Gary Shteyngart isn’t considered one of America’s best young novelists for nothing. Born in Leningrad in 1972, the long-time New Yorker’s picaresque debut The Russian Debutante’s Handbook won the Stephen Crane First Fiction Award in 2002, and his riotous follow-up Absurdistan was named one of the best books of 2006 by the NY Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Time. Last summer, Mr. Shteyngart published his much-anticipated third novel Super Sad True Love Story to rave reviews with Publishers Weekly proclaiming it his best book yet. A funny and frightening vision of an all-too-plausible future, Super Sad tells the tale of 39-year-old Lenny Abramov, a hapless romantic obsessed with living forever, his books, and 20-something Korean-American Eunice Park. Though America is mired in debt to China, ruled by the Bipartisan Party, and consumed by superficial social media, an undeterred Lenny vows to love Eunice and show her “there is still value in being a real human being.” Named a 2010 NY Times Notable Book, Super Sad is proof positive of author David Mitchell’s view that “the American novel is safe in Gary Shteyngart’s gifted hands.” Mr. Shteyngart recently took a brief break from his busy touring schedule to speak with us about Super Sad and what he’s working on next.
Evanston Public Library: Where did the idea for Super Sad True Love Story originate? How did you come to pair such a poignant May-December romance with such a satirical vision of America’s meteoric decline?
Gary Shteyngart: Well, I’ve always loved 1984 because it’s a dystopia, but there’s a real love at the center of it. In 1984 the state invades the privacy of its citizens, but in the future of Super Sad (much as in our present) people share their innermost thoughts with the entire world for the corporations and the state to see.
EPL: Rarely has a portrayal of America’s nosedive into bankruptcy, materialism, and violence been as flat-out funny as in Super Sad. At the end of the day, would you rather your readers be entertained or enlightened?
GS: Thank you. I think I’m on the side of entertainment. I’m bored to tears by attempts to “educate” the public which have a vaguely socialist-realist ring to them. But that’s not to say that I don’t have a point of view about technology, the economy, and our world in general.
EPL: In the novel, Lenny Abramov works for Post-Human Services selling High Net Worth Individuals a program for achieving immortality. What would you say is at the root of America’s youth obsession? Is the belief you can defy death a uniquely American preoccupation?
GS: Americans think we are a special people. For the religious, there must be a section of heaven roped off for US passport holders. For many of the scientifically minded, the hope lies in technology. In the end, sadly, we will all cease to exist.
EPL: Super Sad takes an exceedingly dim – though hilarious – view of new technology with people’s reliance on their ever-present “apparat” essentially making them illiterate. What is your personal relationship with technology?
GS: Since writing this book I am on Facebook and my iPhone 24 hours a day. Even as I sleep my nose taps out secret messages.
EPL: Can you give EPL readers a sense of what you’re working on next?
GS: I’m writing a memoir! As a 38-year-old man of Russian origin there aren’t many years left. It’s time to get going with the past.
Interview by Russell J.