TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Imagine an America in which the economy has collapsed, and people are divided into two classes: low-net-worth individuals and high-net-worth individuals. There's only one political party, but parts of the country are on the verge of civil war or a class war.
The news media is dominated by the New York Lifestyle Times, Fox Liberty Prime and Fox Liberty Ultra. Most of the news is journalists texting about themselves.
This is the America that Gary Shteyngart has created in his new novel, "Super Sad True Love Story," which is set in the very near future. In novelist Jane Smiley's review of the book, she wrote: It's as amusing and harrowing a reflection upon the world we live in now and the direction we could be heading as you can hope to find.
Shteyngart, who is 38, was one of the writers featured this year in the New Yorker edition featuring the 20 best writers under 40. Shteyngart when he was seven. He's written two other satirical novels: "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" and "Absurdistan."
Gary Shteyngart, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. GARY SHTEYNGART (Author, "A Super Sad True Love Story"): Thank you, it's so great to be here.
GROSS: It's a pleasure to have you. I'd like you to start with a reading that will give us a sense of the satirical notes that you strike in the book. So we've agreed on what the reading will be. So I'll ask you to just set it up briefly for us.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Sure. Well, Terry, what's happening here is Lenny Abramov, who is the hero of my book, is about to return from a year in Rome. He's about to return to America. But you can't just return to America anymore. You have to actually go through this process of reentry, and the program is called Welcome Back, Partner, and it takes place at embassies across the world. So this is at the U.S. embassy in Rome, or the U.S. consulate, I should say.
And one more thing about it, like all citizens and all people in America, he wears a pendant around his neck called an apparat(ph), and what the apparat does is it basically controls everything in your life. It also ranks you. So when you enter a room, people can say, oh, he's the 18th ugliest man in the room, but he's the seventh richest man in the room.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHTEYNGART: So it also rates your personality, and Lenny's personality is very sparkling, but he's very unattractive. So his apparat is the device that he uses in this scene to communicate with the government.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: (Reading) A half-dozen of my fellow citizens were seated behind their chewed-up desks, mumbling lowly into their apparati. There was an earplug lying slug-dead on an empty chair and a sign reading: Insert earplug in ear. Place your apparat on desk and disable all security settings. I did as I was told.
An electronic version of John Cougar Mellencamp's "Pink Houses" - Ain't that America, something to see, baby twanged in my ear, and then a pixilated version of the plucky otter shuffled onto my apparat screen, carrying on his back the letters A-R-A, which dissolved into the shimmering legend: American Restoration Authority.
The otter stood up on his hind legs and made a show of dusting himself off. Hi there, partner, he said, his electronic voice dripping with adorably carnivalesque. My name is Jeffrey Otter(ph), and I bet we're going to be friends.
Feelings of loss and aloneness overwhelmed me. Hi, I said. Hi, Jeffrey. Hi there yourself, the otter said. Now, I'm going to ask you some friendly questions for statistical purposes only. If you don't want to answer a question, just say I don't want to answer this question. Remember, I'm here to help you.
Okay, then, let's start simple. What's your name and Social Security number? I looked around. People were urgently whispering things to their otters. Leonard or Lenny Abramov, I muttered, followed by Social Security.
Hi, Leonard or Lenny Abramov, 205-32-8714. On behalf of the American Restoration Authority, I would love to welcome you back to the New United States of America. Look out, world, there's no stopping us now.
A bar from the McFadden & Whitehead disco hit, "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" played loudly in my ear. Now tell me, Lenny, what made you leave our country, work or pleasure? Work, I said. And what do you do, Leonard or Lenny Abramov? Indefinite life extension. You said effeminate life invention, is that right? Indefinite life extension, I said.
What's your credit ranking, Leonard or Lenny, out of a total score of 1,600? Fifteen-hundred twenty. That's pretty neat. You must really know how to pinch those pennies. You have money in the bank, you work in effeminate life invention.
Now I just have to ask, are you a member of the Bipartisan Party? And if so, would you like to receive our new weekly apparat stream, Ain't No Stopping Us Now? It's all sorts of great tips on readjusting to life in these United States and getting the most bang for your buck.
I'm not a Bipartisan, I said, but yes, I would like to get your stream. I was trying to be conciliatory. Okie, dokie, you're on our list now.
