The opening page of Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure, begins with the young author standing in a now closed branch of New York’s famous bookstore The Strand, reading a page of St Petersberg: Architecture of the Tsars.
‘As part of my freewheeling, four-hour daily lunch break,’ he writes, ‘I would eat and drink my way … over to the Strand Book Annex. In 1996, people still read books and the city could support an extra branch of the legendary Strand in the Financial District, which is to say that stockbrokers, secretaries, government functionaries – everybody back then was expected to have some kind of inner life.’
Shteyngart’s Little Failure is fascinating for all it reveals about the life of an author who has become a cultural figure in his own right, famed for everything from book trailers, his tutelage of James Franco, an almost second career as a writer of book blurbs, and, of course, his three satirical works on modern life: The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story.
It is always difficult to interview a satirist. Their answers are comical, but in a way that is often evasive, especially when you’re enquiring about the subject of a memoir. Yet, it is despair of the kind revealed in those opening sentences, recounting a time, long past, when ‘people still read books’ and were ‘expected to have some kind of inner life’ that comes through most strongly throughout our conversation. Shteyngart has imagined dystopias in his work, but his views on the future and the importance he places on the novel suggest that much of it isn’t fictional to him at all.
Shteyngart is famed for his work in the satiric form. ‘It is,’ he says, ‘the ballistic missile where you package the sadness.’ For all its missiles of comedy, Little Failure hits with the author’s tender sadness at his parent’s circumstances and the way in which their presence in Russia prevented them from being the artists they wanted to be.
KYD: Speaking of the artists’ party, Ceridwen Dovey told me she met you there, and while chatting about swimming at Icebergs she mentioned budgie smugglers?
GS: Budgie smugglers! Yeah, I love that term. So budgie is a budgerigar, like a parakeet?
GS: So budgie smuggler is the way that you put the thing in there?
KYD: The terrible thing is, when she told me about your conversation and how she was explaining it to you, I realised I’d never thought about it literally.
GS: So this term has been around for a while, it didn’t come in with the Tony Abbott administration?
KYD: Well, it gained prominence because of him, he was pretty much always in them through the election campaign, so it was used a lot during that time.
GS: Oh, so he didn’t just wear it on the beach, he would wear it in other contexts?
KYD: No, always on the beach! So you’d never heard of it before?
GS: No! I’m learning a lot of things. Like I didn’t realise that the Liberal Party was the fascist party here.
KYD: Yes, well, we always emphasise that it’s capital L Liberal not small l liberal!
When I heard you had a new book coming out I was so excited for the trailer, and this one for Little Failure is the best one yet – I especially loved the cameo by ‘Doctor Franzen’.
You’re renowned for them now, but how did the book trailers come about, initially?
GS: Well, nobody wants to read books anymore, but they do want to see a movie about a book, that makes them feel like they’ve almost read it. And so you’ll get maybe one out of seven people who see it who will buy it, so I’ve sold a few that way.
KYD: I love the one for Super Sad True Love Story about how to act at literary events. Have you employed that this festival?
GS: Yeah, I always find myself talking about things I know nothing about, so I always just do this a lot [he swirls his glass in his hand].
KYD: And you find that gets you through? The prop has to be there?
GS: I do feel very illiterate. I’m not a reader; I like to watch TV. I’m thrust into the role of writer or whatever because I’ve written some books, but mostly I’ve outsourced them to India.
KYD: Oh, so then there’s some truth in Jeffrey Eugenides’s claim in the Super Sad trailer that you’ve been able to escape the anxiety of influence because you’ve never read anything?
GS: Yes. I absolutely have no anxiety of influence.
KYD: I wanted to ask you about influence because your books are laden with references to Russian literature. On the jacket sleeve of my copy of Super Sad True Love Story you’re compared to Nabokov in several of the reviews. I wonder if you feel that coming to the English language late allows you to approach writing in a different way, as Nabokov did?
GS: Nabokov – or the Nabster as we call him – on the one hand, he had a head start because his governess was English, so he spoke some version of it from day one. On the other hand, he came to America when he was forty instead of seven like me, so there are pluses and minuses. I mean, he always had a great sense of his vocabulary, but he had a thick accent, which would be impossible to shed at that age, whereas I’ve been able to shed most of mine, but when the starting gun was fired, I never had the full vocabulary that he did.
KYD: Nabokov plays with the sounds of the English language in such a beautiful way – perhaps most famously in Lolita – and you play with language too, especially in Super Sad, in this eccentric style that mirrors modern internet speak. Of course, it’s hard for you to go outside your own experience because that’s all you know, but I wonder if you think coming to it as a second language influences the way you hear language.
