Inside a faux pas, an open door to a freewheeling discussion can be found. Or, at least it can when the faux pas is the starting point to a conversation with Gary Shteyngart.
Gary who? Shteyngart. For people who cast curious eyes at fiction bestseller lists, or at least the pages of The New Yorker, the name may be familiar enough to ignite a slight chuckle. But for those not in on the joke, or even those who are, how about a brief literary précis?
Shteyngart, who immigrated to the United States from Russia when he was a wee lad, burst onto the literary scene in 2002 with The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, a kooky, lyrically written fictional recounting of a Russian immigrant who dreams of capitalism and a girlfriend. Hilarity spills all over the page. This debut was followed, in 2006, by Absurdistan, a novel about 325-pound Misha Vainberg — aka Snack Daddy — who wants to live with his sexy Latina girlfriend in the Bronx. Standing in his way? He can’t get a U.S. visa. The reason? His Russian father, a gangster extraordinaire, murdered an Oklahoma businessman. Desperate to see his hip-hop loving honey, Misha sneaks into the country of Absurdistan hoping to score the right documents. But a civil war begins, and Comrade Vainberg contends with bombs that seek to make shrapnel of his love life and an international media that could care less about death and destruction in some tiny nation near the Caspian Sea. Satire, oil wells and body parts splatter the pages.
Much like the detonations that flatten the country, Absurdistan itself — with its blend of politically incorrect humor, tightly plotted story lines, non-stop satirical flourishes — blew critics minds. It was named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, Time, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times, and nearly a dozen other publications. So, when Shteyngnart took some time out for a chat during his paperback tour, the stage seemed cleared for an un-P.C. good time. But all didn’t go as planned. A bit of misinformation had to be stepped over and around first, before the talk moved on to such happy fare as Haliburton, Hasidism, and imperialism.
One of the plot points in Absurdistan is that Misha can’t come back into the United States. You came from Leningrad (now Petersburg) and you weren’t allowed to go back. Isn’t that true?
No, that’s Wikipedia speaking there, ripping off of some interview I gave. I went to Oberlin College in Ohio, and I wanted to go to Moscow to study — this was ’92, something like that — and my mother said, “There’s no way in hell I’m going to pay for you to go back there.” There was a lot of violence there. So that’s Wikipedia’s “I wasn’t allowed to return.” Yeah. By his mother. [Laughs.]
What do you do when you see something on Wikipedia about yourself that isn’t true?
I’m like, whatever. It’s the Internet. I would guess that a fifth of everything out there is wrong. Anyway, it’s always fiction that’s more truthful than the truth.
Well, so much of this book, it actually happened. I went to go visit these countries — Azerbaijan, Georgia — and I spent a lot of time just hanging out, absorbing everything. When I came back, before 9/11 actually, I had over 200 pages of notes, and the notes were better than any novel I could write. So I just started using a lot of them and created my own country — Absurdistan — with the oil wells in a country like Azerbaijan, the Christianity in a country like Georgia. But so much of it is based on the kind of things that happened to me and the kind of stuff that actually goes on. Fiction gets a bad rap these days. A lot of people are reading less fiction. I think in this country, especially after 9/11, people became scared shitless, they just needed to know what the hell was going on in the world in a very unadulterated way— just the truth and nothing but the truth. But I think, in some ways, fiction gives you an even better look because it gives you an emotional context.
There’s a part in the book where Misha contacts his analyst and says, “I’m in Absurdistan,” and the analyst replies, “Where’s that?”
It’s really funny talking to Americans about that part of the world— they have no idea where the hell everything is. Now Americans know where Afghanistan is and Iraq is, but it seems like we only know about a country after we do something there. And we haven’t done anything yet in that part of the world, so it doesn’t float on people’s conscience so much. Although Azerbaijan and a lot of these countries have huge investments by the oil majors. Haliburton is something you encounter everywhere you look. Good old Haliburton. Haliburton made it into the headlines before I started writing this, and already I could just sense the kind of awfulness and corruption in what was going on [in Azerbaijan]. There were these hookers running around saying, “Galiburton, Galiburton” in this hotel that served a lot of foreigners. I figured the guys were big tippers or something.
When the book came out, a lot of people were like, “Oh, my God, this is such an exaggeration of how the world is.” But in some ways this is an understatement. And that’s what’s always been amazing to me— America is such a large country. It’s like many countries put together, in a sense. So for some Americans, there’s a lack of understanding of how the rest of the world functions, the degree to which we’re complicit in world events So that was one of the things I wanted to do in Absurdistan— create a character who claims to be this Western guy, this multicultural studies major, but [who], in essence, is as alienated as everyone else. And corrupt.
What were the circumstances around your arrival here?
Well, my parents were Russian Jews. They just wanted a nice job, and there was a chance and they took it. It was one of those things where you either get it or
you don’t, and if you don’t, then you’re screwed. It was quite a chance they took, but I’m guessing they had a feeling that everything was going to be all right. We came out [in 1979] and moved to Rome for a little bit and then the United States. But they didn’t even tell me where we were going until we landed here.