GROSS: That's Gary Shteyngart, reading from his new novel, "Super Sad True Love Story." Gary, so you have some very funny satirical things going on here that are kind of alarming close to the present.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yes, alarmingly, I would say. You got that right, Terry.
GROSS: So let's start with what's going on politically here. The reading had a reference to the Bipartisan Party. What's the Bipartisan Party?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: There's only one party left at this point in America, and it's the Bipartisan Party. And it's really nice because we don't have to choose between Republicans and Democrats, which were different, but, you know, they had some commonalities. So it's much nicer and more streamlined to have one party, the Bipartisan Party.
The Bipartisan Party runs something called the American Restoration Authority, which is basically a bunch of very armed national guardspeople running around, trying to save the infrastructure, which is collapsing as we speak. The Williamsburg Bridge goes down during one point in the book. And everything is basically slowly, slowly, slowly falling apart.
GROSS: There are great political divisions in that country. There's even an insurrection that happens in the book. What are the divisions about?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, the divisions are about whatever happens when a country begins to slowly begin its descent, especially when it's a major country, you know.
I grew up in the Soviet Union, and then we came to a Hebrew School in Queens. So I know about dystopia. I know about things that don't work. I know when things begin to fall apart, especially when a country is as big as America or Russia, a country that has a kind of messianic belief in itself that we are not just important but we are the most important country in the world.
And for countries like that, a decline is never pretty because the landing is never as soft.
GROSS: Why did you want to write a book set in the future, so that you could do something satirical?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: There's no present left. This is the problem for a novelist is the present is gone. We're all living in the future constantly. How I envy...
GROSS: What do you mean by that? I'm not sure what means.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, look, back in the day, Leo Tolstoy, what a sweetheart of accounts and a writer. He wanted in the 1860s, he wanted to write about the Napoleonic Campaign, about 1812. If you write about 1812, you know, in 1860, a horse is still a horse and a carriage is still a carriage. Obviously, there have been some technological advancements, et cetera, but you know, you don't have to worry about explaining the next killer app or the next, you know, Facebook or whatever because right now, things are happening so quickly.
I think that's really at the heart of this novel because this is the first time I've written a love story, and I actually began to feel something for my characters. I love Lenny and Eunice. And they're from different planets, basically, because even though there's a 15-year difference between them, they're basically standing on opposite cliffs with this huge abyss between them because Lenny still belongs to the ruminative generation, the generation that reads, that tries to understand this place in the world.
And Eunice, who is much younger, now lives she's a very, very smart young girl, but she lives in a whole different world where the only thing that matter are things that happen instantly. They pop out at you, and then they're forgotten, and we move on to the next thing.
GROSS: And she doesn't even know how to read books. She knows how to skim texts for information.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Right. There was something called Eurotexts(ph) in her she went to Elderburg(ph) College, it's a small women's school in the book, where she was taught to scan texts. So you can just get all the information you need very quickly and then just throw the book away.
This actually is not science fiction. I think this is what happening on college campuses now. But she majored in images, and she has a minor in assertiveness. So those are very important things to have in the future.
GROSS: Do you feel like Lenny, like somebody who is an artifact of the past because you read books and, even more artifact-ful, you write books?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yeah, no, it's so depressing. I feel like I'm insane to write novels. Im like one of those, you know, those last Japanese soldiers on one of those islands who's like, hiding in a cave and still shooting at the Americans are advancing, and he still hasn't heard that the emperor has surrendered. That's what I feel like all the time. I'm one of those guys.
GROSS: So what about, like, your texting life and your smartphone life? Like, how distracting or informative and useful has that been for you? And do you find that your concentration span as a writer or a reader is being changed?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: It's over. My concentration, my reading life, it's been shot. I mean, this is one of those cases where - I'm not against technology. I love my iPhone passionately. I think it's a beautiful piece of technology. But sometimes technology outpaces sort of the humanity's ability to process it. You know, I think that's where we are right now. I know that's where I am right now because my mind has been sliced and diced in so many ways.
There's so many packets of information coming at me, especially in a city like New York, which is so dense with information no matter where you go. I mean, even our cabs have television screens and info centers built into the backseat.
