With Absurdistan, Mr. Shteyngart went from promising young writer to literary celebrity, a reputation that was furthered (and also critiqued) by his most recent book, Super Sad True Love Story (2010). He calls this one “Super Whatever.” In the novel, set in a recognizable near-future, everyone is tied to their äppärät, an iPhone-like device that broadcasts its user’s credit ranking, income and savings (in yuan-pegged dollars), scores their attractiveness and personality out of 800—like the old SATs—and allows people to constantly bid on the latest seductive apparel at the JuicyPussy web site while watching the news, which often involves an anchor offering tidbits of information in between video montages of her ex-boyfriend acting stupid. The novel’s hero, Lenny Abramov, attempts to win the love of the much younger Eunice Park. Things turn sour when the U.S. is invaded by either China or Venezuela (no one really cares to know which), bringing on the fall of the empire.
“There’s this belief that we’re all going to live forever inside our iPads,” Mr. Shteyngart said. “That has replaced the failure of religion, which is itself a very suspect idea as a form of worship. I didn’t realize to what extent fiction was going to be marginalized over the last decade. I didn’t realize that over a third of all books weren’t even going to be books, they were going to be text files broadcast into little devices.”
In Super Sad True Love Story, the publishing industry has “collapsed,” and books are scoffed at for their musky smell and referred to as “printed, bound media artifacts.” After Lenny receives a newsflash that the U.S. dollar has once more lost value, he ponders a very sad question that could be asked by any one of Mr. Shteyngart’s characters: “Why couldn’t I have been born into a better world?”
Mr. Shteyngart’s literary success means nothing, however, in the face of his work as a writer of blurbs. He has graced 123 book jackets with his talents. These were all projected on a screen at the roast, with the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire providing a backdrop. There’s the classic Everything Is Going to Be Great by Rachel Shukert: “If you read only one memoir by a disaffected, urban, 20-something Jewish girl this year, make it this one. Shukert rocks the lulav.” And the lighthearted comedic romp on Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen that tugged at America’s heart strings: “OMFG, I nearly up and died from laughter when I read Flatscreen. This is the novel that every young turk will be reading on their way to a job they hate and are in fact too smart for.” And then, of course, the following, its subtlety and grace unmatched by any of Mr. Shteyngart’s own work, or that of his contemporaries:
“If David Foster Wallace had written Eat, Pray, Love, it might have come close to approximating the adventures of Gideon Lewis-Kraus. A Sense of Direction is the digressively brilliant and seriously hilarious account of a fellow neurotic’s wanderings, and his hard-won lessons in happiness, forgiveness, and international pilgrim fashion.”
Notice how even the pacing of the sentences mirrors the ideas contained in the book’s title, how the past perfect tense in the opening lines gives way—in a perfect Shteyngardian turn—to the assertive “is” of the second sentence, as if Mr. Shteyngart himself has found a sense of direction.
“It could easily have stood in for the book itself,” Mr. Lewis-Kraus said over e-mail. “In fact, when people ask me if they should read my book, I ordinarily tell them that Gary’s blurb covers all the important parts.”
Does he credit Gary Shteyngart with any of his book’s success?
“No,” he said. “My great fortune I owe entirely to Sam Lipsyte’s blurb.”
Mr. Shteyngart doesn’t actually remember what his first blurb was at this point, but he’s sure that he has more in him.
“I’ll blurb anything,” he said. “I don’t care. It’s like if a coal miner comes up to you and says, ‘They’re closing down my mine, man, can you help me?’ Of course you’ll help. That’s how I feel about writers. I encourage them to get trust funds and to marry well. But other than that, what can you say? They know what they’re getting into. They can’t help they selves! It’s all they know how to do. It’s all I know how to do. You should have seen me as a paralegal! If this didn’t work out, I’d have been a homeless person. Or a teacher.”
He does teach—classes at Columbia called “The Hysterical Male” and “Immigrant-a-Go-Go” (seriously) in addition to workshops—though his role in a classroom is perhaps best summed up by a question posed to the audience at Mr. Shteyngart’s roast:
Which of the following took place under Gary’s supervision? a) Gary served vodka, pickles and Irish car bombs in the classroom to his students. b) One of Gary’s classes decamped for the Bowery Ballroom electric dance club. A student noted: when Gary dances, he does not move his arms at all. He is all legs. c) Gary responded to a student’s work with the following: “Hey, I’ve never published a short story in my life. What do I know?” d) All of the above. (Ding ding ding!)
He’s currently at work on his fourth book, a memoir. He had just sent a first draft to his editor when we met last week. There’s no title yet, and Mr. Shteyngart wouldn’t say too much about it.
“I think it’s going to have a great font,” he said. “Random House puts a lot of thought into its fonts. Random-Penguin, I should say.”
Yes, he really has come full circle. Penguin, of which his first publisher Riverhead is a subsidiary, is merging with his current publisher, Random House, eerily calling to mind the long-winded corporation names of Super Sad True Love Story—AlliedWasteCVSCitigroup, for instance. It sounded like he was only half-kidding when he explained his reason for writing about his own life.
“I’m 40,” he said. “Russian men tend to die at 56. I have to start wrapping this shit up.”