Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story, signals his move out of Soviet territory and into a near-future New York City, where books have no place in a hyper-technological society. Yet, in our conversation a few weeks ago, many of Shteyngart’s expressions (such as “the intertube”) reveal an innocence he has maintained in our own heavily digitized world. He reflects that now, after having lived with this book for three years, he needs to “retreat to the countryside and live in a pristine environment where the iTelephone doesn’t work.”
Super Sad True Love Story switches between letters, diary entries, and dialogues. Why did you choose these formats?
Well, you know, it’s sort of hard to read an entire book cover to cover these days. Most people just don’t come with the same equipment that we used to have. When they look at a book they think, “Oh my God, it’s so many pages! What am I going to do? How will I ever get through this?” So, you’ll notice the cover of this book is very flashy—it’s almost like you want to press parts of it, hoping that something will pop up. So, the insides of the book—the “text” you would call it—have the same kind of approach to it. Everything is mixed up, and different stuff comes at you at different speeds. Just as the reader is about to fall asleep with one kind of format, all of the sudden it changes.
Your new book also features some bizarre clothing trends, especially those Onionskin jeans. What’s your assessment of fashion today?
Well, first of all, a couple years ago the pubic bone started making an appearance. I’ve never seen so many pubic bones! I mean, it’s shocking. I know them so well now. Forget the asscrack–that’s been around for a while.
After placing two novels in the Soviet Union, why did you move away from that setting for your third novel?
Boy, it’s getting tiring! You know? When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, it collapsed. I wrote about that collapse in two books already, but I have an uncanny feeling we’re not doing very well here, too. I think I have a sixth sense when it comes to failing empires. That’s sort of my specialty. If I were around during the Roman Empire I’d be writing a book a week. I’d be so happy! I love things on the decline because that’s really the natural progression of our lives. We’re born, we’re feisty for the first couple of years, and then the inevitable decline begins. That’s what appeals to me—the long slide into oblivion.
You have identified yourself and your characters as being “beta immigrants”—those who don’t achieve success in America. However, with all the Gary Shteyngart praise that’s out there and three published novels, you’ve now become an “alpha immigrant.” How does a “beta immigrant” finally achieve “alpha” status?
Oh, it sucks. Part of me still hopes that this book will fail, and I could go back to. . . where would I go? Grad school? Follow my friend James Franco back into the Academy? I’m mortified at the prospect of failure; but, as my shrink has always told me, I’m just as mortified by the prospect of success. It’s tough. Your whole life you’re primed to be—well, everything is really set in the formative years. I went to Hebrew School, so I never considered myself a human being, surrounded by angry Jews who put you down all the time. You’re meant to suck for the rest of your life, and when something good happens you just can’t believe it.
Literature has a dismal future in Super Sad True Love Story. Do you think there are any redeeming qualities about consumer culture and the increasingly digital society we live in?
Well, the redeeming qualities are the technology. Technology can be positive in an Orwellian sense. I feel like a kind of “Winston Junior” in 1984, and the party’s run by Steve Jobs, he’s “Big Uncle.” But in terms of literature—in terms of what we do—there’s no way in hell it can ever benefit, because it chops up the mind. In fact, speaking of Orwell, that’s pretty much what the party wanted to do —divorce humanity from its language—with Newspeak, in 1984. If you look at the current speak and iPhone-speak, it’s also these staccato little signals that don’t really form a sentence or a paragraph, and certainly not a book.
That was a great performance in your promo video. Have you thought about pursuing acting?
Yes! I took an acting class with Louise Lasser, Woody Allen’s first wife and co-star in many movies. I’ve done some other indie films, if you look on the YouTube. I love acting—it’s great. I have to broaden my repertoire because, boy, am I ever typecast! “Misogynist Soviet Jew” seems to be the role I’ve been thrust into. I love Paul Giamatti—God, that man is like a walking Chekhov. His connection to humanity is unbelievable, and those feelings of low self-esteem—the way that all comes together on the screen? Delicious. I saw Sideways eighteen times. I just thought, “Wow, this guy is much bigger loser than I’ll ever be.” But it felt real.
What about writing for television or film?
I never learned how to write. I can’t read.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
You have to get an MFA. Without an MFA nobody will look at you right, so you have to get an MFA. You have to go to the right parties (The Paris Review is great). “Don’t be pretentious” is my first advice to young writers. This is the big problem—just because you’re getting an MFA doesn’t mean you have to write for the Academy. Be true to your personality. Don’t temper your personality down with words. Don’t build defensive fortresses around yourself with words—words are your friends.
How do you want to die?
I think it has to be food-related. I think my heart explodes out of happiness, pure joy. Something very fatty—I love Italian lard, they sell blocks of that stuff there. . . it’s like veined marble. . . and then, a couple of vodka shots. . . and then, a Paris Review party. Put that all together—I’m eating lard, I’m drinking vodka, I’m being really pretentious, talking about how Madame Bovary isn’t my favorite Flaubert novel, and then all of the sudden I explode! Can you imagine that?