The stats: Misha Vainberg, son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia, is a deeply secular, thirty-year-old Jew, weighing in at 325 pounds, bearing a degree from Accidental College ("a venerable midwestern institution for young New York, Chicago, and San Francisco aristocrats where the virtues of democracy are often debated at teatime"), and pining for Rouenna, his abandoned Latina lover in the Bronx.
The problem: While Misha was back visiting Russia, his father murdered a prominent Oklahoma businessman. Ever since, U.S. State Department officials won't let Misha back in the country.
Welcome to the second novel by Gary Shteyngart.
When Michiko Kakutani calls your debut "as attuned to the exhilarating possibilities of the language as Martin Amis, as deadpan and funny as the young Evelyn Waugh," what do you do for an encore? If you're this particular author, you follow The Russian Debutante's Handbook with a gut-busting satire on contemporary capitalism, national identity, love, and war.
As the Los Angeles Times declared, Absurdistan is "a long, funny, heartbreaking lament for home, whatever that means, and wherever that might be."
Dave: Have you been invited to hunt with Dick Cheney since the new book came out?
Gary Shteyngart: We had a beautiful relationship to begin with, and I think Absurdistan cemented it. Like Cheney, I also keep my t.v. tuned to Fox wherever I go. We're blood brothers.
Dave: In The Russian Debutante's Handbook, one of your characters says, "Cruelty, anger, vindictiveness, humiliation. These are the four cornerstones of Soviet society." What then, I wondered, are the four cornerstones of American society?
Shteyngart: They're pretty much the same now.
Growing up, I always thought Russia would become more like America— more democracy, some kind of functioning market system—but I think America is becoming more like Russia. That's the sense I got when I was writing Absurdistan. Look, you have a country that spies on its own citizens—it's straight out of Brezhnev.
Cheney was just in Kazakhstan, one of the most corrupt of these oil plutocracies, and he was saying to the leaders there, "I really admire the economic and political progress you've been making here. Heck of a job!" I think that's the kind of regime the Cheneys of the world want to see for us. They don't want to see a functioning opposition. In fact, there isn't any functioning opposition, if you look at the Democratic Party. They want everything to be the way it is in Kazakhstan, under the influence of oil companies.
When I was writing Absurdistan, I thought of the South Caspian as a very distinct region in the world, but I think Absurdistan is more a way of life now. It's how we live, where we're headed.
Dave: In the literature of immigration, the protagonist has typically immigrated prior to the start of the story or is struggling to relocate during the course of it. But Misha has had a taste of the US. When we meet him, he's already spent a decade in America. Now he can't get back. It's as if the United States is the party Misha can't get into.
Shteyngart: It's the one velvet rope he can't cross, despite all his money. There was a great book, I can't remember the name, but it used that analogy. It talked about the bouncers at Immigration, the bouncers at Kennedy Airport, and that's what it's like for Misha. He can buy whatever he wants, but he can't cross that final line.
Interesting, after I wrote this book... There is a country called Belarus that doesn't have any oil; hence the United States can feel fine about denigrating that country and imposing visa moratoriums. Now their leadership can't come into the United States and can't enter the European Union. They're trapped like Misha in their own country. I thought that was a strange coincidence.
But Misha's idea of America... He's basically a consumer. He consumes everything in sight: sturgeon, women, political ideas. He blabs on about multiculturalism, but all that means to him is that he gets to screw some hot Dominican chick. His little red book is not Mao's little red book, it's the Zagat survey to New York, which he quotes ad nauseam. He uses it to make love poetry.
Dave: As an aphrodisiac.
Shteyngart: It's the first use of the Zagat guide as a love poem. I think we've crossed that line.
Dave: He starts referring to himself as Belgian before he sets foot in the country. "Being a Belgian..." he begins a conversation.
It's understood these days that corporations run the world, but the corresponding reality is that national identity is becoming as fluid as employment. If you get a better offer, you leave. You go to another country.
Shteyngart: It's funny how countries try to brand themselves in the airport. Welcome to Belgium. Come for the democracy. Stay for the chocolate. Or, Belgium: It's not just about pedophilia anymore.
National identity means so little in some places. I'm here in Washington D.C., looking out the window at a street that could very well be in Brussels or Shanghai. It's all the same crap anymore. And Belgium is the most innocuous sounding of countries. It doesn't have the fervor or America or Russia, gigantic empires or collapsing empires—it's just Belgium.
Dave: How old were you when your family came to the United States?
Shteyngart: About seven.
Dave: And how long was it before you learned English?