You know, and it's just shocking. How is literature supposed to survive when our brain has been pummeled with information, sliced and diced with it all day long at work, if we're white-collar workers? We go home. Are we really going to open a thick text with 350 pages and try to waddle through it, or are we just going to turn on "Mad Men," which is a wonderful show, for example.
GROSS: It's a great show.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: It's a great show, but, see, what "Mad Men" does, which is so wonderful about it, is it takes a lot of the things that make novels great. It takes so much of that novelistic precision and, also, it takes time to explain its characters, to develop its characters and also to try to get into the mind of its characters, as far as film will allow.
So it satisfies all our narrative impulses. That's what we want. But we don't have to open a book to get it. We just watch it on the screen. "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "Mad Men," all these shows very cleverly are indebted to novels, and all the creators of these shows frequently talk about how they're indebted to novels. I just don't want novels to die because that's what I do.
GROSS: Well, it sounds like that's what you are trying to do because you say you lost your concentration. So where are you now as a writer and a reader?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: As a reader, I go upstate to New York, upstate, and there, because I have this i-telephone, it can't connect well up there. And all of a sudden, my mind begins to readjust and I fall into this idyllic state. And all of a sudden, books make sense to me again.
Sometimes, I'm so used to the iPhone that sometimes I'm, like, pressing on the cover of the books, waiting for some piece of information to fly up, you know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHTEYNGART: My friend bought me this beautiful photograph and one of the pictures in the photograph it was a bunch of people sitting at a table, and one of the faces was too small, and I started to try to spread it open like you could on an iPhone to make it bigger. And then I realized, oh, wait, it's just the photograph. It's not digital.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gary Shteyngart, and his new novels is a satirical novel set in the near future. It's called "Super Sad True Love Story." Let's take a break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
My guest is Gary Shteyngart, and his new novel is called "Super Sad True Love Story." It's a satirical novel, set in the near future.
Okay, so Lenny, the main character in your book, he's working on a life extension program and he decides in the very first sentence of the book that he's going to live forever or as close to forever as he can through this scientific life extension program.
And he says that he believes that any life ending in death is essentially pointless. Is that something that you've dealt with?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yes. A good friend of mine turned 50 recently. He said: Oh my God, Gary, I can see that life is not eternal. And I thought: You just figured this out now? You know, because I've been - death has been on my mind since I was a little pup.
You know, I was very, very sick when I was growing up in Russia. The ambulance constantly came to our house. I had horrible asthma that, you know, is easily treated in America but they didn't even have inhalers back in Russia. So what I remember the most is just constantly being in that ambulance trying to breathe, can't breathe, and even as a little child, you're thinking: This means I'm going to die, and what's going to happen after I die?
You know, and in Russia, growing up in Soviet Russia, there's not even the consolation of heaven. Maybe you become a great red pioneer in the sky or something, but there's not a consolation of that. So, you know, I always think that good writers should be growing up on the brink of death. It really sort of lets them see mortality very clearly.
All my characters think about death in one way or another, all my previous characters in previous books. But with Lenny, what really is terrible for Lenny is that he works at this place called Post-human Services, which caters to the very rich.
And it's one thing to do in a world where everyone will eventually die, but to work with people who won't die and to know that you, yourself, are slated for mortality, that is too much for Lenny to even begin to contemplate.
So he sinks a lot of his mortality wishes into his girlfriend, Eunice Park, who is as lively and young as anybody in his world. And he begins to displace a lot of his own feelings, his own dreams of mortality, onto her, which of course in the end does not work.
GROSS: Did you go through the death of any family or friends while you were writing this book?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Not when I was writing this book, but my grandmother, you know, we came to America, and I was surrounded by completely insane people in all levels of life - this awful Hebrew school, my parents dealing with the horrors of immigration.
And there was one woman, my grandmother, who was unbelievable. She whenever the school bus would pull up from Hebrew school, she would I was already 13 years old she would run out, and she was so afraid. You know, America's a very dangerous country, Queens especially. She would run up, grab my hand, and just slowly, we would walk to make sure you know, she was like a little terrier, looking out to make sure nobody would jump us. This was Forest Hills, Queens. And we would walk back to her apartment.
