Author Shteyngart Envisions Love Amid Ruins of a Collapsed America

September 22, 2010 at 5:25 PM EDT
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Author Gary Shteyngart takes a satirical approach to the economic meltdown in America, combined with a love story in a world of tech-crazy savages in his new novel "Super Sad True Love Story." Jeffrey Brown sits down with the author.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: A new novel explores love amid the ruins. Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s the very near future, and many of today’s greatest fears have come to pass, big-time.

Among much else, the government is bankrupt. Every detail of your personal life is available on a handheld device, and available to everyone, and few people would be caught dead actually reading a book.

But there’s still room for a love story of sort, a “Super Sad True Love Story,” in fact, the latest novel by author Gary Shteyngart. Born in 1972 in what was then Leningrad in the Soviet Union, he came to the U.S. at age 7. He lives in New York. And this is his third novel. Welcome to you.

GARY SHTEYNGART, author, “Super Sad True Love Story”: Thank you. Great to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I gather that you started writing this before the economic meltdown, and reality just got stranger and stranger.

GARY SHTEYNGART: It’s so hard to be a novelist these days. I wish I were a blogger instead. There’s — things move so fast.

I started writing in 2006, and I thought, what is the craziest thing that can happen? What if the banks failed, like Lehman Brothers? What if the car companies went bankrupt? And, by 2008, almost everything that I had sketched out had already happened, so I had to completely destroy America.


JEFFREY BROWN: Take it down even further.

GARY SHTEYNGART: I had to — it gets bought out by a Norwegian hedge fund at the end.


JEFFREY BROWN: But were you — were you thinking all these things around us and what would happen, the what-ifs, what would happen if they all just got a little crazier?

GARY SHTEYNGART: A little crazier. I grew up in the Soviet Union. I remember what it’s like when an empire teeters at the brink. The patriotism grows. The xenophobia — xenophobia grows. And the flags get bigger. And I kind of start to see these signs in our own country. And that began to alarm me.

And I thought, what if a completely illiterate America fell apart, like maybe next Tuesday or something like that?


GARY SHTEYNGART: And that was the beginning of the idea behind this book.

And I also thought of “1984,” because Julia and Winston, they’re in love. It’s a terrible system around them, Big Brother. In my case, it’s Big Otter is the terrible creature.

But the — what happens if two people try to stay together as the country around them falls apart?

JEFFREY BROWN: And the two people in this case, the protagonists, they are both immigrants.

GARY SHTEYNGART: Yes. It’s one of the first immigrant books I know where an immigrant writes about a different kind of immigrant, in this case a Korean-American.

She’s also my first attractive character I have ever had. The last book, “Absurdistan,” featured a 325-pound man with a bad circumcision. This is much better. She’s 24 years old. She’s adorable. And Lenny is a 39-year-old Russian American with a huge bald spot. I don’t know where I come up with these things.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you — and you tell the story through diary entries, through e-mail and text messages, with all of the corruption of language that that entails, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Why that? Why that way?

GARY SHTEYNGART: I love listening to language. And I love to hear it sort of filleted and chopped up and destroyed. And I do teach at Columbia, one of the — a place of very smart young people, but I love to hear all the new acronyms coming out.

So, in the book, I had to invent a whole new series of acronyms, like TIMATOV — T-I-M-A-T-O-V — which means, think I’m about to openly vomit, and all these different things.


GARY SHTEYNGART: So, the book isn’t sort of — it’s not against the new generation. It’s just interesting to hear how language evolves and gets also degraded in its own way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I mean, that’s — what is it then? It’s not against the new — you’re not — you’re not — you’re not coming out against the way people talk or communicate. But you are certainly having a lot of fun with it.

Is that satire? What is that?

GARY SHTEYNGART: I am having a lot of fun with it, maybe too much fun with it.

I think what worries me, and I think one of the main preoccupations of the book is, what happens when people stop reading? What happens when the long-form text goes out of business, and all we’re dealt — all we have are little tiny bits of information that are constantly being thrown against our retinas?

