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Gary Shteyngart: A 'Love Story' In A Sad Future

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Gary Shteyngart: A 'Love Story' In A Sad Future

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Gary Shteyngart: A 'Love Story' In A Sad Future

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DAVE DAVIES, Host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for 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 class war.

The news media is dominated by the New York Lifestyle Times, Fox Liberty Prime and Fox Liberty Ultra. Most of the news media content is journalists texting about themselves.

That's the America Gary Shteyngart has created in his novel "Super Sad True Love Story," which is set in the very near future. It's now out in paperback. 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 was one of the writers featured in the New Yorker edition showcasing the 20 best writers under 40. He was born in Leningrad in 1972 and moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was seven. He's written two other satirical novels: "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" and "Absurdistan." Terry spoke to Gary Shteyngart last August.

TERRY GROSS, Host:

Gary Shteyngart, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

GARY SHTEYNGART: 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.

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)

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.

DAVIES: 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.

OK, 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 and 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 alarmingly close to the present.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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?

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.

GROSS: There are great political divisions in that country. There's even an insurrection that happens in the book. What are the divisions about?

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?

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 that means.

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 its 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 things 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. 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?

SHTEYNGART: Yeah, no, it's so depressing. I feel like I'm insane to write novels. I'm 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, 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?

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 up 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...

GROSS: It's a great show.

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 minds 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.

DAVIES: Writer Gary Shteyngart, speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview recorded in August with writer Gary Shteyngart. His novel, "Super Sad True Love Story," is now out in paperback.

GROSS: OK, 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?

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.

DAVIES: 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 always be - 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.

GROSS: Did you go through the death of any family or friends while you were writing this book?

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) 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)

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 I - that's sort of my platonic idea of what - 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.

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. Whoo, 100 kilograms. Now we're getting somewhere.

GROSS: But you probably didn't feel that way about your weight.

SHTEYNGART: Oh, I didn't care.

GROSS: You didn't?

SHTEYNGART: Oh, no, I didn't care. When you were a Soviet kid in a Hebrew school back then, you were - it 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," 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.

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 we - somebody snuck in a People magazine with Brooke Shields's 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 Miss Shields.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHTEYNGART: Now kids are not dreaming of hugging Mrs. Shields, or who's this famous jailed 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 than 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?

SHTEYNGART: I haven't gotten a Master's in porn, unfortunately. I don't have the time or the bandwidth.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHTEYNGART: But, you know, but 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: Now, your new novel, you actually did a satirical trailer for it as if it were a movie, like a movie trailer. It's online. There's a lot of, like, really good writers giving, you know, fake testimonials about the book. The writers include Edmond White, Jay McInerney, Mary Gaitskill. James Franco makes...

SHTEYNGART: James Franco...

GROSS: He makes an appearance because I think he was one of your students at Columbia?

SHTEYNGART: Yes, he was.

GROSS: So what do you think of the idea of doing a trailer to sell a book?

SHTEYNGART: Well, nowadays nobody wants to read books, so anything you can do to sell book, whatever it takes to communicate to people that, you know, hey, books still exist. I mean, the trailer had nothing do with my novel, obviously, but the idea was to sort of get across, hey, Gary Shteyngart, he's OK, you know, he can make fun of himself.

Another thing that I think the trailer is 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. There's just millions of applicants. Everybody wants to be a writer. It's 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 you're going to submit a story to them, you have to also submit a receipt showing that you bought a book recently. That's the only way they'll look at your story. So I think that's 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, who's 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 it's 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 wasn't 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 that's what I've been missing too, I think, in a way, because now as a writer, you're not - you're 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.

DAVIES: Gary Shteyngart's satirical novel "Super Sad True Love Story" is now out in paperback. You can read an excerpt of the book and find a link to the book trailer he spoke about on our website, freshair.npr.org. Gary Shteyngart will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

We're listening to Terry's interview recorded in August with Gary Shteyngart. His new satirical novel, "Super Sad True Love Story," is now out in paperback. The book's set in the very near future, where there's only one political party - the Bipartisan Party. Class warfare is breaking out. The infrastructure is collapsing and 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 Shteyngart's novel is named Lenny Abramov.

GROSS: So in your novel, Lenny's parents are immigrants from Russia and his girlfriend Eunice's parents are immigrants from South Korea. As is your fiance. She's of South Korean descent, right?

SHTEYNGART: Yes.

GROSS: So what are some observations that you've had based on your relationship with your fiance? Based on the fact that you're both from completely different countries and cultures, but you share the bond of being, you know, from immigrant families.

SHTEYNGART: Mm-hmm. Well, the Korean culture is a culture I've been fascinated with ever 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're a small - Korea's a small country surrounded by giants like Japan and China. The relationship is sometimes horrible, sometimes less horrible, but it's a small country surrounded by others.

When you're a Soviet Jew, you're 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 that's great is this incredible need to succeed through knowledge. Knowledge is so respected by both cultures. It's 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-American author. And when I was writing this book I was a little nervous and I thought, oh boy, you know, it's always OK 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 OK, 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. It's Reverend Sok's(ph) Sinners Crusade. Why don't you describe this church and what's going on in it.

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.

OK: 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 OK 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 where religion is shouting at you, telling you you have to do this and this and this and this. And you're a tired, impressionable immigrant and you're 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 seem to - they almost breathed a sigh of relief like going to a very damaging deep sauna and they just said, OK, 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 it's 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 there's nothing else that you can reach out to. You're all alone in this country with them. That's 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 - he's older, you know, there's 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 don't 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?

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 father's 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 you've done to not be them. And I think...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Right.

SHTEYNGART: You know what I mean?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

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 they've tried to do to make sure they don't 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 didn't know. And then you said that the creation of Gary Shteyngart as a viable persona began when you started seeing an analyst.

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.

SHTEYNGART: Well, when you come from a country like Russia, you have very different expectations of what makes sense and what doesn't, 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 wouldn't 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 doesn't have to be my destiny. You can be a different person.

Certain things will never change, but you don't have to be completely indebted to the past. And you don't have to be a complete facsimile of the past either. That is something very hard for people from very traditional backgrounds. It's like leaving the, you know, the Orthodox Jewish faith or something. It's very, very difficult to do.

So I think being in analysis for so long, and I think I'm almost about to leave, it's time to depart, but it has completely changed my life around because I know - I know who I am. You know, it's not entirely a great thing to be me, you know. It's OK. It's not bad. But it's a stable thing now. I wake up in the morning, there's no, you know, I'm not going to snort horse tranquilizer or...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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 up 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 you've added on to that in your life. But the other is what you learn from your therapist, that you're not - you're not just a product of the past, you can be yourself.

SHTEYNGART: Right. Well, the things that you add on, you know, that's what - that's something that therapy allows you to achieve. Those add-ons don't come from free.

DAVIES: 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 didn't change. The therapist simply said, well, why don't you submit this book? And not like in a, you know, why aren't you doing it? But simply, talk about the reasons you don't 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. That's 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)

SHTEYNGART: Yeah. Yes. I think it's time to whip out the serotonin selective re-uptake inhibitors.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHTEYNGART: Yes. Humor is what I have. People say, oh, he's going to write some schticky crap and he's just, you know, he's a humorist, etcetera. 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 X's book is coming out? I can't wait to read it. It's going to be funny. It's 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 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 best - the highest order of humor of all, which is probably why Jewish humor is so up at the top of the charts.

For me that's 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: Gary Shteyngart, thank you so much for talking with us.

SHTEYNGART: Thank you. It's always wonderful.

DAVIES: Gary Shteyngart's satirical novel "Super Sad True Love Story" is now out in paperback. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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