GS: It’s like a second soundtrack playing in your mind. And all these books have had Russian in them. When I was writing Super Sad I had to think in terms of what a Korean mother would say, how she would express herself.
When you come to a country and you’re the Other, you’re always mimicking other people because you’re trained to mimic. Because your initial adaptation of a language is just mimicry in general. So whenever I hear a language – I lived in Italy for a while – I never had any vocabulary but people would think I was Italian because the few words I could speak I would speak them accurately enough and with the right hand gestures.
KYD: So how did you get Franzen to agree to be involved in the trailer for Little Failure?
GS: He’s a friend, but he’s also a funny guy, so he was game from the beginning. He read the script and wanted to be part of it.
KYD: You’re very adept at Twitter, and we know that Franzen wrote quite a scathing essay in the Guardian about that. What did you think of his comments?
GS: I didn’t read it. Again, I’m not a big reader, so I don’t know much.
KYD: What do you think of Twitter? You’re an adept user of it.
GS: Well, nobody likes to read books, but Twitter is the right amount. It’s 140 characters, that’s about as much as we can take anymore.
KYD: Would you ever write for TV?
GS: Yes, they’re adapting Super Sad. I’m a co-writer. Oh God, if that takes off then I can just stop writing books completely!
KYD: Is that the dream?
GS: Oh God, it’s everyone’s dream. Get on a lifeboat while you can, and swim to shore, also known as LA.
KYD: But in the mid-1900s, that was what most writers did wasn’t it? The city was like a siren call to writers to move there and become screenwriters. And they were miserable there.
GS: They were miserable. But in those days, the writer was really seen as an appendage to the director, but with these television series, the writer is king. Look at David Chase of The Sopranos, David Simon of The Wire, Lena Dunham of Girls (though she also acts in it), Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad. It’s the writer’s medium. It’s no longer the director’s. Having a good director is very important, but these television series really follow the arc of a novel. They’re novelistic.
KYD: Yes, the modern ‘HBO-style’ television series is almost reverting to the Dickensian serialised novel.
GS: Exactly, if Dickens were alive today, he’d be on Breaking Bad.
KYD: Tom Wolfe tried to return to that by serialising a very public first draft of The Bonfire of the Vanities in Rolling Stone. You’ve spoken about how people don’t read books, and the question of how to hold their attention, would you ever consider doing something different with form in that way and serialising your own work?
GS: People have difficulty reading long-form articles. It’s not just books, it’s anything long-form. I know professors of English who are like, ‘I can’t read anymore, I just don’t have the attention span for it.’ It’s over. We’re just trying to bury this thing with dignity.
KYD: If you feel that way about writing then how do you feel about teaching creative writing?
GS: I try to teach them to bury it with dignity. No, it’s good, it’s fun. It’s nice because we get the writers out of the house, it’s very collegial. I had a great student from Melbourne this semester at Columbia. Nice guy. Mark Chu.
KYD: On the idea of burying it with dignity: when you study literature, it’s often in terms of literary schools or periods – Romanticism, Modernism, Beat Generation – and though a lot of the names were assigned to them afterwards, many were self-identified by writers, and I feel like that idea has lessened over time, that there’s no longer artists working together towards a form of the novel that they believe in.
GS: Nobody’s fighting for anything because the stakes are so low now.
KYD: Why do you think that is?
GS: I think there was this exciting feeling that literature mattered, so much that every educated person was expected to know certain books. Nabokov and Pasternak would hold the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list for years with Lolita and Doctor Zhivago. Just to show up at a dinner party, you had to know about these books and you had to say something about them. Nowadays, that’s absolutely not the case. Books are something for a very strange, fringe minority.
What’s happened in poetry is very interesting in America. Poetry is now almost entirely read by the people who write it in writing programs. And I think literary fiction is probably going into that same kind of circular direction, and will only be practiced by a small group of people.
KYD: But then, the novel itself hasn’t been around for that long.
GS: Yeah, maybe three hundred years, I mean it could be that its due date has come.
KYD: I heard a really interesting lecture at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference by Teju Cole, where he spoke of Twitter as one of the futures of the novel. Do you see the novel as waning and it will all be microfiction from now on?
GS: To me, what’s more interesting are things like Vine and Instagram, where the idea is to mostly take out as many words as you can and just to have pictures. That’s the future. Sergey Brin of Google, when he was talking about Google Glass said, ‘Why should I write to a friend about what I’m eating when I could just take a picture and blink and he’ll see exactly what I’m eating instead of having to describe it?’