Shteyngart: When I conclusively learned it, I was about eleven. It took a long time because in our house we spoke only Russian. There was no television. We only read Russian books. Outside there was The A-Team and Knight Rider, and you crossed the threshold and it was only Lady with Lapdog.
Dave: Can you recall a time in your life or a particular experience when you started to feel like an American?
Shteyngart: Never. This book tour, it's especially true. I think it was in Ohio, a woman was driving me around, praising the President, and she was worried about how her son would start smoking marijuana. I thought, Where am I? There's such a strange dislocation, which I feel much less when I'm in Portland or Seattle, or someplace like that.
I really don't think of myself as an American. More so, I think of myself as a citizen of New York, which is the one place in the country where I feel loved and coddled and safe. I'm walking down the street, and people don't look at me like I'm some kind of freak.
Dave: In Absurdistan, Misha notes that Brookline, Massachusetts, is the most Jew-tolerant place on earth? Have you been to Boston since the book was published?
Shteyngart: The biggest audience, I think, came out in Brookshtein, a hundred fifty people or something. They were not pissed off at me. Well, one guy was kind of pissed off—he wasn't happy with Russian Jews in general, but for the most part I haven't been getting a lot of angry responses, which surprised me. So they're not just Jew-tolerant in Brookline, but Shteyngart-tolerant.
Dave: Where does Misha's rapping come from? More evidence of his multiculturalism?
Shteyngart: "My name is Vainberg / I like ho's..."
Where does it come from? I went to Accidental College, also known as the Oberlin Institute for Special People, and we were all pretty much white there, but we would bust out rapping at the drop of a dime. Or the drop of a dime bag, if you will. It felt like our national patrimony. This was '91. We're talking about Ice Cube. He was doing malt liquor commercials, so we would drink the malt liquor.
Looking back, it was all very sad and pathetic, but there was some kind of freedom there, too. You have to remember, I grew up in a highly conservative, Jewish family, so to sit with a six-foot bong and drink malt liquor and listen to the Cube, that was my emancipation. I felt alive.
You know, wherever I go in the world, there's rap. I was recently in Brazil. Everyone was rapping in Brazil. Another time, I was hanging out in Moscow in some club, and this oily gangster was trying to serenade his girlfriend. He was singing Biggie:
Damn you look fine
You just shine
I like that waistline
Let me hit that from behind
Which wall you wanna climb
My style's genuine
Girl I love you long time
I think it's the lingua franca of this strange, commercialized world we live in. It's less and less authentic by the day, and I think the way Misha employs it is incredibly inauthentic. Although he's got some pain. He's got some issues.
Dave: Of all those issues, he's quite content with his weight.
Shteyngart: His girlfriend says at one point, "Fat is the new look for guys. No limits." And I think it's true. Look at Biggie's success with women. But also, I know a lot of of fatties who are getting it more than I ever did with women. They're doing fine.
It's just the way we're accustomed to think now. Sixty-five percent of our population is overweight. After a while, the standards of what is attractive and unattractive are going to shift somewhat. Look at Tony Soprano.
I see Misha's weight being exactly concurrent with his money. I always quote the statistics: 325 pounds, son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia. Those two numbers go together.
Dave: Very few writers claim to enjoy the process of writing. They'll say that it's fulfilling but rarely pleasant. Was that the case with Absurdistan? If nothing else, you got to type the words "Golly Burton" again and again.
Shteyngart: When you're typing "Golly Burton," it's a great pleasure.
I don't know if everyone's going to get the humor of this book, but I cracked myself up a lot when writing it, and that's important. Like my characters, I'm an anxious, nervous man. I'm always thinking, especially because Russian Arriviste's Hand Job did so okay, I'm really going to get screwed on this book. Sophomore slump, here we come. I wrote it very frightened. Also thinking, This guy is a gastropod, and people are used to cuter, J.D. Salinger-esque type characters. But the more I thought about that, the more I grotesque he became. I guess I really have it in for my audience.
So it was both a pleasure and very frightening. When the first draft was finished and I decided to go back and do a very big revision, I was looking through it, and only then was I thinking, You know, a lot of this stuff works. A lot of the fear went away, and I was able to enjoy the editing process, which is very rare.
Dave: When you interviewed Sam Lipsyte for Loggernaut, you cited a particularly outrageous line in Homeland and wondered what was going through his mind when he came up with it. You asked, "Do you stand in front of a mirror and practice these kinds of dialogue?"
What's the strangest thing you've ever done, the greatest length to which you've gone, to nail a line?
Shteyngart: I completely practice in front of a mirror.
Dave: You literally recite lines that way?
Shteyngart: Or in the shower. I let the dialogue roll. I try to subsume the character I'm writing about—the rapping, the accents.
