Lunch with the FT: Gary Shteyngart

Gary Shteyngart is one of those rare writers who is as funny and resplendent in person as he is on the page. Which does make one wonder how he gets his motivation to write, since he could just sit around having lunch. Before we are finished he will put on several different accents – Italian, Russian and a couple of others – invent six different characters and speak for them, and neatly cycle through several comic motifs, so it will kind of feel, by the time we leave the restaurant, as if I have just put down a lively short story.

We are at New York’s elegant Gramercy Tavern, big leather menus spread out in front of us. At 38, Shteyngart has glasses, impressive circles under his eyes, a couple of days of stubble and a purple checked button-down shirt, all of which make him look like the portrait of the novelist as a young man. When I point out that he is everybody’s idea of a writer, he says, somehow by this point for reasons I forget in the voice of an Italian contessa: “Yes! Long arms like a monkey, hunched over, glasses, thinning hair! A Jew! Like Woody Allen but more leeeterary!”

I have newly resolved to drink when I go out to lunch, and Shteyngart is happy to do the same. “People don’t drink enough!” he says. With all of its serious beiges, the Gramercy Tavern is a serious restaurant, and the waiter is serious about the wines. He tells us about the rosé, and says, “It’s very dry, and very mineral forward.”

We both like the phrase “mineral forward”. Shteyngart likes it so much he types it into his iPhone, and it does, in fact, seem like something a waiter in his new comic novel Super Sad True Love Story, set in a dystopian near future, would say.

I had suspected that Shteyngart might have an iPhone, since the book features a smartphone-like device called an apparat to which its protagonists are all but umbilically attached, and the novel itself could be read as an indictment of precisely this kind of technology, and what it does to our brains to be constantly dipping into it. When I ask Shteyngart about the iPhone and his general philosophy he agrees. “I love it and it’s ruining me ... I can’t focus on anything anymore. I am edgy. Or maybe I just want to touch my hip. (Here he mimes feeling frantically for his pocket.) Maybe that’s part of it. Physician heal thyself! I go upstate where the coverage sucks. That’s where I get stuff done.”

For such a sharp satirist, Shteyngart resists a straightforward attack. “I am like a journalist writing down what I see in the world around me,” he says. He doesn’t say directly that he is attacking or satirising this generation’s mindless addiction to screens, and yet, of course, on some level, he is. And indeed the lightness of the book cuts against any moral righteousness, any unpleasant smugness that might arise from criticising the communication style of the very young. Shteyngart says, “My two arsenals are laughter and horniness. Those two are in all my books. It might seem conservative, too Rothian or Bellovian, but it works. Dude wants to sleep with this hot chick; she can’t speak no English. Laughter ensues.”

The book espouses a pretty dark view of the future of the written word, indeed the word in general. The young people are barely able to string together a sentence; they call talking “verballing” but are not very good at it. “I just miss words,” Shteyngart says. “I miss nice words. I am a dinosaur. But I’m a dinosaur hooked on this iPhone crap, and so I am bemoaning this world that doesn’t exist, and I am addicted to this world I don’t even like.” Shteyngart, by the way, teaches writing at Columbia University. One of his classes is called “The Hysterical Male”.

I ask him if he is ever overtaken with a feeling of futility about how little people read. “Sometimes I feel like I am practising an old craft. Norman Mailer said it best. He said something like: ‘I am making horse carriages in the years of the first Model T.’” Shteyngart is happy with the book, though. “I did my best here. My shrink always says, ‘Just do your best.’ That seems like such a nice American thing to say.”

What is immediately striking about Shteyngart to anyone who has spent time around male writers is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Or to be more precise: his way of taking himself seriously is to not take himself seriously. He is satirical about his satire, funny about himself. He refers, affectionately, to his first book, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), as “The Russian Debutante’s Handjob”. His self-deprecation is resourceful and bounding; one gets the sense he has worked at being likable the way he works at sentences, and with no less success.

Lenny Abramov, the main character in Super Sad True Love Story, has a wall of books and insists on reading Tolstoy though the young people around him are convinced that books smell. Does Shteyngart, a year younger than his protagonist, feel a Lenny-like despair about the ascendence of the screen? He kind of shrugs. “I am an immigrant, I have to adapt.”

