The True Name of Gary
Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan is the hilarious tale of Misha Vainberg, the obese son of one of Russia’s wealthiest men, and his exploits in a decrepit post-Soviet republic. Before being blown up by a landmine himself, Misha’s Beloved Papa, a passionate Zionist and decidedly non-traditional entrepreneur, murdered an American businessman, and so the American government is refusing to readmit Misha, even though he is a proud alumnus of Accidental College, a Midwestern temple of the liberal arts. Stranded in St. Petersburg and pining for his Bronx-raised girlfriend, Rouenna, and his Upper West Side analyst, Dr. Levine, Misha zips down to Absurdistan in the hopes of finagling a passport that will get him back to Manhattan. A comedy of errors ensues, of course, and the book is not only laugh-out-loud funny on nearly every page, but also a poignant exploration of our increasingly globalized, and increasingly absurd, world.
A couple of days after his punim graced the cover of the New York Times Book Review, and just before he set off on a coast-to-coast publicity tour, I sat down with the author to discuss the new book, his imaginary friends, and—what else?—the future of the Jews. Appropriately enough, we met for a drink in Shteyngart’s neighborhood, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in a dim hipster bar surrounded by Asian grocery and hardware stores, and catercorner from the grand old Forward Building, now being transformed into high-rent condos but still bearing the busts of Marx and Engels on its façade. Recent immigrants, a healthy dollop of Jewish history, Communist icons, more than a whiff of the East in the air: this is the territory Shteyngart has staked out as his own, and it is as much the homeland of his globe-trotting fiction as Newark is for Philip Roth’s. The following are some excerpts from our conversation.
JL: In Absurdistan, you’ve got not one Nathan Zuckerman-like alter ego, but three, by my count: Misha Vainberg, Jerry Shteynfarb, and (in a repeat performance from The Russian Debutante’s Handbook) Vladimir Girshkin. Why so many?
GS: Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, and when I was growing up—especially in America, when I didn’t speak English for a long time—I literally invented a doppelganger for myself. I was sort of my own best friend. I went to this pathetic Hebrew school in Queens, and the kids wouldn’t even talk to me, because I dressed like a shmuck and ate unkosher salami in the bathroom. Not a cool thing. So I talked to myself in Russian. It was funny, I imagined whole different people. Even at that age—maybe it was schizophrenia—I could imagine the American me, the me still living in Russia.
JL: Did they have names?
GS: There were two names for sure, because Gary’s not my real name. My name is Igor. So there was Igor, Gary, and then I was playing around with Jerry, actually. When I was very high in college, I would invent this alter ego named Jerry the Geriatric, as a joke, pretend to be this old American Jew, you know [switching to Jerry the Geriatric’s voice]: “Ach, I’m gonna go to the mikveh today.” I always had a lot of fun with that.
This is what happens when you’re an only child, all alone, and no friends.
JL: Is one of these alter egos closest to your heart?
GS: Shteynfarb is ostensibly me, but I hope is not… When I teach, I try not to sleep with my funky students. Girshkin was a very autobiographical figure; he’s not really in this book. He’s just a side-gag.
So in some ways Misha… You know, I always think, what would have happened if I hadn’t left Russia? And when you look at the list of oligarchs, the worst of the worst, especially in the beginning—now it’s a little more diversified—but in the beginning: Berezovsky, Gusinsky, all these guys, like 80 percent of them were Jewish or something like that. It’s hysterical. I always thought, what would have happened if I had been left behind? I don’t think I would have become that venal, but I do remember watching Wall Street as a kid, and thinking, “I want to do that, and not get caught.”
The materialism—there’s a scene in the book where they’re back in the college, and Aloysha-Bob says to Misha, “I’ve been associating Russian life with spirituality.” And Misha says, “Well, some of us are believers… But mostly we just want things.” And I wanted things so badly.
JL: In that scene, Misha looks at Shteynfarb and Girshkin, and he says to himself, “Three Russians from Leningrad. Striving for the attention of a solitary American Jew… Why couldn’t we form a team to assuage our loneliness?” I know that American Jews loved your first book—it won the National Jewish Book Award, for one thing—but I’m curious as to how your fellow Russians have responded. Any hate mail?
GS: Maybe a little bit. But you have to understand that the older generation—my parents’ generation—for the most part can’t read that well. I don’t think they could get it. That’s, I think, the saving grace.
I’ve heard of some people my parents’ age reading it and spitting on it. But people of my generation seemed to have really taken to it. I think they probably account for a huge percentage of the sales of the first book. Because the first book was—everyone had done, at this point, there had been a Dominican novel, a Korean novel, an Indian novel—a hundred Indian novels—there hadn’t been a Russian novel. After my book, the floodgates seemed to open, there was a whole slew of them, but back then, nothing. And people really seemed to take to it. And not just to mine, but to [David] Bezmozgis’ and others’. I would speak in front of the most educated Russians, people of my parents’ generation who can read English and understand the nuances, and that was a very nice feeling.