What really surprises me is that there are some writers I admire, and I'm not going to mention who they are, but when I read their dialogue, I'm thinking, No, not at all. Nobody would say this, not in these words. And maybe the point can be made that verisimilitude isn't what matters in some of these lines, but for me this is very important. I'm quite obsessed with making sure that stuff people say is at least somewhat plausible, the way sentences are constructed, the way we're talking right now.
I practice a lot of stuff in front of mirrors. And what I do in terms of getting things down as well as I can is I travel. I travel nonstop. I can't sit for more than a little while in my apartment. And as I travel, I'm very cognizant about what goes on.
I have a kind of smarmy appearance. People always think, He's up to no good. He's corruptible. People try to get me involved in crazy schemes. I was in a restaurant in Queens, and this guy said to me, "I'm going to import geese from Tajikistan and sell them in Israel. You want a piece of that?" Um, alright.
Dave: On Slate, you wrote a piece about Montreal and Mordecai Richler.
Shteyngart: Love him.
Dave: I went to college in Montreal...
Shteyngart: That's where I should have gone. I was so fricking stupid. You're lucky. I dream to retire there, in the summer, anyway.
Dave: Was there a particular highlight from your visit? Schwartz's? Mount Royal?
Shteyngart: Highlight? I was drunk all the time. I don't remember anything. It's a miracle I got anything down.
I just love stumbling around there. And I don't speak French, which is great. It's the one city where I feel free in the sense that I don't have any attachment. But what do I know? It's a lot of fun.
Dave: What's your favorite city that you've never lived in?
Shteyngart: I always wanted to buy a beach house in Cambodia— I guess that's not a city—but it should be far enough from both the killing fields and Angelina Jolie, if that's possible.
In terms of cities, I was just in Rio, which I loved. And I guess Bangkok. A homie of mine has an apartment there, so I'm going to check that out. I like cities that are a little on the wild side. The problem with Bangkok recently is that they're cracking down on stuff. They're making it more like the street I'm looking out at now.
I might go to Vladivostok. I work for Travel and Leisure; I write a lot of articles for them. They always send me to wacky places. I think they want to send me to Vladivostok, which is on the Pacific coast, this wild east city in Russia. Shooting and gangs and stuff.
Portland I like. I was walking down the street there, and this nice guy who was at my reading said, "Hey, let me buy you a coffee." So we went out for a coffee. It was so sweet. Everyone's cooking Dungeness crab in their specially-made artisinal pots, drinking beautiful, local wines. It's cool.
Dave: How do you get any writing done when you're on these trips? You mentioned that you were drunk most of the time in Montreal.
Shteyngart: I'm taking drunken notes as I go. In the end, I'm left with a hundred napkins. Some of them are more legible and some are less, but I'm on the napkin plan. And then I go home and I transcribe.
And sometimes horrifying things happen. There's a scene in Absurdistan where a woman is trying to sell Misha her five-year-old daughter. That really happened to me.
Dave: A woman tried to sell you her daughter?
Shteyngart: Yes, in pretty much the same terms. I was in such shock, I didn't know what to do. I'm in a completely lawless country, so what am I going to do? Like anyone gives a damn about this five-year-old girl. So I cross the highway back to my horrific hotel, where a thousand roaches are nibbling at my ass. I take a couple of Ativans, the way Misha would. I was freaking out.
This woman, if the Soviet Union hadn't collapsed so spectacularly and with such finality, she could have been someone my mother had known. She wasn't from that part of the Soviet Union, but this was an educated, ethnically Russian woman. I was horrified. I was so sad, and anxious for this girl, for everything around me. All of a sudden it clicked into focus: This wasn't just a comedy, this wasn't satire. So I started writing it down, which is what writers do— you pick up the pen and try to get it as close as possible to the way it happened, remembering all the lines of dialogue. The girl in the book talks about the little fishy she was playing with, or something like that. That's what went into the book.
It's terrible. I'm writing about a tragic part of the world. How do you balance that out with the fact that you're writing a satire? A lot of critics probably have said and will say that this isn't right—what you're doing is wrong —but a lot of others will like what you're doing. If you don't offend someone, you've probably failed miserably.
Dave: Critics tend to be less receptive to humor in books than any other form of entertainment media, movies or television.
Shteyngart: Look, literature is dying in this country. It's not completely dead yet—the serious readers are incredibly serious and incredibly well read—but in terms of this being a mass form of entertainment, the stakes are getting lower and lower. You can see this in poetry, where the stakes are incredibly low. The sniping and the vitriol is greater per poem than in something like movies, where crap is produced on a daily basis and it just slides into our consciousness.