I was a huge fan of the Soviet Union— I wanted to be a Red Pioneer, I wanted to join the Communist party. I wrote my very first book when I was 5 years old, about Lenin and his magical goose invading Finland. I was just in love with the system. But what the hell did I know?
So what the hell does a 7-year-old Russian Jewish kid think when all of a sudden he’s in Manhattan?
I wish we were in Manhattan. No, we were in the worst part of Queens — the Boonies — and it was horrific. Horrible. Concerned rabbis would kick my ass because one of us Russian kids would eat pork salami in the bathroom. And there were these kids who were just these awful— I don’t want to say suburban, but narrow-minded, ridiculous, with the Mercedes— oh, I’m sorry, it wasn’t Mercedes. It was Cadillac. They were Jews after all. It was just horrifying.
And one of the first satires I wrote was the Gemorrah— it was a take on the Torah. I didn’t have friends, I didn’t speak English well. And being Russian was the worst thing you could be at the time— all those movies: Red This, Red That— It really sucked. And then I went to [Bedford] Stuyvesant [High School, a large, diverse, highly academic school in lower Manhattan] and that was such a relief. I fell into this crowd of kids who weren’t as bright as others at Stuyvesant, and they were just hanging around, getting high at the park. It was a really great. And then I went to Oberlin: more of the same.
Yeah, and Oberlin, it was a sweet school, but I don’t remember what I learned there. It was more like a finishing school for me, because it was such a shock, being in this very over-privileged school. I think I only had one shirt, and that was a school where having one shirt was not good, not good at all. So, a lot of this stuff went into my work, this sense of being constantly discombobulated, never knowing.
One of the other things which is so current in the book is that Misha is trying to get into this country, and here we have so many real people who are trying to do the same.
I go back to Russia almost every year, but on one of my first visits, in the late-90s, when Yeltsin was still in power, I was just shocked by the country. Russia was at the lowest point in its economy. There is still a lot of poverty going on, but there has been a slight change now that there is oil money sloshing around, but a lot of people are still incredibly poor. And there was a very arcane procedure that if you were staying in a hotel, they put all these stamps in your visa, otherwise you have to pay a huge fine upon leaving the country. I was staying on a kind of fake visa, in the sense that I wasn’t staying in a hotel. So I had this unbelievable feeling that I was going to be there forever, for the rest of my life. I remember being right next to this gigantic Lenin statue and couldn’t breathe and had to hold on for support. My friends were saying, “What the hell are you so upset about? You’ll get out. You’re an American. You can go where you want.”
Have you encountered a lot of anti-Semitism in the Untied States?
Please. In New York? Everyone’s Jewish.
I mean other places that you’ve been to.
Not really, but maybe I’m comparing it to Russia. It’s just not a part of my life.
In the book, there’s a lot about how Jews— Hasidic Jews — can’t be trusted. When you’re writing those things, does it make you nervous?
No, I don’t care. I mean, my take on religion is a very skeptical one, generally, and Judaism is the only religion I know. It all stems back to this kind of hypocrisy that I felt in Hebrew school. There are all these laws that I had to follow, but in the end, people didn’t behave well to one another. They treated each other like shit. At first, I really wanted to believe that maybe Judaism could be my new communism, this thing I would believe in. And, then, as I grew older, living in the community I did, I don’t think I ever saw an Asian, a Hispanic, or a Black person. It was insane. At the time, I was saying, “Oh, life is great, because we were learning about being Jews.” But in some cases, that was the worst experience I had.
One motif [I write about] is the way that people use religion for political ends, which I was writing before the Bush Administration went hog wild, trying to demolish the separation between church and state. You know, former Communist elites tried to use religion and nationalism to cement their power. So I write about Misha, who basically does not leave his sofa, but he suffers the consequences. That really is a great explanation of the Russian soul: The urge to do well and the inability to get off his ass.
And I was a little fat when I was a kid. During my bar mitzvah, my grandma fed me like seven hamburgers a day. Her whole life was just feeding me. She grew up in [a poor part of Russia], so having access to unlimited American foodstuffs inspired her, and I just became huge. So in the back of my mind, I guess there is just a fat me, sitting there. But Misha’s girth makes him a consumer. It consumes him. So I wanted all that stuff in the book. Not just American consumers, but also Russian and Third World elite consumers, because when I go back to Russia — a land tethered to culture in a way, where there was this lack of freedom which still exists today — you see this endless consumerism.
Where does it come from, this hyper-consumerism?
We are, in some ways, the origin. And it’s spread to China, India.
When you say “we,” you mean the United States?
Yeah, absolutely. We’re the ones that gave the world the idea that, through buying things and making one’s hair bigger, one can accomplish big things. It’s sad to see.