Gary Shteyngart's novels are both satirical and prescient. And while his books deal with individual experience, his characters offer broader, incisive commentary on the grim nature of the human condition and global society's ever-shifting tectonics.
Born in Leningrad, in 1972, Shteyngart was brought to America at the age of 7 and grew up in an austere Russian household. His first two novels incorporate the tension of his own dueling cultural identities. The Russian Debutante's Handbook (2003) and Absurdistan (2006) -- named one of the year's 10 best books by The New York Times Book Review -- thrum with the angst of second-generation immigrants seeking to establish themselves under the weight of crippling, often parentally imposed, expectations.
This subject takes a back seat in his third novel, last year's Super Sad True Love Story (Random House), whose focus is a seemingly improbable relationship that develops amid a chillingly familiar social and political landscape. In the face of economic and political collapse, a hopelessly backward-looking man in his late 30s teaches an initially insensitive twenty-something female that the most redemptive kind of hope is not found in popularity or politics, but in love. The book, along with his previous work, earned Shteyngart a spot in The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list of literary stars.
Shteyngart reads at City Of Asylum on Tue., May 10. City Paper interviewed him via email at his home in New York City.
Since The Russian Debutante's Handbook, you've moved from protagonists in their late teens/early twenties to the late-thirties Lenny Abramov of Super Sad True Love Story. How much do you identify with your main characters?
I like to write about people my age. As I grow older and older I encounter a whole new set of fears and anxieties to add to my list of golden oldies. You should see my cholesterol levels. Vladimir [from Debutante] reminds me of my insecure college years in your neighbor Ohio (that's when I started writing the book); Misha [Absurdistan] is too large and in charge to be autobiographical; and this new nebbish of mine, Lenny, has a very different bald spot from the one I have.
In an interview with The New York Times, you mention the influence of writers like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. In light of your more recent exploration of American-based dystopia, do you look to any other influences?
Well, I've always been a huge fan of dystopia. I grew up in the Soviet Union and went to Hebrew school in Queens. Enough said. I loved 1984 and Brave New World as a kid. I think 1984 sticks out in my mind because it's a love story set against a horrifying society. Julia and Winston love each other and that's what I remember so well about that book. It was an inspiration when I started writing Super Sad True Love Story.
You're a writer who also teaches. Has your interaction with students and aspiring writers influenced you?
It's exciting to see a new generation of writers continuing this strange craft of ours. Being a writer is a lonely affair even when you have the world's greatest dachshund at your side. Meeting students reminds me that there's life outside of my weiner dog.
American writing has been accused of too much introspection. How do you personally avoid the trap of excessive introspection?
I'm a travel writer. Every year I am sent out by Travel + Leisure across the globe, where I proceed to eat myself silly and bask in the local customs. I go to Brooklyn only six, seven times a year.
What is your view of the novelist's role in contemporary culture?
Pretty marginalized, but still kicking and screaming. I know there are still a few readers left on the coasts and in places like Chicago, Austin and Pittsburgh. My goal is to meet every one of them.
You'll read here at City of Asylum, which houses and supports poets and writers who have been censored or persecuted in their home countries. How has your writing been received in Russia?
I've had wonderful reviews in Russia along the lines of "Balding Traitor Betrays Motherland." It's about what I expected.
What are you working on now?
A memoir. I'm almost 39. It's about time.
CITY OF ASYLUM PITTSBURGH hosts GARY SHTEYNGART 7 p.m. Tue., May 10. Moderated by Eric Shiner. 318 Sampsonia Way (outdoors, under a tent), North Side. Free. Reservations at 412-321-2190 or firstname.lastname@example.org