JL: They responded well?
GS: Very well. Even though I was in some ways making fun—but that’s fine. When an immigrant group feels good enough to laugh when it’s being laughed at or gently—or not-so-gently—poked at, and they can respond well, that’s a sign that it’s fairly assimilated.
JL: Speaking of other Russians, you’ve been part of a wave of post-Soviet-Jewish novelists writing in English—yourself, Lara Vapnyar, and Bezmozgis, to name three. (It’s been tempting to compare the three of you to the Bellow–Malamud–Roth combination that took over American literature in the late 1950s.) I wonder if you see yourself or your work in dialogue with these other young Russian writers.
GS: Oh, not at all. I love their work, but it’s—it’s really nice, because I think together we span this huge gamut. I’m a satirical writer, clearly. Bezmozgis and Vapnyar are very different. Vapnyar has a real outsider’s mentality, much more so than any of us, I think. She really is from a different planet—Staten Island. She’s very sweet. She worries about what Russians think of her. She’s worried about the backlash in the community, because she really is a part of that community. Whereas for me, Brighton Beach is a place I go for a fun reminisce—the Soviet Union, 1979, in amber.
JL: Do you have any thoughts about why this wave happened in the last few years?
GS: Who the hell knows? When you think about it, it’s really surprising that there’s only three of us—and now, there’s a couple more. [But] given the literary tradition, it’s shocking.… I have a couple of theories. One is that Russians, more than any of those groups, don’t want their dirty laundry aired. We’re so frightened about the reaction of our compatriots. And I think that’s maybe one reason why it took me so long to get my first novel out. It was only after I had been in analysis for a couple of years that I was able to send this book out. Now I couldn’t give a shit about what any of them say.
So I think maybe that’s one reason. Another reason is of course the heavy professionalism of Russian kids. Parents pushing their kids. [Writing] is a hobby, at most; it’s something you put on your resume. My mother’s first reaction to the success of the first book was, “Now you can apply to Harvard Law School.”
JL: The impression I get from what I’ve read of your work, and other interviews, is that you’re not a fan of Jewish institutions—day schools, synagogues, etcetera.
GS: Well … I read Hebrew. I’ve gone through the whole [Jewish day school] thing. I prayed my little head out. I believed so much in this. It was interesting: I was treated like shit, and yet I still believed. It was a typical Russian mentality: you know, the more they whip you, the more you—I remember scouring the house for chometz.
It’s not just Judaism. It’s religion in general. In my books, I wail on Judaism and Christianity. Islam takes care of itself—I don’t need to do anything with Islam.
JL: At the same time, you’ve received at least two Jewish book prizes—and I assume you wouldn’t say no to more.
GS: I don’t say no to any of this. No, no—look. I’m a Jewish writer, there’s no doubt. I just don’t believe in no Yahweh.
JL: Most of the money for these sorts of prizes, though, seems to come from sweet elderly Jewish men and women who made a bundle on real estate or manufacturing, and are now hoping that books and culture will turn out to be an option for Jewish communal identification where synagogue, schools, and summer camps have failed. Do you see yourself as participating in that, as an author or as a reader? Can books keep us together?
GS: Well, I served as a judge on the National Jewish Book Awards. And I have no problems with cultural Judaism; in fact I support it. I love it. My favorite American writers—Roth, Roth, Bellow; and I love the current crop of writers—Allegra Goodman is wonderful; Chabon.
My problem is, I think a lot of this stuff, behind it lurks the idea of Jewish continuity: we have to breed with other Jews. That’s a really—what the hell is that? We should breed with whoever the hell we want. Or not breed!
There’s this anxiety, this incredible feeling of guilt behind all this. “We are a small nation that’s been screwed over by history, and we’ve got to survive, one way or another.” I dated an Armenian girl in college, you know—very similar. Very similar. In fact my father loves Armenians. I thought he only loved Jews, but he also loves Armenians: “The same problems we have … ” So this incredible burden, and guilt. People should do whatever the hell makes them happy. From my experience, religion is at best a placebo, and at worst… So: culture, definitely. It’s a fascinating culture.
The question is, if we all interbreed, will there be such a thing as Jewish culture 100 or 200 years down the line? Well, I think down the line, we’ll all be a nice shade of brown. And I think small nations in the end just don’t survive. Yiddish doesn’t survive, the Assyrians didn’t survive, the Armenians, the Jews, probably the Portuguese… We’re one of the oldest nations around, in a sense—if you think of us as a nation—but history has just started to be written. 5,000, 3,000, 2,000 years down the line, hopefully all this stuff—Islam, Christianity, Judaism—will be referred to the way we refer to Zeus and Apollo. So let’s enjoy what we have now. It’s a fascinating moment. But let’s not tie our carriage to this horse of continuity forever. It is what it is, as Rummy would say—and let’s enjoy what we have.