Return of the Woodster: The Rumpus Interview With Gary Shteyngart


When he’s not documenting his irreversible addiction to food porn or commiserating with the literary illuminati, Gary Shteyngart writes books. OK, he writes some of the funniest books I have read, penned by a Soviet or otherwise. His first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, is funny; his next outing, the absurdist Absurdistan, is even funnier! And now we get the funniest of the bunch, Super Sad True Love Story. What’s that, you say? A love story? From the guy responsible for unleashing a 325-pound lover of hirsute vaginas into the unsuspecting world? Shteyngart has written a love story? I know, I was thrown for a loop too, but don’t worry: the bespectacled spawn of Oblomov and Vonnegut hasn’t gone “rom-com” on us… yet. Through thousands of hours of therapy, yogic realignment, and expensive eyelash therapy (don’t ask), he’s just become way more comfortable letting his romantic side show. Heck, he even ordered rosé when we met at a dim-lit Chinatown bar to shoot the literary shit.


The Rumpus: One thing that struck me about Super Sad—

Gary Shteyngart: Super Smelly Supersaver!

Rumpus: Yeah, great title. And the cover, it’s like a Twister game mat or something. Was that intentional? If so, what’s that say about your authorial intentions?

Shteyngart: It’s supposed to be a twister. I was signing copies of it at BookExpo America and people were like, “SuperSuper Super Super, Sad Sad Sad Sad?” So it may confuse some people. Which is good. We want them thinking from the start. Puzzling it out.

Rumpus: Speaking of bafflement, Super Sad has a really dark vision of the world, which is actually scarily true. America is bankrupt, the global economy has collapsed and is pegged to the Chinese yuan, everyone knows when they will die and is essentially illiterate, addicted to their äppärät. But you actually had to amp up the apocalyptic dread, right?

Shteyngart: When I started writing SSTLS in 2006, I thought things were going to get bad. This is the premonition I had. I know when things are going in the crapper, growing up in the Soviet Union. I had no idea things were going to get so bad so fast. That really threw me, and I was going back and forth with my brilliant editor, and every draft the real world keeps getting worse and worse. How the hell am I going to keep up with this? At the end I was like, OK, it’s all going to collapse, the Chinese and Norwegian hedge funds are going to end up buying everything. Imagine if McCain had won! Things could have been a lot closer to what’s described in my book. Part of me was thinking, Hmm, if McCain wins I will look like un prophète, but then I was like, Fuck it, the health of the country is more important than my book. Let Obama win.

Rumpus: Black humor and satire used to play a big part in American fiction in the early postmodern years or whatever, but then it seemed to disappear for a few decades, with a few notable exceptions. You’re obviously committed to bringing it back with a vengeance.

Shteyngart: Satire disappeared from American fiction, but American fiction also disappeared from American fiction. I mean, talk about taking a backseat to the dialogue. It’s not even in the dialogue anymore. Who cares anymore, right? The big behemoths that the last roaring lions put out there (Franzen’s The Corrections, Eugenides’s Middlesex) have heart and anger in equal measure, and they’re brilliant books, don’t get me wrong—but what’s a book that can roar now? I’m trying to roar. Who knows if anyone’s tuned in to the lion frequency.

Rumpus: Exactly. It seems like a lot of the fiction being written here—the stuff that’s being published, anyway—even the allegedly “experimental” stuff is really watered down and trite compared to what’s coming out of England and Europe. And who knows what’s out there that’s not even translated yet.

Shteyngart: I worry about that, and I’m part of the military industrial complex, by which I mean the MFA complex. While we’re making very competent writers, but are we placing competency above—I love stories that are messy, that have a shambolic quality, that’s what I love. Are we sanding away some of those edges and creating a very bland and similar generation of writers? That would suck! When I try to “fix” my students’ stories, a part of me is thinking what am I doing? Let some of this gusher run, man.

Rumpus: I’ve always thought that your writing allows for a little messiness, and especially this new book, it’s filled with absurd riffs and craziness.