To an outside observer, it might seem as if Shteyngart is at a very happy and fulfilled moment in life. He is engaged. He has bought an apartment, which he is renovating: “the previous owner was a bit too enamoured of pomegranate.” His book, reviewed ecstatically in the New York Times – “the tenderness of the Chekhovian tradition with the hormonal high jinks of a Judd Apatow movie ... one of his generation’s most original and exhilarating writers” – is doing very nicely at a time when books are not in general doing nicely. And yet the suggestion that he might be happy makes him a little nervous. It seems, in fact, to launch him into a riff on global warming.

In the middle of this, our entrées appear. I have ordered sea bass. Shteyngart has ordered lamb. “It looks like they beat up a lamb, and carved off one of his shoulders!” he says cheerfully. “This is shaving 20 years off my life!”

That leads me to ask him about mortality, which is one of the interests of Super Sad. He says, “I grew up very sick. Constantly the ambulance would come. I had asthma and in Petersburg, they couldn’t do anything about it. They had no inhalers. I had to go into the hospital, and they would use these weird methods on you. Cupping! The Chinese invented it in the 12th century! Anyway, mortality has been on my mind since year one. A friend of mine just turned 50 and he was like, ‘Now I can see an end to my life.’ I was like, ‘Now you see an end?’ Plus, I have always looked like shit. Boyish looks I don’t got. I look like an Ashkenazi Jew who is about to die. But I have looked like this since I was 18. So for me the idea of death, it’s just a heartbeat away.” He pauses to eat. “I just bit into this amazing piece of lamb fat. Three months! Three months was just taken off my life!”

You seem in the novel to be getting at the particular vanity of our generation, I say; the particular narcissism, the inability to grow up.

“Yeah, it’s impossible and repellant and not part of the American dream. I mean: why do we get old?”

I ask him what books he admires. And he says, Nabokov, Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol. “They were unbelievably funny. Chekhov was funny in a dry rosé kind of way.”

Mineral forward? I suggest.

“Chekhov was so mineral forward,” he says. “No one understands that. It was all mineral all the time!”

Like Nabokov writing in the 1950s about motels, summer camps and swimming pools, Shteyngart has carried the spirit of Russian literature into the iPhones, subways and suburbs of America. “I can’t escape my Russianness. I grew up thinking nothing good would happen. When something good happens, like this book did, well, I am shocked by it. It’s almost abhorrent. Why is this happening?”

Also like Nabokov, Shteyngart is exuberant in his mingling of slang with highbrow, his revelling in the language’s idiosyncrasies; he takes obvious pleasure in his invented patois, in alert and judicious and charismatic lapses in grammar. He learnt English at seven when he arrived in America, and says he didn’t lose his accent until he was 14. Both in writing and just hanging out, his sentences have that special, masterful frisson of a newly discovered language, that careful, playful energy that native speakers never quite achieve.

Shteyngart says, apropos of Russianness, “I think the pessimism is very well suited to the times. This book is really an elegy.”

The waiter comes over. “Can I bring you a third glass of wine?”

“Only if she does,” he says.

I decline and, when the waiter leaves, say, “What if I said yes!”

“Who knows?”

I ask Shteyngart about writing his first novel. He began it in his final year at Oberlin College, in Ohio, and finished it seven years later. “I thought it was crap. I kept throwing it out. I remember throwing drafts out. And I would put them in the recycling bags. The bags were cheap and made of some sort of flimsy stuff – I had no money then. At one point there was a storm or something. I come home from my job. I was a staff writer for a resettlement organisation. I was telling Russian immigrants how not to get too drunk at a party; don’t beat your wife too much; save some for later. Anyway, I am walking down the street in Brooklyn and a blizzard comes flying at me, and it’s my novel! And every page says my name. And my friends are walking by, and they are like, ‘Page 173 looks pretty good!’”

Since Shteyngart writes so vividly about immigrant parents, I ask him about his own parents – his father worked as a mechanical engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island; his mother as a fiscal administrator at the same Hebrew immigrant aid society that had helped to resettle the family in the US – and their reaction to his books.

“My father asks before the books come out: ‘Is this going to be good for the Jews?’ [But] it’s not going to be good for anybody. The Koreans. The Arabs. Nobody is going to benefit from this book.”

Does he worry about their reaction while he is writing?

“No. They can say what they want. I am going to write what I want.” He is close to them, though. “I talk to them every week. By Russian standards it’s supposed to be once every six minutes. But I think that’s pretty good for a hyphenated American.”

I ask him why he thinks this particular book is striking a nerve, and he says, “The last two books were sort of abstract. This one is a little closer to home. The Walmarts are burning. And it’s a love story. I keep going back to Orwell. I love 1984. Did you see the movie? The sex scene? Muy caliente. Anyway, this book doesn’t have a 300lb guy with a bad circumcision in it [as his 2006 novel Absurdistan does]. This one is for the ladies.”

