BEHIND A WHITE screen in the author’s lounge, Gary Shteyngart sits alone amid several plates of half-finished lunches. He is wearing a shirt with dark checks, and when he stands to offer a hand, you can see the shirt-tails hanging out. He looks less professorial in appearance (which he is, at Columbia University, New York) and more a bookish nerd (which he probably is). He seems despondent. And he peers, from behind large glasses and under furry eyebrows, with a joyless expression.
“It takes two years to write a book,” he says early in the conversation, raising his hands in mock dejection. “And another just to sell [as in promote] the damn thing.” No wonder nobody writes as much as they did in the past, he suggests. “I mean, I wonder if any of this [social media presence] means anything. If it isn’t all just bots,” he says.
It’s a strange expression to encounter. Because the American writer born in Leningrad, and author of several satirical novels, is a bit of a literary phenomenon online. He is one of those rare things on social media: an entertaining writer. Other authors are either absent or owners of feeds that pop back to life only to plug a book or event. Shteyngart, in comparison, is prolific. His book trailers are an absurdly funny star-studded affair where he plays an over-the-top Borat-like character. James Franco plays a pink bathrobe-clad boyfriend, Jonathan Franzen morphs into a shrink and Paul Giamatti joins him to look for cougars at a Brooklyn book reading. He does public roasts (“Later, we’ll be selling rare, unsigned copies of Gary’s work,” the musician John Wesley Harding says in one roast). He posts pictures of all sorts of things on Instagram (of him in a chair with extendable arms which also work as footrests, appropriately named the Bombay Fornicator, for instance). Shteyngart is also, as he calls himself, literary fiction’s foremost blurber. He has apparently blurbed more than 150 books, once even blurbing his blurbs on Twitter (‘Gary Shteyngart’s blurbs are touching, funny and true. This is a blurber to watch’ — Gary Shteyngart). There is a Tumblr account that catalogues his many blurbs and a short comic documentary about it.
But today, at the sidelines of Tata Literature Live in Mumbai, he appears to not enjoy all of this too much. “I am—I mean we all are always on our phones, so into it, missing the real world around,” he says. “But then you look up, and everyone around is also into their phones. Makes you wonder what’s real.”
Since his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, back in 2003, Shteyngart has introduced readers to a somewhat new literary genre—the quirky comedy of a Russian Jewish-American immigrant novel. All his books deal with Jewish Russian-American protagonists, perhaps different versions of himself. In his first novel, the protagonist Vladimir Girshkin bumbles around New York and flees to a fictional city called Prava. In his second novel, Absurdistan, a 325-pound son of a Russian gangster oligarch travels to a Middle Eastern Republic just free from Soviet control. There is also a minor character here called Jerry Shteynfarb who has written a book called The Russian Arriviste’s Handjob. In his third book, Super Sad True Love Story, set in a near-future New York when the country is in decline, another Russian American character, Lenny Abramov, falls in love with a Korean-American woman. His last book, his memoir Little Failure, was his story behind all his stories, about his and his family’s life in the Soviet Union, and their later move to the US.
America is declining. I grew up in Soviet Russia and there are certain parallels already. The flags are getting larger, xenophobia is going up
Gary Shteyngart emigrated to New York when he was around seven years old. He was what he calls a part of the consignment of “grain Jews” exchanged for wheat grains President Jimmy Carter sent to the then USSR. ‘Russia gets the grain it needs to run; America gets the Jews it needs to run: all in all, an excellent trade deal,’ he writes in the book. His memoir is an intimate portrait of his and his family’s life, told in the author’s natural self-deprecating humour. Among other things, during the height of the Cold War, when a slew of Soviet-US war films were released, Shteyngart attempted to mask his Russian accent in Hebrew school by trying to pass off as a German. “I was trying to convince Jewish children in a Hebrew school that I am actually a German. Imagine,” he says.
THE EXPERIENCE OF writing a memoir, in a way, has changed his writing. He felt like he wanted to write about something else, he says, to move away from himself. His next book, expected to be out next year, was initially conceived as a thriller with a woman—a non-Russian-American Jewish hedge fund manager—as protagonist. It was to take place in the world of high finance and was to concern itself with “what happens when a sexy spreadsheet jockey trades in her Excel for a Glock 22”.
But for the first time in his writing career, Shteyngart felt stuck while working on it. “There were some problems with the book,” he says. “Then the [US presidential] election was happening. And I knew I had to do something around it,” he says. The new iteration of the book is about a male hedge fund manager and his wife, a daughter of Tamil immigrants, around the time of the US election. The protagonist is fleeing his failing business and a tattered marriage by travelling across the US in a Greyhound bus. “There are no Russians now. But the lead is still Jewish,” he says.
Shteyngart’s father was roughly around the same age he is now when they moved to the US from Soviet Russia. And with Donald Trump coming to power, he jokes he is now looking to move out of the country. “I’m looking up real estate prices in Montreal, even Germany,” he says.
The night Barack Obama was first elected to power, Shteyngart was at a party in a New York apartment that overlooked a highway. He describes the moment as “a glorious night”, with trucks with number plates from across the country coming into the city honking in celebration. “But sometimes we forget that the world is not New York and LA. America we mustn’t forget was built on slavery.... And now America is declining. I grew up in Soviet Russia and there are certain parallels already. The flags are getting larger, the xenophobia is going up.”
His new book will be set around this period of the election. He reveals a picture of a potential book jacket on his mobile phone. Here, like a neon sign in a dark night, loud pink fonts dominate the entire expanse of the book. “The only place people read now is at airports. So your book has to really stick out,” he explains.
According to him, literary fiction has become a bizarre industry and art form, where increasingly like poetry, the only people who read it are those who are writing it. “The number of artists keeps rising and the size of the audience keeps shrinking,” he says. The need for stories, he says, has moved elsewhere, into TV. “My book Absurdistan, I believe no one was actually reading it. People just liked to carry it around in the metro,” he says. “Someone was telling me it was like an accessory... There are so many good new writers. But the audience is always shrinking. And I am always telling my students, ‘Best of luck. You are going to need it.’”
Earlier that day in Mumbai, he reached a personal landmark. He received his 500,000th follower, a bot titled @BiljanaKremlinLover1 . ‘So happy to welcome my 500,000 follower, a Macedonian bot named @BiljanaKremlinLover1 You guys are the best!’ he would later tweet.