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

You wrote your Oberlin thesis on the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Moldova, and Tajikistan. What angle did you take?

I think it was called “Back in the USSR.” It was about how those countries were, in many ways, starting to come together toward the center, toward Moscow. As I started writing it, I was already writing my first book. I’d thought I could be a political scientist or something like that, but the lure of fiction was impossible to resist.

You spent a lot of time in Azerbaijan a couple of years ago. Did that experience provide most of the material for the country you created in Absurdistan?

Azerbaijan was a big influence. Also Georgia, with the ethnic conflicts between Christian factions—in Azerbaijan, of course, they’re Muslims. But Absurdistan was mostly just whatever the hell I wanted it to be.

What about Svanï City, the capital of Absurdistan? You describe its layout in such a detailed way. Did you base it on a real city like Baku? Or did you sit down and sketch out a brand new city on paper?

Yeah, I actually sat down and sketched it all out. I wanted to be an urban planner before I became a writer, so I got to do it in this book. I love cities built on hilltops. I also love the idea of having different parts of the city cleaved into terraces.

You mentioned very briefly last night that while you were in Azerbaijan, someone tried to kidnap you.  What was that all about?

I was living in this remote, godforsaken town, and a guy drove along and said, “Hey, buddy! Need a lift to Baku?” I said, “Yeah, what the hell!” I got in the car and he said, “You know, I could have kidnapped you. In fact, I still can—if you’re into that.”

Was he serious?

Yeah! He wanted to get some money out of it.

How did you dissuade him?

I was very nonchalant. I said, “Let’s see. Maybe we can come up with something else.”

Were you afraid?

No, not with this guy. There aren’t many men I could outwrestle, but he would be one.

At certain points in Absurdistan, you seem to imply that Boris Vainberg sexually molested Misha when he was a child—holding him close and grabbing at his penis, or, as he calls it, his khui. A lot of reviewers have been trying to figure out what’s going on there.

I think something is going on there. I don’t want to take this to Oprah lengths, but let’s just say it speaks of what one reporter called “the cloying closeness of the Russian family,” the lack of boundaries. To me, the boundaries America puts up within the family are the best thing about this country. There may be a few too many boundaries, but we don’t all have to live together and base our lives upon the wishes of our elders. It’s beautiful.

In a way, your description of Misha and his father just seems like one more way of satirizing passionate, complex Russian relationships—like the scene with the Russian soldiers who first beat up Misha and then fall to the ground and embrace him.

I would say so. But I mean, look. If you drink 300 grams of vodka, you are going to be punching and kissing and all these different things. I’ve had so many raucous nights in Russia. I got drunk with some Mongols once. They were hugging me, by the end, saying, “There are Jews and there are Yids. And you’re a Jew.”

That sort of thing happens to Misha, too. When the Absurdistani characters find out that Misha is Jewish, they become incredibly enthusiastic: “We love Jews! Jews are our brothers!” Is that something you came across in countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan?

“The Jews are our brothers! Now give us some money!” Wherever I’d travel, people would become very excited when they discovered I was Jewish. They all had their pet theories they wanted to try out, too. “With 9/11, was it really the Jews who did that?” “Is it true that Stalin was a Jew?” They can’t hold back their curiosity. They know they would protect their own people no matter what, so they think, “If this is true, all of the Jews must know about it!”

There’s one scene where Misha is at a dinner table with a bunch of Absurdistani warlords. Everyone is making toast after toast to the Jewish people, but one Russian guy keeps muttering anti-Semitic remarks: “After all, everyone knows that six million Jews didn’t really die in the concentration camps.” 

There really was an occasion like that in Georgia. Everyone at the table with me was going on about how wonderful the Jews were, and there was one guy who kept saying, “Remember, they did kill Christ.”

Whenever people ask Misha, “Who are you—by nationality?” it turns out that the correct answer is not “Russian” but “Jewish.” Is Judaism still considered a nationality in Russia rather than a religion?

Sure. There are two different words for “Russian”: one means Russian nationality, and the other means an inhabitant of Russia. There’s a nationality line on the passport—it can say “Jewish” or it can say “Russian.” On my mother’s passport it said Russian. She’s half-Russian and half-Jewish. The idea was that maybe I could go Russian, too, based on her. But with a schnoz like this, it would have been a problem.

How did you come up with the idea for the “Mountain Jews” who appear at the beginning and the end of the book?

I actually went to visit them. They’ve been living there for hundreds of years—they won’t go. They’re pretty meshugah.

Have they really built a replica of Jerusalem’s Western Wall in the middle of their village?

No, no. Wait—yes, they have! I’m starting to forget already what’s fiction and what’s non-fiction. I’m like James Frey in reverse.

I wanted to ask you about some of your contemporaries, other Russian-Jewish writers like Lara Vapnyar and David Bezmozgis. At the reading last night, you mentioned that it took a while for all of you to get over your guilt about airing your family laundry in public.

