Volume 76, Number 2 | May 31 - June 6 2006

Village People

For LES novelist Gary Shteyngart, truth is stranger than fiction

By Nicole Davis

Photo by Marion Ettlinger
Gary Shteyngart will read from his new book “Absurdistan” at the Eldridge Street Synagogue on Wednesday, June 7, along with two other authors. For reservations call 212-219-0888 x 302.
In his satirical new novel “Absurdistan,” Gary Shteyngart has created an outrageous world that somehow manages to mirror our own. The book chronicles the life of Misha, an obese Russian “prince” who longs for New York, land of his South Bronx girlfriend and the professor who stole her, a Russian émigré and successful novelist whose name and background closely resembles the author’s. The INS won’t grant Misha a visa, so Shteyngart’s oversized hero acquires a Belgian passport in an oil-rich, Halliburton-controlled nation called Absurdistan, where he is further waylaid once a civil war erupts. Throughout Misha’s misadventures, Shteyngart sprinkles in outlandish depictions of modern-day Russia and the former Soviet Caucuses. We read about a billboard ad of an American football player catching a hamburger with a baseball mitt; a brothel in St. Petersberg called the Alabama Father — images that the average American might assume were invented by the author. In truth, the scenes owe more to Shteyngart’s real-life observations than his imagination. “ ‘Absurdistan’ is non-fiction masquerading as fiction,” says the Lower East Side writer— just one of the many surprises that arose during a recent phone conversation before his reading at the Eldridge Street Synagogue on Wednesday, June 7.

In the book there’s a character modeled after yourself, a Russian émigré who capitalizes on his immigrant experience and writes a novel that Americans lap up. Do you feel that you’re guilty of exploiting the immigrant experience in your own work?

I think maybe we all do in a sense whenever [we] write about anything, but it depends upon how you define exploitation. If you mean simply using the material that has been stored up over the years as an immigrant, then I guess it’s exploitative, but I think this is more journalism on my part... A lot of this stuff—especially in the parts about Absurdistan—happened, do happen, continue to happen. There are parts of the former Soviet Union that are much more absurd than Absurdistan.

But Shytenfarb is one of my favorite characters... There’s so little art in what he does (which hopefully is not the case for me!). But he knows what Americans want and he gives it to them. There’s a kind of immigrant fiction that’s very sentimentalized. It’s about the immigrant overcoming adversity and doing well, etc. and... I think the immigrant experience is a very difficult one. It’s very hard, even when you’re a little kid, to give up one part of the world for another, and I think to write a hymn to it is ridiculous. But Shteynfarb, the way he’s written in this book, that’s sort of his schtick.

You also caricature Russia’s fascination with [Shteyngart interjects: “and hatred of”] the West—Misha and his friend rap with one another, there’s a billboard in St. Petersberg of a football player catching a hamburger with a baseball mitt. How much of that is an exaggeration?

That [sign] actually was there—I’m pretty sure. But my favorite example is a strip club Misha goes to called the Alabama Father. There’s an actual strip club in Petersburg called Colorado Father, which is hysterical because I never associated Colorado with heightened promiscuity... But there it is — it’s quite a trip...

What surprises me is that American readers are often shocked by what they encounter in my work. They say ‘No, this can’t be. This can’t happen.’ But I think it speaks more to the fact that [most] people... in this country... don’t have a good idea of what’s going on in the world. I mean, Cheney was in Kazakhstan recently, which has this horrible autocratic regime, and he said to the leader, ‘I really admire your form of government. You’re doing a heck of a job. Your economic and democratic systems are coming along nicely’...
I’ve been to these parts of the world...[and] I think people don’t quite understand the depths of the problem... We are both loved and hated very much. People very much want our lifestyle and at the same time are very angry that they can’t achieve this lifestyle given the horrible economic and social situations in which they live.

So is Absurdistan actually modeled after a specific place?

It’s a combination of a couple of countries—all of these oil-based republics are Moslem. Absurdistan is Christian. You could say there’s some of Georgia or Armenia in there along with an oil-rich country like Azerbaijan. But I came back from doing research [in the Caucuses] in summer of 2001, right before 9/11, and after what started happening in this country, I started to realize that Absurdistan wasn’t just a specific place, it’s more of a way of life... and in a sense, I think we’re all going to be living in a kind of Absurdistan sooner or later because we live in a very strange time... I don’t know what to give credence to — is it the rise of fundamentalist religion or the turbo capitalism, the consumerism of our age? But for some reason or another, governments are increasingly able to ignore the interests of their citizens and the citizens have been hardwired not to respond.

You also call the book a love song to New York (among other things), and later, in a poetic description of the city, you describe it as “a final resting place for the collected hopes of our civilization.” That seems like a bleak depiction of New York—was it meant to be?

Well, it’s more of a kind of ‘if we can’t make it there we can’t make it anywhere’ refrain. I think New York is a work of genius. I’ve always been incredibly struck by the city. When people ask my nationality—are you Russian or are you Jewish?—I always think to myself, I’m just a New Yorker. Am I happy with what New York is becoming right now? Not particularly. Manhattan is in many ways becoming an island of millionaires. Where I live in the Lower East Side — what the locals call the JPs, the Jewish projects, on Grand Street — it’s a very diverse community and it still feels like New York, but in a lot of other places I do feel a kind of Ann Arbor creeping in. A lack of diversity and especially the growing cost of living is not going to be good for artists, writers, anybody associated with a non-high-earning profession, and that’s what’s always made New York so fascinating... New York does not have to remain the cultural capital of the world forever, and if steps aren’t taken we’ll go somewhere else. I was just in Portland, Oregon, [where] I know writers there who are making a go of it. They can concentrate on their work in a way that people in New York no longer can.

What do you like about living in the Lower East Side?

I love the lower Lower East Side... I just love hearing Spanish in the street. [And] you got the three major H’s that you need – you got hipsters, Hasids, and Hispanics. And to me that’s the Williamsburg model and that really makes the neighborhood. There’s also great food. There are all these Malaysian-Chinese hybrids around, like Overseas Asian on Canal. There are also some good bars. I’m dying to check out one called the ER room, right by Governor’s Hospital. It’s in a kind of basement with thick bars on the window. The kind of place Misha would like to end up in.

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