Shteyngart: Especially compared to my last book, Absurdistan, which was a very controlled book. In Absurdistan I was working with some—I hate to use the word “tropes,” but here it comes—tropes which had a more traditional Russian satire quality to them. Dead Souls or something like that. In this book, I just wanted these two characters, Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park, to speak to each other. And when we speak to each other it’s a mess. I wanted to capture that messy quality. What if I let the messiness and sloppiness get out of hand just a little bit? What if I surprised myself emotionally by following where this story goes?

Rumpus: What surprised you about this book?

Shteyngart: That I could allow the love story to take center stage with each subsequent draft. The initial drafts read like a bad version of an Isaac Asimov science-fiction magazine. I mean, that was what I grew up with.

Rumpus: Isaac Asimov?

Shteyngart: Oh, God. [Makes masturbatory motion.] Anyway, but then it became—the more knowledge I dropped on this book’s fat ass, the less it was compelling. The more I pulled back and let this love story go, the more I felt confident of the book’s vitality. All I want from a book is to feel like it’s as alive as I am, but a lot of the fiction I encounter is just dead. It says, “I’m a piece of wood, but a brilliantly designed piece of wood.”

Rumpus: A very pliable piece of wood.

Shteyngart: I’m so pliable! Look at me, I’m the Woodster! Mwah-mwah!

Rumpus: You teach a course on immigrant fiction. More contemporary stuff or like Roth and Bellow?

Shteyngart: Bellow was an immigrant like I’m an octopus. He was from Montreal. But yeah, there’s so many reasons why immigrant fiction is so popular nowadays. One of the reasons is we don’t translate shit. We’re scared of these freaky foreigners. But an immigrant’s safe, in a way. We’re part American, part something else. We’re not that threatening. We explain the world to America. We’re the bridge. Sure, we come from furry, bizarre cultures, but we canmake you feel like “So this is what Brighton Beach is like!” It’s interesting, because other nations—Germany, France, for example—translate boatloads, but the immigrant fiction scene, at least in Germany, is hardly as strong as ours. There’s not that many immigrant writers in Germany. They go directly to the source. You want to know about Turks? Translate a Turk—and not just Orhan Pamuk. A Turk you’ve never heard of. A young Turk, if you will.

Rumpus: There are a lot of young Turks writing these days, even if fewer of us are being published.

Shteyngart: This is a supply-and-demand problem. There’s a lot of supply, but not much demand. The more fiction gets taken apart at the MFA level, the more it gets worked over, the more we take it apart—nobody’s reading this shit! This is the problem. I mean, what? Who? Are we really just writing for this small priesthood? Are we just writing for this small, select group of people? That, to me, that’s frightening. Not pointless but approaching pointlessness.

Rumpus: And there’s the Twilight books and all that crap.

Shteyngart: Serious literary books used to have a choke-hold on the national penis. It was incredible. Philip Roth sold 400,000 of Portnoy’s Complaint the first year it was out!  His plumber said, “Hey, ain’t you the guy that writes them dirty books?” I had a cable repairman come to the house and he took a look around my apartment and said, “Why you got all them books?” What he was thinking was, You have a twenty-five-inch TV and eight million books. What are you, an idiot?

Rumpus: It’s all about how big your äppärät is—is that what you’re saying?

Shteyngart: I wonder. I hope this is cyclical. I hope right now we’re in the butthole of literature, and that at some point people will throw off the chains of their äppäräti, their iPhoney and whatever else they use, and go back to an introspective life. That’s for subsequent generations. This generation is fucked. We can’t keep up with the technology we’ve created, and it’s like we were invaded by a barbarian horde and we don’t know what to do. Sometimes I think that the iPhone and everything else that is now a major part of my life is a punishment that I’ve inflicted on myself for sins that I can’t quantify. This is maybe—I don’t know—going back to Hebrew school, but since the iPhone came out, my life has gotten progressively worse. I land on a plane and I get nervous if my iPhone—my äppärät—can’t connect. It’s like I’m running a Fortune 500 company. I’m supposed to be a fucking writer, working in solitude, right?

Alec Michod is the author of The White City. He graduated from the University of Chicago and has an MFA from Columbia University. His work has recently appeared in Ben Marcus' Smallwork and The Believer, and he's interviewed Jennifer Egan and David Mitchell, among others, right here at The Rumpus. He’s been working on a new novel at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy. More from this author →