And then she would say, oh, lie down, lie down (unintelligible). Igor(ph) is my Russian name. Gary is some kind of stupid American invention. So she would make me lie down on the couch, and in this kind of almost Caligula-like position, she would come bearing trays and trays of food.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHTEYNGART: There would be several pizzas and several hamburgers and, you know, and I became so fat that for my Bar Mitzvah, I had to wear a specially made husky suit, made out of, you know, four other Bar Mitzvah suits.
But when she died, I lost this beautiful, tender connection that I think I could never have again. I mean, it was the kind of unconditional love that is, let's say, the very opposite of the love that Lenny finds with Eunice, who is constantly critical of him. She doesn't like the way he, you know, gives himself pedicures and all this kind of stuff, very petty stuff. But that was the love that's sort of my platonic idea of how family can interact.
GROSS: So your grandmother, it sounds like she tried to not only express her love but protect you from the world by giving you immense amounts of food.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: You know, she grew up under Hitler and Stalin, the siege of Leningrad, all this stuff, where people were dropping like flies. So to have a fat child is a dream for her, you know. And she was my father never got very fat. So she was just and then she would sort of weigh me like a big, prized fish. Wooh, 100 kilograms. Now we're getting somewhere.
GROSS: But you probably didn't feel that way about your weight.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Oh, I didn't care.
GROSS: You didn't?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Oh, no, I didn't care. When you were a Soviet kid in a Hebrew school back then, you were so low on the totem pole, there wasn't even a totem pole. I mean, we were just remember all those movies back then, "Red Dawn," "Red Gerbil," "Red Hamster" or whatever. I mean, it was constantly my big dream, I remember back then, was just that there would be a nuclear war so I could just start afresh.
You know, all of society would be destroyed. Hebrew school would be destroyed, and I could just pick up the pieces and start from the beginning in some nice radiated future.
GROSS: My guest is novelist Gary Shteyngart, and his new novel is set in the near future. It's a satirical novel called "Super Sad True Love Story."
Eunice, who is the younger girlfriend of the main character, Lenny - let me read a sentence about her. You write: Unlike others of her generation, she was not completely steeped in pornography, and so the instinct for sex came from somewhere else inside her. It spoke of the need for warmth instead of debasement.
I thought that was a really interesting sentence, implying of course, that you think a lot of young people now are growing up with pornography, probably from DVDs and mostly from the Internet, that I would guess you think is really wiring or changing the wiring of their sexual fantasies.
So I'm wondering what you've seen or what you're seeing that's leading you think about how pornography is affecting how people develop sexually now.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: We have no idea in the end what it will mean down the line for people who develop in an era where pornography is completely commonplace.
I mean, there are sites where you can go online and see naked people, and they watch you naked doing things to yourself, and anybody can access that. I mean, there are obviously parental controls, but I think for the most part, kids can find ways to ignore them.
I'm not being moralistic here. I'm just saying, I have no idea what it will mean down the line when kids grow up with constant access to pornography.
I mean, I remember when I was a kid, and somebody snuck in a People magazine with Brooke Shields decolletage showing, and we were just stunned by it, and it fueled our fantasies for so long. But our fantasies were mostly about how much we wanted to just get a nice hug from Ms. Shields.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Now, kids are not dreaming of hugging Mrs. Shields or who's this famous jail star, Lindsay Lohan, or something. The point is, I think, that there's no place after you've seen the kinds of sexual expressions, there's nothing left to the imagination. You're just it's all, it's all there. And then you just have to process it, and I think kids will end up learning how to process it a lot faster.
A character like Eunice Parks has been completely pornified from the first days of her life. She doesn't blink about it at all. But there's still something lovingly different about her. And that's what Lenny I think talks about, how she wants contact more than anything.
What draws Lenny and Eunice together is the fact that both of them they're so different, they're just from different planets, but they both come from deeply dysfunctional, immigrant families. And they need a kind of bond that they didn't have in childhood. And they find that bond together, despite the odds, despite everything that stands against them, despite the society that stands against them.
In a way, when I think of "1984" and "Brave New World," two brilliant, dystopian books, I remember some of the ideas better in "Brave New World" because I think some of the ideas were stronger and more developed that Orwell's sort of Stalinist take on Russia.
But I remember "1984" as a novel better because the romance between Julia and Winston was real. It was real, and it was a romance that stood against a society that just wanted to destroy them. And I think, you know, that's why you root for Winston and Julia because you know that they're doomed.
