Interviews June 2006

Same Planet, Different Worlds

Gary Shteyngart, author of the novel Absurdistan, discusses American rappers, Azerbaijani kidnappers, and what makes satire serious fiction

In Absurdistan, Misha’s father is an oligarch named Boris Vainberg. Did you base that character on Boris Berezovsky, the real-life businessman who rose to power in Yeltsin’s government after he’d laundered millions of dollars under the guise of selling cars?

There are some similarities there. The difference is that Misha’s father was a dissident. These days, Berezovsky has become a “build your own dissident” kind of guy, but during the Soviet era he wasn’t at all. The weird thing about Berezovsky is that he converted from Judaism to Christianity, which was a very strange move on his part. I wonder what the political calculation was there. I doubt he discovered the Holy Trinity one night.

What about Misha himself? What inspired you to write a book about a 325-pound Russian man who dresses in Puma tracksuits?

Actually, I got the idea from this guy who went to college with me—a big, huge Russian guy who I thought was so full of life. We were all these meek little immigrant kids with one foot in one world and one foot in another. But this guy, he just rolled around, eating chips and smoking everything in sight. He was a real mensch.

I’ve also always been fascinated by overweight people, like Oblomov, one of the great characters from Russian literature, and Ignatius Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s book A Confederacy of Dunces. I love the way a fat man is put together. And I thought it would be a perfect expression of what Misha is. In a way, Misha’s character is more a critique of America than a critique of Russia. He’s a consumerist bar none. Women and sturgeons and political ideas—everything goes down his maw. His Little Red Book is the Zagat survey of New York restaurants.

I recently came across an old essay of yours from The Threepenny Review, where you write about lying in your hotel room in Russia and repeating American phrases to yourself: “Was’ up? When do you get off work?” Misha does something similar in Absurdistan—he stands in the middle of a St. Petersburg bar mumbling words like, “Korean grocery. Salad bar. Laundromat.” Tell me more about this need to speak colloquial American English when you’re in Russia.

I just finished doing a Russian-language interview with Voice of America. Even after an hour of that, I’m craving a dose of English! It was a call-in show, and one of the people calling in from Russia asked, “Are you a first-rate writer, or are you more of a Negro kind of writer?” I said, “I believe the term is African-American.” It’s such a different world, so hysterically different. And trying to bridge these two worlds is very odd. The thing is, too, I’m never terribly happy wherever I am. I miss Russia terribly when I’m here, and I really can’t deal with Russia for more than two months when I’m there.

Do you ever write in Russian?

I don’t think my grammar is good enough. It would take some getting up to par. But why would I do it? My readership is here. And I love English. It’s very versatile, and it’s so global. It takes in a lot of jokes that no other language can capture.

Misha is baffled by the idea that Russia and America can even coexist on the same planet. Would you say that’s a major theme of the book?

It’s a major theme for sure. I travel a lot, and I’m always shocked by the bric-a-brac bazaar that so many countries have become, taking bits and pieces of things usually from the West but also from other places. The symbol of that in the book is the used remote control flea market run by the Svanïs. People are just buying remote controls and hoping they’ll connect to a television. I think that’s a metaphor for how people are in these places. They’re trying to connect to the West. They’re aiming their remotes but they’re not getting a signal.

There’s one character in Absurdistan, a fashion-conscious Petersburg girl, who keeps raving about her new bright orange towels. She thinks they’re trendy and American, but they’re actually just garish. The sense I got is that young Russians are trying to fill in a gray picture with colors that are too bright and somehow just wrong. Is that how it feels to you?

St. Petersburg certainly feels like that because it’s an incredibly northern city built on a swamp. But even in the nineteenth century, the colors were all pastel. It makes you feel like you’re in South Beach with neoclassical buildings. These days, the crooks do everything they can to be flashy—they wear Adidas tracksuits and Versace double-breasted jackets. I think now they’re like, “Okay. We’ve got to calm down. A little less ‘bling.’”

Speaking of bling, I understand you were a big hip-hop fan in college.

Oh my God! It was so liberating. I came from a very conservative, constricted society. I myself worked for the George Bush, Sr., campaign when I was fifteen. Then I went to Oberlin and my eyes opened, my lungs opened. And the music, the Ice Cube! I remember sitting there listening to it, smoking that pot. It was the first time in my life that I could relax.

There’s only one flashback to Misha’s college years—you show us his first conversation with Alyosha-Bob, an American who is so enamored of Russian “spirituality” that he shreds all his possessions and throws them out the window. Have you come across Americans who glorify Russia in that way?

Sure. I think that scene pretty much nails it. Misha says, “No, we’re not spiritual. We just want things.” Really, though, Russia is a spiritual country. Russian Orthodoxy is making a big comeback right now. Hari Krishnas are running around Moscow. The country does have a huge spiritual yearning along with its yearning for sausage.

The most pretentious line I ever overheard at a party was from a Berkeley graduate student with a cocktail in her hand who said, “I am so immune to the seductiveness of Russian literature!” People always seem so jaded and self-important when they’re studying Russian culture.

I know! But it’s like hip-hop. You’ve got to earn your stripes by actually living there and suffering. You can’t just pretend you’re from the ’hood.

I don’t know why people get that way. I think one thing is that Russia is such a vast, gigantic country, sometimes governable and sometimes not. It’s not a small, self-assured country like Denmark. The literature is filled with all these deep, brooding questions about God. Another big theme is slavery. Serfdom was a humiliating, terrifying experience for millions of Russians. Russia didn’t look for another race to enslave. They enslaved themselves.

The characters in Russian literature are also fantastic. For Absurdistan, you borrowed characters from books like Crime and Punishment and Fathers and Sons—the starving artist with delusions of grandeur, the idealized peasant girl who marries the old nobleman. Are these real-life Russian personality types that pop up even on the streets of modern St. Petersburg or Moscow?

Yes, and those writers nailed them! Nineteenth-century Russian literature has no equal anywhere in the world. It will never have an equal—in terms of character, in terms of plot, in terms of psychological depth. I write satire, which is not exactly known for its empathy and compassion. But when I look back at a book like Fathers and Sons, I really admire how much compassion there is for everyone involved.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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