Well, it’s a love story with a sad ending. A love story that sort of fails.

“What love story doesn’t fail?” he says. “I mean people who are happily married! What a life!”

In comparison with most male novelists of his generation, Shteyngart writes more exuberantly and explicitly about sex than the others. “So much of our lives go back to the genitalia. So much of serious fiction ignores the genitalia. I had a Russian translator for my first book who was very prim. She would write the first letter of the Russian genital [then] dot, dot, dot, and I would spend all my time saying, ‘No, it’s ... [here he pronounces with great relish some Russian word that I cannot hope to reproduce on the page].’ You know, filling in the genitalia.”

I ask if there are any feminists who object to his work. “Not that I know of. Where is the backlash? I mean, backlash sells books. We are sitting here and everybody loves me.”

Should we, I propose, invent a fake feminist critic right now?

“Yes!” he says. “That would be amazing. God, I want to be denounced so bad!”

He writes his books in bed. I say that Edith Wharton wrote her books in bed. He says, “Who wouldn’t? I think people are idiots. Oh, I am going to rent an office! Why? Bed is so comfortable.”

I mention that his titles are really good. “It’s the only good thing!” he says. Before he got to his titles he says he had some horrible ones: With The Russian Debutante’s Handbook he thought first of: “Pyramids of Prava” or “The Adventures of Gunter Goose” and he almost called Super Sad True Love Story “The Armies of Love”.

Shteyngart orders a blueberry corn sundae for dessert, which arrives impressively sprinkled with caramel popcorn, and so the melancholy Russian-American writer proceeds to eat his ice cream sundae. Not such a super sad story after all.

‘Super Sad True Love Story’ (Granta, £12.99) is published on September 16

Gramercy Tavern

42 East 20th Street, New York

4 x glass Gurrutxaga rosé $44

Smoked trout with cippollini purée and pickled onions $14

Watermelon salad $14

Braised lamb shoulder, navy and fava beans, shiitake mushrooms $24

Sea bass, rainbow swiss chard, pine nuts, sweet onion sauce $22

Ice­ cream sundae $12

Café latte $6

Decaf espresso $5

Total (including service) $183.52

An author to watch: With a little help from his friends Edmund, Mary and James

“What’s truly remarkable about Gary”, says a handsome literary type identified as the novelist Gary Shteyngart’s editor near the start of a five-minute promotional video for Super Sad True Love Story, “is that he’s accomplished so much while hiding an unusual secret.”

“I can’t read!” reveals Gary, wide-eyed and grinning goofily. The literary type is David Ebershoff, who, besides being a journalist and author, really is Shteyngart’s editor. The video continues with further testimonials from authors such as Edmund White (“They let him teach at Columbia?!”), Mary Gaitskill (“Let’s face it, the only reason Gary sells any books is because he’s so good-looking!”) and Jay McInerney (“Hey girls, meet the author!”).

A further scene shows Shteyngart giving a class at Columbia on “How to Behave at a ‘Paris Review’ Party”. His students, among them the Hollywood star James Franco, watch solemnly and then practise swirling a glass drunkenly while chanting, “Well, I do so much prefer early Ian McEwan to late Ian McEwan.”

Shteyngart had the idea for the video (which has attracted 75,000 views on YouTube over the past month) when he was on a writers’ retreat earlier this year. “It’s a very collegial atmosphere, people are drunk all the time, and once, waking up from a very difficult post-alcoholic nap, I thought, ‘Oh God, nobody reads any more, why don’t I make a trailer, a funny trailer, with stars, like my student James Franco.’” He spent, he confesses, 10 whole minutes on the script.

Shteyngart says he was surprised by the quality of the performances, many of them from old friends. In the film Franco (whom Shteyngart really did teach when the latter was a postgraduate at Columbia) says: “I haven’t read his new book, uh, Sad True whatever, but I don’t think he actually wants me to read it, I don’t think reading is really his thing.”

“Trailers can be boring, let’s face it,” says the author. “I wanted to make fun of the whole idea.” The follies of modern media is also one of the themes of Super Sad. He made the trailer in May this year, in time for the book’s US release in July. “I was walking down the street right after it premiered and some guy says, ‘Hey, you’re that dude that can’t read.’ It was very good to be recognised for my handicap. If there is Pulitzer Prize for illiteracy, I hope to win it.”

Victoria Maw

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