Gary Shteyngart: ‘I don’t know how to describe it other than Chekhov’s The Big Chill’

The US author on his new Covid novel, and where he’ll flee to when Trump returns

Gary Shteyngart: ‘People are telling me they’ve been reading the book with great pleasure, because they’re nostalgic for 2020. Because 2021 is depressing them even more.’ Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images

Gary Shteyngart: ‘People are telling me they’ve been reading the book with great pleasure, because they’re nostalgic for 2020. Because 2021 is depressing them even more.’ Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images

 

“I do still get nervous, and I wish I didn’t. You know, it’s time just to say, as they say in the Mob, ‘This is the life I’ve chosen.’”

Gary Shteyngart is jumping about on my screen due to a shaky Zoom connection – his end or mine, we can’t tell – as he answers my question about whether a seasoned author still gets nervous when a new book is out.

As he continues – “And I was very unsure about this book. I had no idea if it was good or bad” – I realise the jerkiness is only partly because of wifi problems. It’s also part of him – he’s animated, he gesticulates, embodying the buzzy style that made his earlier novels so funny and so popular. And he laughs a lot.

He has good reason to be lively. His new novel, Our Country Friends, was his best received in many years when it was released a few months ago in the US; now it’s out here. Our Country Friends is a fine example of the growing genre of Covid fiction; despite its chunky size (twice as long as Roddy Doyle’s, Sarah Hall’s or Sarah Moss’s contributions), it was written quickly. Indeed, it was written quickly because of Covid.

I remember pitching it to my editor. I said: ‘I dropped that novel I was writing and I have this book – I don’t know how to describe it other than Chekhov’s The Big Chill’

“It’s interesting how much the destruction of a social life can do to an author’s productivity,” he says. “There wasn’t anyone to drink with, you know? I’ve never been more productive.” When Covid descended, Shteyngart adds, he was working on another novel – “a sort of academic satire” – which suddenly felt dead on the page.

The book he was working on “seemed like a very light dystopia compared to the dystopia we were facing. You had the pandemic, but also we had a president who was telling us to drink bleach. So [we had] not just this horrible thing happening that’s threatening our lives, but this country is being run by a buffoon who knows nothing about medical science and is completely corrupt.”

Less frantic

And yet what came out of the pandemic for Shteyngart was not a satire that was even angrier than before, but a book less frantic and less bluntly satirical than any of his others. Even the title, Our Country Friends, is more subdued than the likes of Super Sad True Love Story or Absurdistan. It has, I suggest, a Chekhovian solidity and simplicity to it, aptly enough for a novel steeped in the influence of the Russian master.

Shteyngart nods, jerkily. “I think the idea was as close to Chekhovian as I get with any of my books. There’s a bunch of Chekhov stories all set in the countryside that I love. They’re all about these old friends [who] get together and bemoan the state of their lives. I remember pitching [this book] to my editor. I said: ‘I dropped that novel I was writing and I have this book – I don’t know how to describe it other than Chekhov’s The Big Chill.’”

That sounds about right. Our Country Friends is about a group of friends who shelter from the Covid pandemic at the country home of Sasha Senderovsky, a Russian-born, US-based novelist who bears “certain similarities” to Shteyngart. (“Thankfully, I’m a little bit more solvent than he is,” the author points out.)

I talk with my wife all the time about where we’re gonna flee in 2024 when Trump takes over again. Vancouver, Toronto, Dublin or London are the prime contenders. 

The characters who stay at Senderovsky’s home are certainly colourful, including Karen Cho, who has developed a dating app with a difference called Tröö Emotions; Dee Cameron, a young essayist; Vinod Mehta, a former professor who was put off writing after Senderovsky dishonestly told him his novel was no good; and The Actor, whose name we don’t know until the very end but who represents the sort of glamour and fame that seems forever a screen away.

Yet despite the comic elements and zingy lines in the book, at heart it feels like a more serious prospect than we’ve had from Shteyngart before. Covid and being in lockdown, he says, invests everything with “a far greater importance”. His own life in isolation “was sort of like a 19th-century novel” – it was a big event just when friends were coming over. And the limitation of characters being stuck together in one place of course enables in the novel conflicts, liaisons, farcical moments – but also moments of depth. “What’s interesting is the characters, now that they’re stuck in these locations, are doing their own form of travel in their own minds.”

Poking fun

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty of the old Shteyngart satire in there. As well as poking fun at himself in the shape of Senderovsky, the arts and literary worlds are dealt a few blows, along with social media and others. There’s also reference to what Philip Roth called the “American berserk” – the notion that the US among developed nations is uniquely unstable and prone to conspiracy and chaos. Which seems like a good point to ask: Gary, what the hell is going on in America?

“I don’t know. But I talk with my wife all the time about where we’re gonna flee in 2024 when Trump takes over again. Vancouver, Toronto, Dublin or London are the prime contenders. Well, we’d have to apply for asylum in Ireland; that would be fun, you know, because that would be the second time I’m seeking asylum.”

I write very critically about Putin, so I think they’d like to mess with me. The thing about Russia is that if you’re an intellectual you go to another place

Dublin would perhaps not be such a strange home for him. He’s been here only once (he hung out with Paul Murray), but “when I went to Dublin, people were talking about the Dublin that’s now a mini financial hub, and how it used to be a fun, more down-at-heel sort of place. And that’s how I feel about New York, I’m bored to tears with the New York of the 21st century, the post-Bloomberg New York.”

The previous asylum application Shteyngart made was when his family came from Russia to America when he was seven years old. Immigration, as a result, features heavily in his fiction and most of the characters in Our Country Friends are first- or second-generation immigrants. Does Shteyngart ever return to Russia?

“I don’t think I can! The last time I tried to go back, I was stopped at the airport and they said something about my visa not being correct or something like that. I write very critically about Putin, so I think they’d like to mess with me. The thing about Russia is that you leave if you’re an intellectual; if you have any kind of prospects, you go to another place.”

‘Collapsed’

He warms to his theme. “It really is a country without a future. I had the misfortune – or, from the point of view of a storyteller, the great luck – of [living] in these two superpowers, one of which collapsed in the 20th century and the other is collapsing in the 21st century.” So it’s your fault, then. “Yeah, when I go to China, they’re like: Please don’t come here, we were just getting started!”

America, he thinks, is “like Poland on the Hudson at this point. I think the model is the Viktor Orbán law-and-order party [In Hungary], that kind of model where the semblance of democracy is there, but the system is so corrupted from within, and so maintained by a small group of rural voters, that there really is very little hope.”

This is a gloomy turn to take for a conversation with a writer known for his antic comedy, even if he’s still jumping about on my screen. Perhaps the pandemic has instilled even in our funny writers – to borrow another eastern European politician – a sort of Enver Hoxha approach: “The bad news, comrades, is that next year will be worse than this year. The good news is that it will be better than the year after.”

“It’s funny,” says Shteyngart. “People are telling me they’ve been reading the book with great pleasure, because they’re nostalgic for 2020. Because 2021 is depressing them even more. I thought it was surreal that people were missing those sweet days.” Then again, he adds, there were some unexpected advantages, quite apart from being inspired to write a well-received novel. “I spent more time with my family than I had in ages.” He laughs. “And it was kind of nice. I was, oh, I really like my family.”

Real life sure beats social media, which is “a complete waste of time”, says Shteyngart. As a thoroughly modern author, he has almost 600,000 followers across his various accounts. But “can you imagine Chekhov doing this?” he asks of the “funny pictures” he posts. “Very destructive, for democracy, for everything. It’s just horrible.” He pauses. “But follow me on Twitter, please. And Instagram.”

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