravagant last meal. I was too nervous to eat. My friend Milan, who had appealed this sentence nearly as vigorously as I, poured vodka into his sports drink, mixing liquid courage with electrolytes in an effort to cure a virulent case of public speaking dreads.

The reading did not start off well. I treated a benign comment of "we can't hear you" as if it were heckling, and shot off the snappy comeback, "This is as loud as I ge
t." Then just as I was warming to the experience--I'll admit hearing a few laughs in all the right places was kind of gratifying--the southern half of my body decided to secede from the Union. My right leg began to shake, violently and uncontrollably. I sent an army of neural transmissions to quell the rebellion, but these forces were repelled. With no podium to take cover behind, I had no choice but to loop the offending shin around the sturdier left, like a vine clinging to a pole for support. This tactic was not completely effective.

What can I say--I'm no Gary Shteyngart. Maybe it's that he takes acting classes, or that anyone would be cocky after making the New Yorker's 20 Under 40 list, or maybe it's just because he hangs out in close proximity to James Franco. Whatever the reason, Shteyngart, who was in Chicago recently for a reading from his new book, Super Sad True Love Story , completely blows the whole writer-as-introverted-troll image.

"I'm so glad to give hope to Russian Jewish nerds everywhere," he cracked upon greeting a standing room audience that had "fire code violation" written all over it. Small venues are charming that way--70 people packed shoulder to shoulder in an indie bookstore can feel like a U2 concert in Soldier Field.

After finishing his warm-up comic act, Shteyngart launched into an excerpt from Super Sad, which is set in a dystopian near-future post-literate America. The kind of place where nobody reads books, turning 40 is a major no-no and there are only two TV stations left--Fox Liberty Prime and Fox Liberty Ultra. In other words, not that far a reach from today.

Shtyengart, who was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg, which he calls St. Leninsburg) but moved to the States as a boy, employed a heavy Russian accent he actually shed years ago to heighten his portrayal of various characters, themselves Russian immigrants. Asked later about his relationship to his Russian heritage, Shtyengart noted, "Remember the Evil Empire? Red Dawn?" It was tough to grow up Russian in the U.S. in the 1980s where, in Hebrew school, he was better off pretending to be German. That's right, better his fellow Jews think him German than Russian. Packed off to Ohio's Oberlin College, "It was cool to be an immigrant, I had to get the accent back. It's been an interesting journey from hating who you are to trying to be more of who you are."

He has, through satires that include "Absurdistan," taken his share of shots at his former homeland, for which he is apparently not particularly popular. ("I'm going [to Russia] in a couple of weeks. It's BYOP, bring your own pogrom.") Destroying the Soviet Union, even if only in his imagination, provided a certain satisfaction, whereas in Super Sad, taking down the U.S. "hit closer to home," requiring a number of drafts, partially because he was challenged to dig for greater emotion. Mentor Chang Rae Lee posed this question, "Can you do the blood and guts of the immigrant experience?"

In Super Sad, Shteyngart's main characters, Lenny and Eunice, Russian and Korean respectively, are unmoored in a culture that's becoming untethered itself. "I want to entertain, I want people to laugh. For me a book has to be funny," he said (as opposed to the majority of literary fiction, or what's been "ghettoized" as literary fiction, which has to be serious). "But I wanted this book to have depth, so I focused on a love story set against a backdrop of a society falling apart."

And what signals a society falling apart? To Shteyngart, an emphasis on youth, for starters. He points to friends and acquaintances, 65-70 years old, all trying to turn back the clock. "I admire them," he said. "I don't want to die either, but as an Ashkenazi pessimist, I know the end is near."

But primarily Shteyngart seems concerned with technology, and how that's revolutionized our culture, particularly when it comes to reading. He points to his students at Columbia, with their OMGs and LOLs, and the way young people, spurred by email and text communication, have "filleted and dismantled" the English language. While he's prepared to go with that flow--he's not the sort to dig in his heels and demand a return to the language of Shakespeare, or Chekhov--something is lost when we can only describe the weather as "nice" or "cloudy." "The other day I heard a woman use the word 'blustery.' No one says blustery anymore. I miss language deployed like that."

Though he appreciates that 25 percent of Super Sad's sales have been electronic--"People have given me their Kindles and iPads to sign"--he seemed more proud that the paperback edition of Absurdistan became an "accessory book," something guys carried around on the train to attract women. "It says a lot about who we are--the books on our shelves," he said.

But these days, people seem more intrigued by writing than reading. Not that he wants to hog the authorial field to himself, but the "cult of self-expression"--ie, blogging--has given rise to people who seem solely interested in what they have to say as opposed to "retreating inside the consciousness of someone else." (And no, I wasn't offended, because I know he wasn't talking about me--I read plenty.) This has him contemplating a possible foray into writing for television, pointing to shows like "Mad Men," "The Sopranos" and "The Wire," which he likened to "novels come to life"--richly written but a more passive experience. People seem more willing to let this programming wash over them, as opposed to the more active engagement required by reading. "We're bombarded by textual information all day long--do you want to come home and sit down with a book?"

That's the world as envisioned by Super Sad True Love Story. A vision Shteyngart--despite his threat to go Hollywood--hopes remains in the realm of satire. "There's better and better books being written," he said. "I want people to be around to read them."


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