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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Novelist considers mortality, youth, technology

Gary Shteyngart has published three books and is one of The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 writers.

When did you first start writing?
I was a little kid in Russia and my grandmother made me write a novel for her. I was about five or six years old. She gave me little pieces of cheese for each page I wrote. There was a big statue of Lenin outside of our house and I would always hug him. So I wrote a book about how Lenin meets a magical goose and together they invade Finland to start a socialist revolution there. Things kind of fall apart, though, and Lenin eats the goose for political reasons. So I’ve always written—I’m not good at anything else. I was a paralegal for a year.

Author of Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart, read from his new novel, Super Sad True Love Story in Faulconer Gallery on Thursday evening. Photography taken by Avery Rowlison.

How has your relationship with writing changed since becoming successful?
It used to be very romantic. You would write something but I assumed no one would ever publish it, so writing was this very personal thing where I would go out and come back after a party, when I was in my twenties. I would take out my laptop and write and it was all very personal. Then it became more of a job and now I’m expected to produce a book every four years, so I do. Young writers are very lucky because they’re still in this kind of incredible phase of exploration. You figure out who you are in tandem with discovering your style and voice. What could be better?

How did you come up with idea behind Super Sad True Love Story?
A couple of things … one is I started seeing literature becoming very devalued in our society. There was a cable repairman who came to my house and, like Lenny, I have a huge wall of books and the man said, “Oh man, why you got all them books here? It’s so disgusting. You only got a 25 inch TV!” He was trying to emasculate me, and it was very successful. But I thought, “Oh yeah, reading books really is kind of a silly part of society.” Then I wanted to do a book about if love can still be a truth in this sort of world. I thought with this sort of emerging technology—whereas in some cases, the state monitors you, but in our society, we don’t need anything to moderate us, we give it all up ourselves. So in the book, if anyone wants to find anything out, they would just go online or something—it’s all right there. Then I tried to create this feeling of America sort of slipping from its grand imposition and, you know, this is not a country that’s geared to be a number two. It has a sort of number one mentality, and I come from a superpower that collapsed and had to make that transition. It wasn’t easy.

Most of your books have political implications. Can you expand?
Yeah, politics is in there. I grew up in such a—I mean, I went from Lenin to Reagan. I came here in 1979, so it’s hard for me to think of the world outside of political terms. But there’s certainly no message of any specific book. I mean, the message is the whole world sucks.

Who are your favorite authors?
I’ve read a lot of great Russian authors. Then I moved to Jewish authors. These days I look at immigrant authors. There’s good literature, there’s plenty of good writing and great reading.

How do you think the idea of death and the fetishization of youth has changed over the years?
We’re fetishizing better than ever when it comes to humans. I think we’re in very uncertain times. Not just economically, but it’s very likely that the whole planet is likely to get a lot hotter and a lot wetter. You know, you live in New York and you’re surrounded by water that’s only to keep going up and up. These are scary times and we’re doing it most of it ourselves. And in these scary times, a lot of people think about death, and consequently, mortality. The opposite of dying very soon is dying never. But youthful culture—I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it, except that it sort of creates a feeling that the past doesn’t matter. Nothing really matters except for the future. There’s no present, even. Super Sad True Love Story is set slightly in the future because there is no present. You can imagine if I started writing this in 2006, and I was writing about technology, Eunice would have a Myspace page. Who even knows if Facebook will survive? Although I do have a Facebook page, where I post pictures of my dog.

Are you planning on writing a sequel? How do you feel about sequels in general?
I don’t like to do sequels. I mean, they can be okay. I don’t know, I’m very attention-deficit. Once I’m done with something, I want to be done with it. I never read anything I write, I just throw it out there and say, “Good-bye.”
Do you really think the idea of an apparat is not only possible, but a probable popular development in the near future?
I’m already addicted to this thing [the iPhone]. I got it in 2007 when it first came out. I had this intern who helped me figure out all this stuff. This is a pretty simple interface and it took me years. The Internet and the iPhone are really cruel mistresses because they steal all your time. It becomes so ridiculous. At a birthday party a couple years ago, I had a friend —a photographer—who gave me this beautiful photo. And I had had a few drinks, but I look at the photo and try to make it bigger and smaller by spreading my fingers over it, you know, like you do with the iPhone. She was like, “You idiot, it’s a photo,” and I was like, “What?!” So it’s really astonishing how quickly these things have supplanted our interface with the world. It becomes very different, you know, you walk down the streets of New York and it used to be you could be so fascinated with everything going on. Now, people are just checking their phones and their attention is just divided, at best. That’s difficult for a writer—it’s said that writers should be great noticers, but what happens when all you notice is what’s happening on this little device? It’s kind of scary.

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