GROSS: Just one more thing about that sentence about pornography that I quoted from your novel, you emphasized the word debasement. So is most of the porn that you think is influencing people now about debasement?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: I haven't gotten a master's in porn, unfortunately. I don't have the time or the bandwidth.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHTEYNGART: But, you know, I will say that I think debasement is one of the areas in which it traffics, obviously.
You know, it's so interesting because now many more woman, young women get college degrees than men. You would think that the scales really are tipping in favor of women. Men can't seem to go to college and get, you know, as educated as women. There's a huge reversal in that.
But there's still, on college campuses, there still is this kind of macho, terrible thing that happens, and I think women do feel often very debased. And the pornography certainly reinforces that because it's never, you know, it's never men being hurt, et cetera, it's always the desire is still from a very male perspective.
GROSS: My guest Gary Shteyngart, will be back in the second half of the show. His new satirical novel is called "Super Sad True Love Story." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross, back with Gary Shteyngart. His new satirical novel Super Sad True Love Story is set in the near future. Theres only one American political party, the Bipartisan Party, and literal class warfare is breaking out. The infrastructure is collapsing; the global economy has already collapsed.
Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972, and moved to Queens, New York with his family at the age of seven. The main character in Shteyngarts novel is named Lenny Abramov.
So in your novel, Lennys parents are immigrants from Russia and his girlfriend, Eunices parents are immigrants from South Korea. As is your fiance. Shes of South Korean descent, right?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yes.
GROSS: So what are some observations that youve had based on your relationship with your fiance? Yeah, based on the fact that youre both from completely different countries and cultures but you share the bond of being, you know, from immigrant family.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Mm-hmm. Well, the Korean culture is a culture I've been fascinated with every since I went to Stuyvesant High School, which is I think 95 percent Asian. I think I was the one white guy there. It just, it felt so warm and real to me because it reminded me so much of Soviet Jewish culture in the sense that, you were a small Koreas a small country surrounded by giants like Japan and China. The relationship is sometimes horrible, sometimes less horrible but its a small country surrounded by others.
When youre a Soviet Jew, youre a small people - the Jews surrounded by a larger nation like Russia. You never feel completely accepted. So the one thing, though, that you have thats great is this incredible need to succeed through knowledge. Knowledge is so respected by both cultures. Its respected by a lot of cultures but I think here there's almost a kind of insane emphasis that often has a terrible effect on kids.
I mean, I remember just how our parents would say, what, you know, with grades like that you'll only get into Cornell or University of Pennsylvania. And I still remember my average, 86.894, which is the average that I gave to Lenny. So in my life I've been so lucky because I've met so many wonderful Korean people. My mentor, Chang-rae Lee, of course is a wonderful Korean author. And when I was writing this book I was a little nervous and I thought, oh boy, you know, its always okay to write about your own kind, you can write whatever you want. But, you know, here I am, Mr. White Guy, writing about Korean culture.
So one of the first things I did is, of course, I gave it to him and I said, is it okay Chang-rae Lee? And he said, you know, he said you write us very lovingly. And that - I took a deep sigh and I thought, all right, no matter what people will say, at least I have my mentor and my friend's approval.
GROSS: Let me ask you about a scene that you were maybe a little uncomfortable to write. This is a scene at a church with a Korean minister and congregation. Its Reverend Soks(ph) Sinners Crusade. Why dont you describe this church and whats going on in it.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, this was one of these parts of the book that reads to me more like journalism than actual fiction because a good Korean friend of mine, he and I went to one of these crusades at Madison Square Garden. And so the scene that I describe is fairly accurate. This Korean minister gets on the podium and there's all these people who look like they just came back from working 800 shifts at their store somewhere, they look tired. And the last thing they need is for this guy to climb on the podium and he starts screaming at them for hours on end about how they're not good, they're dirty.
And especially, the one thing that really struck me was the line: You must throw away of yourself. You must throw away of yourself. You are not good. You are not good enough to stand before Christ yet. So you must throw away of yourself and then you will be okay to stand before Christ.
And, you know, for me, I'm getting all kinds of flashbacks to Hebrew School, to all these different things. Like you had to say the prayer the boys were separated and they had to say the prayer, thank you God for not making me a woman. Things like that. Things were religion is shouting at you, telling you, you have to do this and this and this and this. And youre a tired impressionable immigrant and youre just sitting there receiving all these strange waves of negative energy.
