Early on in Gary Shteyngart’s first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, the fickle protagonist, Vladimir Girshkin, a 25-year-old employee at the fictional Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society in New York, has gone to Westchester to receive his perennial guilt trip and a free meal from his parents. Vladimir’s mother has become a moderately successful businesswoman in the U.S. after the family’s departure from their native Leningrad, the city from which Mr. Shteyngart himself emigrated when he was 7. When Vladimir attempts escape to catch the 4:51 train back to the city, his mother, drunk on rum, detains him and makes him pace the house’s master bedroom.
“You walk like a Jew,” she tells him. “I’ve been keeping my eyes on you for years, but it just hit me today, your little Jew-walk. Come here, I’ll teach you to walk like a normal person.” Vladimir braces himself for a long afternoon.
It’s the kind of banal suffering Mr. Shteyngart inflicts on his characters again and again. It’s also a stand-in for the judgmental eye the author casts on the world around him, from the sweeping gesture to the most banal of imperfections. In a broad sense, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook mocks the misguided idealism of the Clinton era, but just beneath the fast-money schemes and comfortably superficial upper middle class lifestyle, there’s a looming feeling of foreboding that a novelistic critique of the happy late-capitalist bourgeoisie is as futile as an intoxicated mother trying to change her son’s lifelong habits over the course of a few hours. (Mr. Shteyngart’s fiction is never too far from the border of self-deprecation.) Mr. Shteyngart has managed to make himself into contemporary literature’s resident crank, and the heir apparent of Philip Roth, with a small—just three novels, so far—but consistent body of work that is neurotic, funny, lascivious and, in spite of its acute cynicism, sincere. He makes a convincing argument that everything is, in fact, not okay. He is one of those rare living writers beloved by both readers and critics.
Last Tuesday evening, in front of an audience of about 100 people, Mr. Shteyngart was sitting in a child-size wooden chair on stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, wearing a crooked bow tie and a wrinkled tuxedo. There was a sturdy five o’clock shadow on his cheeks and, resting at his feet, a plastic bag brimming with prescription pill bottles—mostly anti-anxiety and depression meds—and a small flask of Georgi vodka, from which he took the occasional pull. The author, so good at dishing it out in his fiction, now had to take it. He was being roasted.
Edmund White mocked Mr. Shteyngart’s prolific book blurbing, offering some imagined blurbs the author might think up in the future. (Mein Kampf: “This debut memoir by Adolf Hitler has taken the leader of the master race to literary excellence and proves that left to their own devices, blondes really do have more fun.”) It was soon revealed that Mr. White, along with other members of the roasting panel—which included writer and radio host Kurt Andersen, writer Sloane Crosley and New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman—had not read The Russian Debutante’s Handbook until they were obliged to do so by the roast. (“One of my best friends, ladies and gentleman,” Mr. Shteyngart said, gesturing to Mr. White.)
“I’m sure the women in the audience, and the men, have been in shock since the moment Gary took the stage, wondering if it’s possible to be as hairy and as ill-groomed as Gary Shteyngart,” said Wesley Stace, known better as John Wesley Harding, who was the night’s host and one of only a few contemporary authors who has not received a book blurb from Mr. Shteyngart. Ms. Crosley characterized Mr. Shteyngart’s nipples as “like buttons on a fur coat.”
“What has Gary taught you?” Mr. Stace asked her.
“Basically nothing,” she responded.
Mr. Shteyngart used to hug the pedestal of the Lenin statue situated outside his family’s apartment building in St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad. The Shteyngarts left in 1979, were in Rome for a few months while their applications were processed, then landed in Kew Gardens, Queens.
“Kind of a letdown after Rome,” Mr. Shteyngart said over lunch at Pakistan Tea House in Tribeca on the day before the roast. Still, America was overwhelming. He’d look at highway overpasses and think the cars were flying through the air. “There’s a movie called Moscow on the Hudson that came out around this time, that had a great scene with Robin Williams playing a Soviet immigrant, and he walks into a grocery store and there’s just an aisle of coffee. He goes, ‘Coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee’ and then faints. Too much. That’s kind of what it was like.”
His parents weren’t religious, but he was sent to Hebrew school, where he was made fun of for his furry Russian hat and goggle-like glasses. (“It only lasted eight years,” he sighed. He still wears wide-rimmed glasses, and his face would look young if not for the perpetual stubble.) He joined his fellow nerds at Stuyvesant—“the Math and Science High School” in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook—and then attended Oberlin College, in Ohio, called simply “the Midwestern College” in the first novel.
“You grow up in a Marxist society,” he said, scooping up some cauliflower, “then Hebrew school, which is the opposite of that, then this hyper-capitalist meritocracy—Stuyvesant—and then back to the Marxist society. It’s an amazing loop. All these years, I was hiding being an immigrant. In Hebrew school, I pretended I was German because I didn’t want to be Russian. At Oberlin it was like, ‘Shit, I’m a big fat immigrant!’”
In his senior year of college, he began writing The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, which in conversation he refers to only as “Russian Handjob” or sometimes simply “The Handjob.” The book starts out as a fine selection in the canon of literature about a disaffected young man trying to cope with the Jewish diaspora—Vladimir Girshkin, with his hyper-modern girlfriend, old-world parents and hopeless day job, resembles something like Asa Leventhal reared on a steady diet of straight-to-video porn and high-grade cannabis. But the novel takes a Shteyngardian turn for the ridiculous of the sort that has appeared in all of his fiction: looking to make a little money (so that his girlfriend won’t leave him), Vladimir is contracted to impersonate the feckless son of a Catalan drug cartel at a college interview in Miami. In a hotel room, after they drink several bottles of expensive champagne, the crime boss attempts to rape Vladimir, who fights back and breaks away. With a hit ordered on him, he retreats, like many disillusioned Americans, to Prava—“the Paris of the 90s,” a vaguely fictionalized Prague—where, by nature of his own embittered youth, he becomes the brains of a Russian mafia operation run by a gangster nicknamed The Groundhog. It’s a coming-of-age novel, with the stakes raised to the level of actual survival.
He submitted 30 pages of the book as his application to Hunter College’s MFA program. Chang-rae Lee, the former head of the department, sent them to his editor, Cindy Spiegel, then at Riverhead. Two weeks later, Mr. Shteyngart had a book deal.
“It was the first book of its kind,” Ms. Spiegel told The Observer in a telephone interview. “It was an anti-immigrant story, yet he understood the culture he was writing from. He could tell a new story and he told it in the best way.”
Mr. Shteyngart wasn’t planning on publishing a book. It was something he’d write and rewrite for his enjoyment at his day job—he claims to have been “the worst paralegal ever” at a civil rights law firm—and during his too-long lunch breaks at the Pakistan Tea House around the corner, after which he’d come back “burping lentils” and napping in the deposition lounge. The book was far from a fluke, though. He lived in Italy after its publication, where he wrote Absurdistan (2006), about Misha Vainberg, an obese immigrant from Leningrad with Anorexia Nervosa who finds himself stuck back in his former home after his father kills an American businessman. In his quest to find a visa, Misha ends up in a troubled country called Absurdsvani and finds himself at the center of a collapsing government. Meanwhile, over in New York, Jerry Shteynfarb, author of The Russian Arriviste’s Handjob, has shacked up with Misha’s girlfriend.
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.”