KYD: As a critic I’m interested in this idea. James Wood talks about how the proximity in form of a literary review to a book lends it a certain electricity. But I am often more interested in reviews that attempt to impart the difference in form – how to convey taste in language, how to convey sound in language. If the image becomes dominant, do you think our ability to write in that way will be diminished?
GS: Pretty soon I think there will be some device where if you taste something and you want me to taste what it’s like, and you’re in Melbourne, I’m in Sydney, I click my tongue and whatever’s in your mouth will be in my mouth as well.
We are moving at a pace of technological advancement that is unprecedented and where we don’t know where it’s going to end. If this happened over millennia then we would adapt as human beings, but we’re being asked to do it very quickly. Some stuff we’re cutting and pasting, and some stuff we’re cutting and moving into the trash can. And a lot of this stuff that requires introspection and contemplation will go to the trash and be replaced by things that are immediate and that can be comprehended very quickly. So instead of toiling for years on these books, I can post a picture of my food and get exactly the response I want. The only problem is, I don’t know how to monetise that.
KYD: So then do you see yourself as being part of a literary school? What is evident from the book trailers, to go back to the beginning, is that you’re friends with so many writers, but I don’t see you as working in a similar style.
GS: I don’t think my style is like anyone else’s. I don’t mean that in a boastful way, it’s just very different.
KYD: Going to the mode that you have worked in prior to this, satire, can you explain why that form was attractive to you?
GS: Well, it’s the only thing I really know. I mean, growing up everything was satirical in the Soviet Union. Brezhnev jokes and all that.
KYD: What was it like returning to books you wrote as a child when you were writing Little Failure? I’m assuming they still exist?
GS: Oh, it was nice, really nostalgic. I got a really nice sense of how much they meant to me. It was the kind of stuff where you’d wake up in the morning and the first thing you wanted to do was to write those books because they were sort of my entrée into American society.
They were not great books, but my mind was going a mile a minute, in an attempt to kind of understand the world, and science fiction was a way to make sense of it.
A great writer, Chang-Rae Lee, and I were talking about immigrant literature, and he said, ‘All immigrant literature is dystopian.’ Because you’re confronted with an alien world, and you’ve got to make sense of it.
KYD: Because the apocalypse has already happened?
GS: In a sense. Your culture has been obliterated.
KYD: Little Failure is essentially about your dual history. And your novels do this too, they’re a combination of the old and new word – I think of that scene in Super Sad where Lenny is on the plane reading a physical book and people around him comment that it smells weird – but it’s there in the language too, the constant straddling of the old and new.
GS: The way that scene came about was that, like Lenny, I have this giant wall of books in my apartment, and my cable television went on the fritz and so I called a repairman in, and this young guy came in, I think he was Jamaican, and he saw all the books I had and he said, ‘Oh man, why you got all them books?’ He was so disgusted by them. And he said, ‘And such a small TV!’ It was very emasculating to him. Then he said, ‘Well, at least you got them all orderly.’ Like God forbid there were books lying around. And I thought, wow, a lot of young people really hate books, they see them as these disgusting things.
Then I was being interviewed by a German journalist and he went to this fancy bar near me and he took out a book and he said people were looking at him like he was some escaped tiger or something, to be seen in a bar with this anachronistic thing.
KYD: So you’re not a fan of digital books, like e-readers?
GS: I prefer physical. Imagine, you just started going out with someone, you walk into their apartment, and you see most of the titles are by Glenn Beck, let’s say. You know it will never work.
KYD: Actually, Christian Lander, the creator of that blog Stuff White People Like came out to Australia a few years ago and joked about how thanks to e-readers he doesn’t have a bookshelf anymore, so now when friends come over he has to let them flick through his Kindle to impress them.
GS: Well that’s sickening.
KYD: What interested me in those early stories you wrote for your grandma was that the reward (of cheese!) was per page, and I feel like that’s such an interesting way of working because the way that we write now on computers is cut paste, cut paste – you never really write in a linear way. Has that early experience influenced the way you compose now?
GS: It depends, some stuff you hop around. The next book I’m writing will be modular, but this one was very linear. I mean there’s a little jumping around but for the most part I started young and then grow old.
That’s one of the things about a memoir; you know how the plot’s going to end.
KYD: One of the things I love about your early writing was the kind of chaotic nature of it. For a while the fashion in literature seemed to be a really spare prose style, lots of white space on the page. Whereas your writing, especially in Super Sad, was frenetic. I wonder what you think of that fashion for minimalism?