And yet, I think a lot of people really, you know, I walked out of there shell-shocked but a lot of people seemed to they almost breathed a sigh of relief like going to a very damaging deep sauna and they just said, okay, well, we were beaten with a birch twig for eight hours but now we're ready to go back and work the night shift at whatever business we have and try to succeed that way, you know.
It was a very moving thing because it made me remember what its like to be at the bottom of a place, not know anything and you want to reach out for the figures that you think are going to help you the authority figures, whether its priests or rabbis or even immediate members of your family. And when they fail you in some way, that hurt is so much deeper because theres nothing else that you can reach out to. Youre all alone in this country with them. Thats all you have.
And that, I think, is the deep pain that Eunice feels and tries to express throughout the book. And that is I think why she turns to Lenny. She sees him - hes older, you know, theres certain things he knows. She sees him as a kind of authority figure somebody who can step in and help her the way nobody helped her when she was growing up. And Lenny, sweet as he is, I dont think is ultimately up to the task.
GROSS: Now your character Lenny, says at one point in your novel, who was I? A secular progressive? Perhaps. A liberal? Whatever that even means anymore. Maybe. But basically, at the end of the busted rainbow, at the end of the day, I'm little more than my parents son.
Do you identify with that?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yeah. Sometimes when I listen to my voice and the intonations and the expressions and I'm talking in a fairly sophisticated English, and my fathers English was never that sophisticated, but sometimes I hear him so clearly. And despite our different political orientations and despite the fact that we really are from different planets, I can feel that strange life force of his inside me, which is very unnerving, you know.
I realize that as far as one can go, and I've come very far and I tried to do so many different things in my life, in the end, you really are still them with all the things that youve done to not be them. And I think...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHTEYNGART: You know what I mean?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: And Lenny and Eunice are both those people, too. As far as they try to run, in the end, both realize that all they can be is their parents, and added to that, the stuff that theyve tried to do to make sure they dont become them.
GROSS: You know, in our previous interview from 2002, you talked about how you tried out all these different things, Judaism, after leaving the Soviet Union; then capitalism when you were in high school at Stuyvesant; then becoming a hippy when you went to college in Oberlin. And you said after all these manifestations, the real question was who am I? Who is Gary Shteyngart? I didnt know. Then you said that the creation of Gary Shteyngart as a viable persona began when you started seeing an analyst.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And this might be too personal, but I'm wondering how an analyst helped you integrate the different parts of yourself into a person.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, when you come from a country like Russia, you have very different expectations of what makes sense and what doesnt, you know. So what I think my therapist did in some ways, my analyst I should say, is he simply listened to things. And then he wouldnt render a judgment but he would make me understand that the way I was brought up, it may work in some parts of the world but that doesnt have to be my destiny. You can be a different person.
Certain things will never change, but you dont have to be completely indebted to the past. And you dont have to be a complete facsimile of the past either. That is something very hard for people from very traditional backgrounds. Its like leaving the, you know, the Orthodox Jewish faith or something. Its very very difficult to do.
So I think being in analysis for so long, and I think I'm almost about to leave, its time to depart, but it has completely changed my life around because I know I know who I am. You know, its not entirely a great thing to be me, you know, its okay. Its not bad. But its a stable thing now. I wake up in the morning, theres no, you know, I'm not going to snort horse tranquilizer or...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHTEYNGART: ...or run naked through the quads of Oberlin or whatever. Those days are behind me. And what I want to do now is just wake every day, be as productive as I can, try to fight my iPhone fixation, you know, and eat foods that are low in carbohydrates.
GROSS: I think I've heard you say two contradictory things in the past couple of minutes. One is that what you are is basically your parents child with the things that youve added on to that in your life. But the other is what you learned from your therapist, that youre not just a product of the past, you can be yourself.
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Right. Well, the things that you add on, you know, thats what - thats something that therapy allows you to achieve. Those add-ons dont come from free.