Yeah, and my guilt wasn’t even as great as some of theirs. I mean, Lara Vapnyar—she still freaks the hell out when she gets angry letters from the Russian community. I really don’t get those kinds of letters anyhow, probably because they think, “Oh, he’s a satirist,” while she writes in a more realistic vein. Not that she’s ever written anything at all critical of the community. People just want to complain. And complaining about writers is a Russian trait and a Russian right.

Does David Bezmozgis also deal with a lot of criticism?

Who knows? He’s from Canada. I think people are more civil there.

One thing that makes the three of you so distinct is that you’re old enough to remember the Cold War but young enough to have a fresh take on everything that happened afterwards.

I think we came here at the right age. And we came from the right place to the right place—from one crumbling empire to another crumbling empire. There’s a kind of gigantamania about being force-fed all of this horseshit about Lenin and then coming here and being fed all of this stuff about Reagan. A novelist, in many ways, wants to expose the truth. When you’re lied to for so long in so many different forms, you’re much more interested in finding out what’s real.

As a child, you were really taken with the statues and Soviet paraphernalia in the Russian Metro stations.

They were impressive. And they’re impressive to this day. The historical monuments Russia builds now, especially in Moscow, are pathetic. There’s a Georgian architect who recently designed a statue of Peter the Great manning the rudder of his ship. It looks like a Baroque Godzilla. It’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.

Hasn’t there been a pop-culture revival of Soviet kitsch? In one of your New Yorker articles, you wrote about standing in a nightclub with a bunch of Russian kids who were singing old communist songs at the top of their lungs.

I call it “Totalitarian Disney.” It happens because Russia is a nation that has no idea what it is or where it’s going. And after all, when it comes to communism, you have to consider what took place before it: there was czarism, which was really horrifying. It was a terrible autocratic system, and what you have now is reminiscent of that—a tiny, tiny, elite that runs everything, and people who don’t own the shirts on their backs. And you know, I think a lot of oligarchs are spending money like crazy because they know that tomorrow they’ll be sent to Siberia. Today they’ve got it, but one wrong step and everything slips out of control. They’re living for the moment.

You mentioned earlier that your next book is going to be set in the year 2040, in an evangelical community in upstate New York.

I’m still playing with that. It will be set sometime in the future.

The protagonist is going to be Jerry Shteynfarb, who was one of the minor characters in Absurdistan. Jerry came to America from St. Petersburg as a child, and he made a name for himself with a book called The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job—in other words, he sounds a lot like you. But you also have a lot in common with Misha Vainberg from Absurdistan and Vladimir Girshkin from your earlier novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. Does each of these characters represent something particular about your nature?

I share some of Vladimir’s insecurities of being any nationality at all. I share Misha’s love of life, his need to sample everything possible. Living in the Soviet Union, being constrained, there’s a need to let it all out. As for Jerry Shteynfarb, it’s a little more complicated. I haven’t slept with any of my Hunter students the way he has. And I hope I’m not the kind of pompous shmuck who uses his immigrant credentials to climb up the ladder of success. Jerry Shteynfarb is just my way of deflating the ego a little bit.

In Absurdistan, he was an offstage character. But if you’re going to use him as a protagonist, I’m guessing you’ll have to flesh him out a bit.

Exactly. I couldn’t just use him as a little puppet.   

You’ve said that the characters in your next book will speak a strange hybrid of Korean, Tagalog, Spanish, and English.

I’m still fine-tuning this concept. It will be a tough one to pull off. We’ll see. The question I always ask in my career is, “Do I want to ramp up the satire, or do I want to ease up on the throttle?” There’s so much else I want to do. I’ve been thinking about writing a travelogue. I’m a contributing editor for Travel and Leisure, so I do a lot of travel writing. And I may write a different novel first.

Can you say anything more about that?

Well, it’s shaping up. I would say it’s a book set in New York in our time today, but people are gradually losing the ability to read or express complex sentences. Eventually, grunting and pictures take over. It’s a very quiet piece—sad, but funny, too. It’s a love story between two immigrants: a Russian and a Korean.

Don’t you have a Korean girlfriend?

Yeah. Hey, write what you know!

I read somewhere that you don’t think all that highly of short fiction these days. What do you think is lacking?

Well, this is the post-modern attack on post-modernity, but when you look at modern fiction, it’s like there’s been a long meal, and people are looking at the wreckage of the food, wondering, “What can we take home? Is there anything salvageable?” The problem is also that we as writers have a huge responsibility to be innovative, to take the reader somewhere she hasn’t gone before. You need a complete reinvention of the short story. George Saunders is one writer who knows that. He has such an eye for absurdity, corruption, the yearning for dignity that so often goes unanswered despite the excess of everything this country has.

But listen—will there be anyone around to read us, even? I’m not talking about global warming. I’m talking about the attrition of the book-buying public. The Internet is to blame, and there are all kinds of other factors, but the biggest problem is that we live in a country where everyone wants to write and no one wants to read. Eighty percent of Americans say they could write a book, but if eighty percent of Americans read a book every year—serious fiction and serious non-fiction—the country would be transformed.

You’re a satirist. How would you define a “serious” book?

A book that isn’t just a headline or a smart little anecdote. A book that stands the test of time. Not that I’m sure my fiction will survive. But that’s always the dream.

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

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