Monday, August 16, 2010

CBC News - Books - Driven to distraction

In order to write his satirical new novel, Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart needed to learn about social networks. His research was, perhaps, too successful.

"This book destroyed my life," says the Manhattan-based author by phone from his home. "It's like somebody [who] says, 'I'm going to write a book about heroin; I should probably try it a couple of times just to see what it's like.' I'm completely addicted to this stuff. My iPhone — it's like we're best friends forever. It's horrible."

He's kidding, at least to an extent. In contrast to the permanently distracted characters who populate his near-future narrative, he retains an impressive attention span.

'I think it's still within our power — before social media and the internet completely slice our brains into tiny little packets of jelly that are only good for reading 40 words at a time — to realize that we're losing something.'

—Gary Shteyngart
Shteyngart has been known to play games with his public image. The trailer for Super Sad (above) makes him out to be an illiterate shyster, and his 2006 novel, Absurdistan, includes a fictional alter ego ("Jerry Shteynfarb") who's an unlikeable cad. And yet, as goofy as Shteyngart can be, there's a darkness to his humour that can cut very close to the bone.

In the world of Super Sad, the U.S. economy has collapsed; the country is a police state overseen by global corporations, and most people are too busy shopping on their "äppäräts" (think futuristic iPhones with heavy-metal umlauts) to care.

Shteyngart began work on the novel in 2006, in a time of relative prosperity. "It was so uncanny," he says, "because I started writing, and we started having the collapse of the banks, and GM and Chrysler. I had to constantly change what I was writing about, and constantly make it worse and worse and worse."

The novel tells the interlinked stories of Lenny Abramov (who, like his creator, is a Russian Jewish Manhattanite in his late 30s) and 24-year-old Eunice Park, a Korean-American who is bright and captivating but also largely in thrall to her generation's superficial culture. When they meet at a party, Lenny, a balding, unfashionable bookworm, is besotted.

Gary Shteyngart. (Brigitte Lacombe/Random House of Canada)They feed each other's insecurities — she sees him as a father figure, and he tries to latch onto her youth — but they do share the rare ability to express themselves. In Super Sad's America, where the written word is nearly dead and young people complain that books smell of "old socks," Lenny writes his narrative in a series of diary entries. In alternating chapters, we learn about Eunice through her long-form e-mails, themselves an endangered species.

Eunice's world, says Shteyngart, is one "where contemplating, thinking, doing anything other than shopping quickly and rating other people all the time, is gone. Everyone is texting quickly around her and [posting] bursts of video, but she's still smart enough to be able to put her thoughts into language."

Both characters hail from immigrant families where the first generation's faith in the American Dream is turning to confusion and despair for the second. As the novel progresses, the country's response to its worsening economic situation becomes increasingly repressive towards its citizens, and its measures progressively more absurd. For example, official directives posted on signs around New York indicate that by reading them, one has both denied their existence and "implied consent." Shteyngart evokes Catch-22, drawing on both the incandescent rage that fires Joseph Heller's anti-bureaucratic humour and the empathy that fuels it.

Shteyngart cites Heller as one of four "funny Jews" important to his evolution as a writer, along with Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Mordecai Richler. All of them balance what Shteyngart calls "edge-of-the-grave" humour with an unsentimental sensitivity.

"At the end of Barney's Version, for example, there's a kind of tenderness toward this old, dying man who has very strong opinions about everything. He could be right; he could be wrong; it almost doesn't matter. What matters is the strength of the voice — that it is able to carry all these ideas," he says. "To me, that's really the height of literary art."

(Random House of Canada) In Richler's novel, Barney Panofsky cites "the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council, and the City of Toronto Arts Council" as "mediocrity's holy trinity." Shteyngart, on the other hand, enthuses about the "many wonderful" government-funded Canadian students in the creative writing classes he teaches at Columbia. And while he admits that student lingo inspired the ludicrous acronyms with which Eunice peppers her speech (e.g., TIMATOV: "Think I'm About To Openly Vomit"), he finds hope for literature's future in their writing.

Of course, writers need readers, and the diversity of audiences at his public readings also gives him hope. Some youngsters, he says, "come with their moms, which is really cute. And some of them come with gas tanks behind them, because they're very old and wheeled in, on a stretcher sometimes. I love both my ambulatory and non-ambulatory readers."

Shteyngart's fiction rewards devoted attention — it's densely packed with cultural references, literary allusions and unexpected turns of phrase that deliver both wit and wisdom.

"I think it's still within our power — before social media and the internet completely slice our brains into tiny little packets of jelly that are only good for reading 40 words at a time and assimilating tiny bits of information — to realize that we're losing something. And that it's important to step back — to know ourselves better, to know the people around us better."

On Shteyngart's Facebook page, you'll find Salman Rushdie commenting on a photo of fellow novelist Jay McInerney, as well as Amy Tan giving a thumbs-up to an iPhone photo of a tasty beer snack. Shteyngart says tidbits like these make him feel "beloved," but on the whole, he desires a deeper form of connection.

Social media, he says, "always just begins the conversation. The real conversation happens at a bar or at a party or when two people are walking across Central Park, and they look at each other, and it's not on a screen; it's something very personal. That's when I'll push you a little; you'll push back a little. We'll go back and forth, and we'll find something that we didn't expect."

Super Sad True Love Story is in stores now.

Mike Doherty is a writer based in Toronto.

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CBC News - Books - Driven to distraction

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