This is sort of the problem that I see. Nobody is talking about books at the watercooler. People want to talk about “Mad Men” or “The Sopranos” or “The Wire,” shows that have novelist elements and shows that I love very much.

But it’s almost as if we’re too tired after a long day’s work of constantly dealing with information, our iPhones going off, all these different things happening, that we don’t want to retreat to our home and read a 400-page book.

JEFFREY BROWN: I don’t want to give away what happens here, but there is a love story, as you said, at the core. For all of the kind of stuff going on around it, there is an earnest, actual love story.

GARY SHTEYNGART: It’s interesting. I mean, the more — everything changes. And people now don’t meet at a bar or a church or whatever. They meet online, and that’s when they go out, but the basic elements of love continue. Everybody is lonely, and everybody wants to connect with somebody who can make their life hopefully a little bit better.

That doesn’t change. It’s the society around us that changes. What’s interesting to me is when people don’t know how to communicate to each other. In this book, talking is called verbaling. And it’s rarely done. Almost everyone talks through their — it’s called an apparat — and everybody has this little pendant-like device and they talk on it. And nobody likes to talk.

And I remember there was a seminar — I think it was at NYU — on how to talk without using Facebook. And so two people from — who were first-year students would get next up to each other and one would say: “Hey, my name is Bob. Where you from?”

“Oh, I’m from Syosset.”

“Oh, I’m from Long Island, too.”

You know, and they were so shocked that they could just verbal each other without actually using a device.

GARY SHTEYNGART: And it was shocking to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even if they were in the same room or in the same — across the table.

GARY SHTEYNGART: We are never in the same room anymore. People no longer really exist in a physical sense.

You know, often, I find myself talking to somebody, and half of my — or 80 percent of my attention is shifting down to my iPhone, and I’m trying to figure out all these different competing things that are happening. And I think that’s sort of what the book is about.

The book is about two people who fall in love and who can’t really — who try to break through this giant electronic border between them. And the thing that connects them is, they’re both immigrants, and they are both from terribly dysfunctional families.

JEFFREY BROWN: And are you — but are you thinking of this as — do you approach it as a — as writing satire, or as looking at the problems, or are you just looking for a good story?

GARY SHTEYNGART: I’m always looking for a good story. You know, people say, “Oh, it’s a novel of ideas.”

Well, it’s nice if it is. But, for me, everything begins with character and everything begins with the idea, what’s the conflict going to be about? And the conflict here is, how do you fall in love in the future? You know, what’s going to happen then, in a world where introspection doesn’t exist, meditation of any kind doesn’t exist, everything — everyone is always on?

And what happens when you mix two different people? I mean, my Lenny, he’s a very old-fashioned character. He reads books, which the younger generation finds very smelly. They can’t even look at books.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, they scoff. They’re — they’re — yes.

GARY SHTEYNGART: It’s terrible. And Eunice spends most of her time online shopping on her little apparat. So, my question is — it’s almost, you know, I have a giraffe and an elephant. How am I going to mate these two?

JEFFREY BROWN: And are you hopeful for the future?


JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, dare I ask? I mean, not this future you have presented for next Tuesday, but let’s say the Tuesday afterwards.


GARY SHTEYNGART: The Tuesday afterwards, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there hope for society and for literature?

GARY SHTEYNGART: Is there hope in 2011?

I’m a — I’m a Soviet Jew, so I have this Ashkenazi pessimism that’s very built-in. I don’t think anything good will ever happen. And when it does, I’m completely surprised. I mean, I’m shocked that people are buying this book.

It’s — things can get better. One thing I hope for is that things come in waves, you know, and we are not just an empire in decline; we’re a country that’s taking a slight detour into relative poverty. And we’ll be back, and culture will be back, and literature will be back.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, this new novel is “Super Sad True Love Story.” Gary Shteyngart, nice to talk to you.

GARY SHTEYNGART: Nice to talk to you.