You know, when started writing my first book, for example, the Ashkenazi pessimism, the Soviet Ashkenazi pessimism that runs so deep through my veins did not allow me to even submit my first book for publication. I finished most of it my senior year at Oberlin. It just sat there and sat there and sat there. Because, you know, I kept thinking, well, the same kind of thought that my parents or their parents would think, I'm not good. I'm not a good person. This is not a good book. This book won't make anyone happier, richer, anything. This book will simply air our dirty laundry. I can never submit this book.
One year into therapy I had a book deal. The book was, you know, the book didnt change. The therapist simply said, well, why dont you submit this book? And not like in a, you know, why aren't you doing it? But simply, talk about the reasons you dont want to submit it. And that all happened within the first year of analysis.
So yes, you are your parents child. Always. Always. Always. But those add-ons allow you to live a life that is not the life that your parents would've prescribed for you. Thats a huge difference. And the hope is that if you reproduce, your children will be even more so than you are. They will have even more leeway to get away from you, and their children, and their children, and their children.
GROSS: Your work is largely humorous, satirical. Do you think that humor helps distance you from either pessimism or depression that is kind of inbred in you?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yeah. Yes. I think its time to whip out the serotonin selective re-uptake inhibitor.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yes. Humor is what I have. People say, ah, hes going to write some schticky crap and hes just, you know, hes a humorist, et cetera. Oh please. Without humor I can't go on and I doubt many of my readers would go on either. Humor is so important.
I am here to have fun too with my work. I'm here to entertain people. Remember when you used to wake up and think my god, I've got to run to the bookstore because Xs book is coming out? I can't wait to read it. Its going to be funny. Its going to be sharp. I can't wait to get my hands on it. And somehow, that kind of literature has begun to escape. I mean, there's a very kind of mass market literature, but a lot of the other kind of literature has become very academic.
You know, a lot of it is taught in MFA programs. I teach at one too. A lot of it can be beautifully sculpted, wonderfully written, like a little Faberge egg and at the same time, miss the vitality, the humor, the feelings of being in love and the worry about death that often gives rise to the highest order of humor of all, which is probably why Jewish humor is so up at the top of the charts. For me thats so, that would be terrible, you know, and I just want, I want fiction to remain a vital force for entertainment and not just for contemplation. Both things can exist. Why does only Mad Men, why can only Mad Men tickle our funny bones when so much literature can do just as well?
GROSS: My guest is Gary Shteyngart. His new satirical novel is called Super Sad True Love Story. Well talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Lets get back to our interview with Gary Shteyngart. His new satirical novel is set in the new future. Its called Super Sad True Love Story.
Now your new novel, you actually did a satirical trailer for it as if it were a movie, like a movie trailer.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Its online. Theres a lot of, like, really good writers giving, you know, fake testimonials about the book. And the writers include Edmond White, Jay McInerney, Mary Gaitskill. James Franco makes...
Mr. SHTEYNGART: James Franco...
GROSS: He makes an appearance because I think he was one of your students at Columbia?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yes he was. Yes.
GROSS: Yeah. So was it your idea to do a trailer, like a funny trailer?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yeah. I wanted to do a satirical trailer because theres so many yeah, theres so many heavy-handed sort of terrifying music in the background kind of trailers. I was up at Yaddo, the artist colony and I was really going through a lot of cabin fever. It was the middle of winter. We were drunk all the time - you know, its Yaddo, youre drunk. And I woke up after a nap after drinking too much and I just thought, you know, how about a trailer about a writer who never learned how to read. He's completely illiterate.
And I thought oh, I could do it in a Russian accent. You know, I can't read. And I thought, well, who are we going to have for this? Then I tell the testimonials and so many of my friends are such great actors. They're just, you know, I always think that some of the best writers can they sort of, when they create dialogue on the page, they kind of say it out loud and then they're able to just communicate as actors really well. And my thesis proved to be completely correct.
Mary Gaitskill is hilarious. Edmond White is hilarious. Jay McInerney is beyond hilarious. Jeffrey Eugenides is stunning. And, of course, James Franco, who was a student of mine, is a brilliant actor. All I had to do was find a perfect Dockson(ph), a really nice weenie dog to play my pet, and one of my students had a great one. So it just came together and we had a wild time. And you know, it was, I think its actually helping the book because whenever people see me they say, youre that guy who can't read who wrote a book.
