November 12, 2010
Satirist launches series
The inaugural Sol and Shirley Kort Author Series will be a hard act to follow. Gary Shteyngart is the featured speaker and, for those unfamiliar with the name, a few facts are in order: he’s the bestselling and award-winning author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan: A Novel, and he was named to this year’s The New Yorker magazine’s “20 under 40,” a list of “young writers who capture the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction,” and this year’s Forward 50, the Forward newspaper’s choice of “men and women who have made a significant impact on the Jewish story in a Jewish way.”
Writer/broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel, host of the CBC’s Writers & Company, will have her hands full at the Nov. 21 event, which is part of the annual Cherie Smith JCCGV Jewish Book Festival, as Shteyngart is a consummate joker – just take a glance at one of his books, YouTube videos or interviews.
While his first two publications focused on the demise of the Soviet Union, his latest book, Super Sad True Love Story (SSTLS), is about the dissolution of the United States. Set in the near future, the protagonist is 39-year-old New Yorker Lenny Abramov, the son of Russian immigrants. (BTW, Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972 and emigrated to New York with his family at the age of seven.)
Lenny falls in love at first sight with 24-year-old Eunice Park, a Korean-American, who initially describes Lenny as “this old, gross guy.” As their relationship blossoms, the country falls apart: catastrophic levels of debt, domestic unrest and a war with Venezuela are only a few of the troubles facing Shteyngart’s America. It’s the digital age to the extreme, and everyone is equipped with äppäräti (the plural of äppärät; read iPhone/Blackberry), broadcasting their every thought and conversation. It’s also a world in which everyone is not only measured by their age and looks, but by their bank accounts, as high- or low-net-worth individuals. And it’s a world where those with high net worth can possibly live forever: Lenny works as an outreach coordinator in the post-human services division of a corporation specializing in the extension of life.
Basically, everything having to do with how we, as individuals and as societies, interact with each other and on what we place value, comes under Shteyngart’s satirical review in SSTLS. The pace is fast and furious, with very few calm moments to digest the serious issues on which Shteyngart is commenting, such as familial expectations, domestic abuse, commercialism, nationalism, etc., etc. But it’s a style that reinforces the fact that attention spans are a thing of the past and information overload is an accepted part of life in the SSTLS universe.
Given the predominance of electronic communication in SSTLS, it is only appropriate that the Independent caught up with Shteyngart digitally to ask him a few questions.
JI: What intrigues you about the decline of a society?
GS: I’m Soviet and Ashkenazi by heritage, what doesn’t intrigue me about the decline of a society? I get super excited and depressed when things fall apart.
JI: In SSTLS, Canada is Stability, a haven. In what ways do you feel that Canadian and American societies differ, and do you really think that Canada has a more optimistic future than the United States?
GS: Canada is one of those rare resource-rich countries like Norway, whose populace enjoys a more or less OK form of government, relatively low levels of corruption, and which has a nice, restrained sense of itself. America, like Russia, has a population that overwhelmingly believes it is God’s chosen nation. This can create problems when it becomes clear it is not.
JI: How do you really feel about your iPhone, or other such technology, as they relate to the “future of civilization” or the quality of (your) life?
GS: The iPhone has taken away a lot of my private reflective time. I’m always “on,” and I wish I were off.
JI: Was there a “typical Shabbat/family dinner” at your house when you were growing up?
GS: We didn’t have Shabbat dinner. Dinners featured the consumption of meat and potato-based products. We talked about many subjects, including my mediocre performance in high school, politics and the new Dodge Challenger.
JI: In recent months, a letter to a local gay/lesbian newspaper criticized a Jewish organization for supporting gay rights because, in the writer’s mind, Judaism was to blame for homophobia by having created the Bible, and no Jewish group could, therefore, sincerely support equal rights for those in the LGBTQ community. In SSTLS, you have Lenny think something similar, about Jews having invented the “Big Lie from which all Christianity, all Western civilization, has sprung.” What are your thoughts on the matter?
GS: Well, I think people find a lot of comfort in religion and there’s nothing wrong with that. So it’s nice to hear that Jewish organizations support the LGBTQ community and I wish all other religions would do likewise. It’s also important for religious communities to respect the rights of agnostics like myself. We’re all in this together.
JI: Regarding technology, the future you depict in SSTLS is replete with national differences, conflict and cultural vacuity. In your view, is dystopia inevitable?
GS: I think it all comes and goes in cycles. We’re not in the good part of the cycle right now, but thousands of years from now, who knows? In any case, I doubt technology is going to solve everything for us. Often it makes us less happy. (I’m looking at you, iPhone!)
JI: Anything else you’d like Jewish Independent readers to know?
GS: Just that I like them very much. If things go really bad in 2012, please support my application for Canadian asylum.
The Sol and Shirley Kort Author Series takes place Sunday, Nov. 21, 7:30 p.m. Tickets ($21/$19) are available at jccgv.com/JewishBookFest or 604-257-5111. The book festival runs Nov. 20-25 at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.