Saturday, October 16, 2010

Super Sad Untrue Story

Ask James Frey what happens when a non-fiction writer sneaks a little fiction into his true-life story. Nothing short of the Wrath of Oprah shall descend upon ye. But what about when a novelist borrows from fiction and passes it off as real experience?

A couple of weeks ago, author Gary Shteyngart paid a visit to my local indie bookstore, the Book Cellar, to read from his latest novel,
Super Sad True Love Story, that, I'll admit, I had no intention of purchasing. Partly because my bookshelves are overcrowded, partly because I'm on a budget, and mostly because I'm annoyed by everyone on the New Yorker's 20 under 40 list. Dude's already got enough going for him, I figured. He didn't need my 26 bucks to further feed his ego.

But then he was so damned charming. During the Q&A portion of his appearance, he regaled us with the sort of anecdotes that English majors dream about, when we're not picturing ourselves as Jane Austen heroines.

He talked about his students at Columbia, with their OMGs and LOLs, and the way they're slowly dismantling the English language. (This is catnip to people over the age of 30 who attempt to work words like "aspersion" into their conversation.) He contrasted this with an elderly woman he ran into on the street, and the way she described the weather as "blustery." Who uses words like that anymore, besides Chicago's meteorologists, who constantly cast about for ways to distinguish one windy day from another? I couldn't get blustery out of my head for days.

I was utterly smitten by Shteyngart. You know what comes next. I bought the book.

Super Sad is a quick read, not because it's simple but because it's such a wickedly funny and entertaining satire, set in the not-too-distant future America. As science-fiction goes, it's not much of a reach to picture a world where people rely on their "apparat" (imagine a 20th generation iPhone) for pretty much everything in life, including downloading other people's credit ratings and personality and "fuckability" scores.

I was reading along at a pretty good clip when page 304 brought me to a halt. Shteyngart's lead character, Lenny Abramov, narrates: "A month ago, mid-October, a gust of autumnal wind kicked its way down Grand Street. A co-op woman, old, tired, Jewish, fake drops of jade spread across the little sacks of her bosom, looked up at the pending wind and said one word: 'Blustery.' Just one word, a word meaning no more than 'a period of time characterized by strong winds,' but it caught me unaware, it reminded me of how language was once used, its precision and simplicity, its capacity for recall. Not cold, not chilled, blustery."

Wait. A. Minute.

These were, if not the exact words Shteyngart had used in the Q&A, then a very close approximation. Particularly the whole precision part. I was taken aback.

It's common for novelists to borrow bits of their own lives and work them into their fictions, "write what you know" being a common mantra in any creative writing class. And maybe that's what happened here. Shteyngart really did run into some old Jewish lady on the street and she really did say "blustery." Maybe he's loved this little random exchange for years and finally found the perfect way to insert it into one of his books, with some added imagined details. I don't begrudge him that.

But. During the Q&A, I could swear Shteyngart said this interaction had taken place recently, though perhaps I'm misremembering--we non-fiction writers tend to do that. Minimally he made it seem as though this anecdote were being recalled on the spot, his particular response to a particular question, when clearly it was already a well-formulated, previously thought-out tale. At best he's like every other celebrity talk show guest, who appears to be having a spontaneous conversation with the host, but in reality is just trotting out material agreed upon with the show's producer. I suppose this is what happens on any press tour--be it to promote a book or a movie--you prepare your schtick in advance. You can't be fresh every night. And no one would be the wiser, assuming they never get to page 304.

At worst, he never heard a woman say "blustery." Lenny did. Shteyngart was so enamored with the lovely scene he created, he decided to make it part of his own experience, passing off something as real that never happened outside his own imagination.

Whatever the scenario, the result is the same: I feel lied to. What once seem genuine and off the cuff now strikes me as practiced and studied. Was anything he said representative of Gary Shteyngart, or merely "Gary Shteyngart," too charming to be true?


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