Also, a lot of people that do read consider books to be a very serious matter. They're supposed to be a repository of the collected thought of our civilization. Humor is more of an entertainment product, something you turn the t.v. on for or get from your mp3. A lot of people are suspicious. What are books these days? What is literature? Is it for enlightenment or entertainment? It used to be both seamlessly. People didn't think of it as one thing or another, but in today's world, especially with fiction taking such a beating and nonfiction drawing more attention, it becomes very difficult to be a satirist who doesn't have The Daily Show or something like that; it's difficult to try to just put this down on paper.
I'm trying to think of a work of fictional satire that was a gigantic hit in the last couple years, and I don't really see it.
Dave: What's the funniest thing you've read recently?
Shteyngart: Actually the stuff I've been reading lately hasn't been that funny. I read Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go— not a drop of humor there. The most amazing thing I read is a nonfiction book, Random Family by Nicole LeBlanc. That girl, she nailed it. She spent ten years living with this family, fighting off roaches and burglars and what-the-hell-not. Jesus Christ! It's quite an achievement.
But it's coming to me now, the funniest thing, and it's very obvious, actually: George Saunders's In Persuasion Nation. Those stories, to describe them, I think, is fruitless. But that man, he knows what's going on. And he lives in the saddest city in America, Syracuse.
Dave: Lots of time indoors to write.
Shteyngart: That's something I found in Rome: It was easier to write because I didn't know Italian. Nothing interfered with my thoughts about the book. I was in a sea of warm, Italian speech. I was able to focus entirely on what I was doing.
Dave: What interests do you have that people might not know about? Stuff that hasn't made it into the books.
Shteyngart: I'm in love with this animal called the capybara. He lives in Brazil. He's a 150-pound guinea pig, so adorable. When I went down there, I made sure to track down a bunch of capybaras, and I had a chance to frolic with them. They are amazing.
I love cities. I love urban planning. I was going to be an urban planner, I think, if this writing crap didn't work out. I'm so glad I can only brutalize words and not buildings because I might have been responsible for some truly bad urban planning. That was the thing I was looking into when I was younger because I love cities so much. I grew up in a suburb and it was the worst thing possible for me.
Dave: How did you wind up at Oberlin, then?
Shteyngart: I was in love with a girl who went there.
Shteyngart: And also, I did want to smoke a gigantic six-foot bong while listening to Ice Cube on an $18,000 speaker system.
Dave: The six-foot bong is actually available in most college towns.
Shteyngart: But at Oberlin it's the official emblem. Instead of carrying the saints down the street, we would carry this bong.
Dave: What are you working on now?
Shteyngart: I have a couple ideas. One involves a holy city called All Holy Albany-Rensselaer, set in the year 2040. I definitely want to play around with religion. I want to get the hell away from Russia. Two books are enough. I may have a Russian character, a Jerry Shteynfarbian-like guy. And I definitely want the setting to be New York state; I want to bring it home.
Surely comedic elements. Satire. But also, I want a slightly more contemplative book. Not every sentence is going to be an attempt to hit the ball. There are going to be some spaces; I'm going to let it breathe a little. The second book, I had a lot of fun writing it and I think it represents an advance from the first book, but I want to try something different. Otherwise, I'll wind up writing the same book over and over again. That's my worst nightmare.
Dave: Would you consider writing for t.v. or film?
Shteyngart: This is a tough question. The best novel I've read in a long time is The Sopranos on HBO. It's amazing. It's like Flaubert or something. You're introduced to the character of the pig-maker and the this and the that and the mayor.... You get an entire society. It's like a nineteenth century novel, except it's obviously a television series.
Nobody writes with that kind of scope anymore. You could say Eugenides and Franzen do something like that, but to me The Sopranos has been the most important cultural monument of the last decade. Would I write for them? They're closing up shop, but hell yes. Even though I know nothing about it; I don't even know how lines look on the script.
Dave: It all looks the same on a napkin.
Shteyngart: Especially when you're drunk. But there are so few Sopranos. It's one show.
I love watching stuff like The Daily Show. The Colbert Report is hilarious. But that's not exactly what I'm going for.
Literature, you know, it's communion with a book. It's a solitary experience that fewer and fewer people have time for anymore. It's too bad, because I think in some ways it's a very transgressive thing to do: to sit down and get carried off into something so different.
Gary Shteyngart visited Powell's City of Books on May 19, 2006, while much of the Powells.com staff was at Book Expo America in Washington D.C. Two weeks later, when I was back in Portland, Shteyngart spoke by phone, oddly enough, from a hotel room in D.C.