GROSS: So what do you think of the idea of doing a trailer to sell a book?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, nowadays nobody wants to read books, so anything you can do to sell book, you know, if I could sneak a book into - inside a knish and sell it that way, you know, buy the knish and then read my book when you finish eating it, that's fine with me too. Whatever it takes to communicate to people that, you know, hey, books still exist and some of them can be quite humorous.
I mean, the trailer had nothing do with my novel, obviously, but the idea was to sort of get across, hey, Gary Shteyngart, hes okay. You know, he can make fun of himself and even though he can't read, hes still a good writer. And, because thats sort of, thats another thing that I think the trailers sort of making fun of is that everyone is a writer now. You know, everyone's a writer. Nobody wants to read but everybody wants to write. These MFA programs, we can't, you know, we can't turn them away. Theres just millions of applicants. Everybody wants to be a writer. Its this huge culture of self-expression.
And there's a magazine called Tin House in Portland that I love, which did this thing where they, you know, in order to - if youre going to submit a story to them you also have to submit a receipt showing that you bought a book recently. Thats the only way theyll look at your story. So I think thats absolutely hilarious. And the other thing about book culture that makes me happy, in Seattle - I think the Pacific Northwest is like the last place where books will be read in the world. In Seattle my friend Christopher Frizzelle, whos the editor of The Stranger, a wonderful newspaper there, runs this reading series where nobody - I mean, people just sit there reading in this beautiful hotel by a fireplace.
They show up, hundreds of people, sometimes its standing room only, and they take out books, and instead of reading out loud, they just read to themselves while this fire crackles and they drink wonderful bourbons and things like that. That was so touching to me, to see a whole community of readers just sitting there, not broadcasting what they're reading. So it wasnt about them basically. It was about the act of reading, which is trying to commune with the mind of another human being without constantly needing to express yourself, to upload your opinions about something. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.
And thats what I've been missing too, I think in a way, because now as a writer, youre now, youre expected to be somebody who does everything that he or she can to connect with people. And some of it is really wonderful. But on the other hand, a lot of it takes you away from what got you interested in doing this to begin with, which is just to sit in a quiet place and try to understand what you are, who you are and what the world is around you.
GROSS: Just one more question. Since your novel is so much about how technology is changing people and changing things and shortening attention span and changing communications and changing what we mean by news, do you feel compelled to keep up with everything or do you feel like you can afford to not keep up without being accused of being out of date yourself? You know, as a writer you want to kind of connect somehow to the zeitgeist. At the same time, keeping up is so hard. Every day theres so much new news and movies and books and television and information and personal texting. I could go on and on.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yes. Yes. I think its true. I think - when I was writing this book, I obviously had the zeitgeist, I had, you know, I had a big Z tattooed onto my forehead for zeitgeist because I had to obviously keep track of everything that was happening. And thank God I had a great research assistant. But it was an endless information overload. It made me very, very unhappy because I was so tied in with everything that was going on and I had no personal life of my own.
And it really, you know, it began to affect my personal relationships. It began to affect the way I dealt with people. I got run over by three cabs because I was so busy getting information out of my iTelephone, just pressing it and pressing it and hoping something good would come out of it, you know. And it was not - heres the thing about this new technology, I think its incredibly effective. I just dont think its made anyone much happier. I think if anything, we are now always connected but we dont know what we're connected to. You know, its just an endless stream of information.
The next book I'm writing will be a collection of short essays which will be sort of styled into a memoir. And that will allow me to actually disconnect for a while, I hope for quite a long while, and to sit with my parents were so sweet. They saved every little scrap of information about my past every little, you know, when I was kid in Hebrew I wrote a satire of the Torah called the Ganorah(ph). You know, with chapters such as Sexodus instead of Exodus. It still exists. Its still written on a real scroll. And I can go back and look at that and try to understand my past and write about it.
And in a sense, I can live an analog life at least during the time that it takes to write this book. And then, of course, when the book is over I'm probably going to write another novel thats very much set in the present future. And that will, of course, require me to, you know, by that point, I'm sure there will be a wire connected right directly into my brain and it will be pumping me with even more information.
GROSS: Gary Shteyngart, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Thank you. Its always wonderful.
GROSS: Gary Shteyngarts new satirical novel is called Super Sad True Love Story. You can read an excerpt of the book and find a link to the book trailer we talked about on our website, freshair.npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.