In the hilariously skewed world of Gary Shteyngart, reality and absurdity trot gleefully hand-in-hand. His debut novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, finds a Jewish/Soviet ne'er-do-well on a manic search for fortune and fame against the backdrops of New York City and the fictional European city of Prava. Absurdistan, Shteyngart's sophomore effort, ups the level of wackiness. The obese, gluttonous Misha Vainberg devours Western pop culture, lusts after a sultry Latina from the South Bronx, and stumbles into the position of Minister of Multicultural Affairs in the volatile, oil-rich nation of Absurdistan. While Shteyngart's wickedly whimsical prose and searing satire have been almost universally praised, he sees his work not as goofy flights of fancy but as a rather accurate vision of the contemporary global society.
"This is a reality book," Shteyngart declared to The Austinist, "and the reality is that we are becoming Absurdistan with each passing day. Look, you have a government that spies on its own citizens, is basically an oil kleptocracy, the government serves the oil interest, just the way it does in Russia."
Shteyngart's keen insights into world politics, particularly the current climate of America, are what elevate his novels above mere farce. Born in Leningrad, Russia, during the Cold War, but living the majority of his life in New York, the novelist has experienced life in the two contrasting nations that most influence his work. Along the way, he earned a degree in politics from Oberlin College in Ohio. Shteyngart is also a devoted traveler, and a stint in Prague sparked his first book. "I spent too much time in all these different places," he explained. "[W]hen I was in college, I really wanted to go back to Russia and my Mom, who was paying my bills at the time said, ‘Over my dead body, they'll eat you alive there. Look at you. You're a little Jew, they'll kill ya.' And I said ‘Uh, alright.' So I went to Prague with my girlfriend at the time and that became The Russian Debutante's [Handbook]."
The Russian Debutante's Handbook was greeted with a seemingly ceaseless string of laudatory reviews. From Vanity Fair to The New York Times to Book Magazine, Steyngart was regarded as a major new talent with a decidedly unique style. Because his debut was subject to so much acclaim, Steyngart felt that its success negatively affected the response to Absurdistan. "You know it's really interesting there are some people who love the first book...so much that they hate the second book because the tone is so different," he said. Of course, one would never know based on some of the most prominent responses to Absurdistan. The Washington Post celebrated the book's "sharp insights into the absurdity of the modern world," and Publisher's Weekly cheered that Misha Vainberg is a "sympathetic protagonist worthy of comparison to America's enduring literary heroes.'
Not to be deterred by a minority of naysayers, Shteyngart is already hard at work on his third novel, which features the tellingly named character Jerry Shteynfarb from Absurdistan. "[M]y next book [takes place] partly in Albany -- but set in the year 2040, when it's called All-Holy Albany Rensselaer," he told Forward, "and it's a small religious protectorate under the command of a Korean Rev. Cho. My hero, Jerry Shteynfarb, is 65 years old, married to one of Reverend Cho's daughters and trying to eke out a survival. That's going to be the next project."
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What would Shteyngart be doing if he wasn't an acclaimed novelist? Well, he says he'd like to be an urban planner. One of his first jobs was as a janitor in a nuclear reactor.
Shteyngart began Absurdistan only a few days before 9/11, and briefly shelved the book after the tragic event.
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In the summer of 2006, Gary Shteyngart took some time to answer a few of our questions:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Nabokov's Pnin showed me how humor and pathos can coexist on a single page, in a single sentence, and Lolita shocked me with its bravery and honesty. Turgenev's Fathers and Sons is the most complete Russian novel I've read in that it covers so much -- the social and economic life of a nation, the difficulties and wonders of love, and the endless mysteries of the father-son relationship. American Jewish writers such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth introduced me to "the American berserk" (to quote Roth) and grounded me firmly in the literature of my adopted homeland.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family -- A journalist who spent ten years in the South Bronx offers the most authentic, harrowing and moving description of life in the American underclass. The most brilliant journalism of the new century.
In no particular order whatsoever:
Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker -- The first "immigrant" novel that I read during my formative years that struck me as being true and daring, not to mention beautifully written.
Akhil Sharma's An Obedient Father -- One of the most talented writers of my generation. The subject matter (India, corruption, incest) is dark but the quality of the prose is arresting.
Nabokov's Pnin -- Perhaps the funniest novel in the English language.
Nabokov's Lolita -- In the hands of the master, even a self-deluded monster like Humbert Humbert can induce pity and belly laughs. Worth the price for Nabokov's pitiless observations of 1950s America alone.
Saul Bellow's Herzog -- I can't think of another novel that better inhabits its protagonist's mind. [It's] a book that's manic, warped, and in love with the thinking life.
Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint -- Don't get too hung up on the famous liver-loving scene. This comic tour-de-force is quite touching in parts (no pun intended) and a thoroughly fascinating look at being a Jewish male in America.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby -- Take it apart, put it back together, it remains a slender thing of beauty and one of the high-water marks of American literature.
Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version -- I imagine Richler writing this from the top of Montreal's tallest skyscraper, his shirt torn in pieces, a tumbler of whiskey in one hand, his pen poised to strike in the other. They don't make satires like this anymore.
Turgenev's Fathers and Sons -- Arguably the best Russian novel of the 19th Century (which I guess just makes it the best Russian novel ever). For the lazy who can't commit to War and Peace or those Karamazov kin, this 200-page work ought to do more than whet your appetite for the golden age of Russian lit.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Not much of a movie buff. The usual suspects: Annie Hall, Blade Runner, Traffic. I spend so much of my day looking at text. Give my eyes something to feast on!
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I was weaned on early Ice Cube, Public Enemy and the like. Became a man under Notorious BIG. Now I listen to some hip-hop and also Arcade Fire and this new Balkan gypsy pop outfit called Beirut.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I'd love to have a 19th Century Russian book club where all the members had to act like the pretentious minor noblemen they were reading about. I couldn't really pull it off myself because I don't speak French or know how to flog a servant.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write almost entirely in bed or on a couch with my feet up on the coffee table. I feel most creative when I'm looking out the window, and my bed and couch have nice views of the New York skyline.
What are you working on now?
A love story about immortality, religion, immigration and God knows what else. It's set, annoyingly, in the very not-too-distant future.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Oddly enough, it happened pretty much overnight. Well, two weeks after I sent in the manuscript.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Find an agent who understand your work and has a good plan of attack. Make sure they don't just publish your book but really put their muscle behind it, especially in terms of publicity. Huge numbers of books get published in America every year, but it's getting harder and harder for good work to get noticed by the reading public.
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