GS: It’s had its day, but we don’t live in minimalist times anymore. The writer used to retreat from the haste of the world by going into prose that was so small and precise, but now everything is exploding gigabytes. My style attempts to mirror the world that we live in.
KYD: You mentioned the next novel that you’re working on, can you tell me more about that?
GS: Oh, the New York Times wrote a piece about what it’s going to be about so I’m just trying to write what they told me to write. So I clipped it so I can remember what it is.
[Shteyngart hands me a small newspaper clipping of a story from his wallet, which tells me that the new work is an ‘international thriller’ and family drama set in the high-stakes world of global finance, titled Hotel Solitaire.]
Now I’ve just got to write that thing!
KYD: And so your style in the new novel will be a return to that kind of frenetic writing?
GS: I mean, I haven’t written a word of this, so it’s all about finding the voice in the first few pages and then you run with it. But I had fun writing from a woman’s point of view in Super Sad, so I’m hoping to tap into something like that here.
KYD: It’s been noted that a lot of your writing was already fictionalised memoir anyway, so can you talk about what drew you to writing an actual memoir?
GS: I wanted to get rid of everything else that was in the cupboard, so to speak. And just allow myself to write something else for the next book, otherwise I’ll keep going back to these childhood events.
KYD: So a kind of a purging.
GS: A purging, if you will [mimics vomiting].
KYD: So then how was the experience of writing yourself and your family without the shield of fiction?
GS: You’ve got to be honest with something like this otherwise why write a memoir? So the idea was to write as honestly as possible about everyone. I interviewed my parents extensively for it; I called and went back to friends in high school, and in college, especially, because I couldn’t remember anything that happened then because I was so high. Luckily, my college girlfriend saved all her old letters. Back then before email you used to write twenty-page letters to each other, so you’d have gigantic bales of letters. They helped me recreate my emotional life from back then.
KYD: Did you keep your half, her letters?
GS: Yes, I kept my half – which were hers – she had mine. And what’s interesting is – you know, she’s not a writer, she’s a doctor now – but back then everyone, no matter who you were, were expected to write these incredibly intricate, complex and beautifully-phrased letters that went on and on, I mean they were novellas. And reading them, I just thought, wow, how lucky we were to live then and to experience this kind of outpouring. And everything you expect in a good story, a beginning, middle and an end, everything was in those letters. It was really beautiful to see.
KYD: So do you see any optimism for the future of writing and the novel then?
GS: None. Nothing.
But, you know, these things come in waves. We’re in a dark age now, but at some point we may say, let’s get back to the more introspective life. Let’s make it a value.
There’s a hotel in upstate New York that charges a thousand dollars a room, because there’s absolutely no signal, nothing, you can’t pick up anything.
KYD: They should just go to Tasmania. You don’t have to pay that much for no signal with the mobile company I’m with.
GS: Tasmania sounds like fun, too. I spent half my year upstate in the country where there’s very poor signal, and that’s when I read and write and think and talk to people without reaching for my phone, and that’s an amazing life.
KYD: There’s this argument that, at least in terms of the names and our actions, we’re almost returning to pre-modern times – things like ‘scrolling’ or our use of computer tablets. The idea that we’re coming full circle.
GS: Well, you know, up to the collapse of the Roman Empire, the image became dominant for a very long time. Words weren’t used very much. People would look at paintings, visual representations. People were illiterate, you know. It took a long time; it really took until say, Dante, for the written word to come back. And it could be that the written word just wants to take a break for a while.
KYD: What brought it back then, in pre-modern times?
GS: It’s a good question. I think it’s just a sine wave of activity – right now is just not the time for it. Except for at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
KYD: The festival is a small utopia of literary interest.
GS: I’ll tell you this: the crowds keep getting bigger for these festivals. But it’s not so much about the books – talking about going back to visual culture – this is an oral culture. People love to just hear people talk about books. It’s interactive, you can ask a question, it’s more in line with how people think about literature these days. Instead of ugh, I’ve got to pick up a book and you know, read it.
In America, an edition of Super Sad has all these circles on the cover; I remember watching somebody press those circles, trying to get the book to do something.
KYD: I read that you’ve never suffered from writer’s block. Is that true?
GS: It’s true. There’s a lot to do.
KYD: I love the line in Little Failure: ‘When you’re twenty-one there really is only one subject. It appears in the mirror each morning, toothbrush in hand.’ Do you feel like you don’t get writer’s block because there’s just so much to mine in that regard?
GS: I mine a lot of that but I do a lot of travel writing; I’m very curious about the world. In some ways, the first few books did deal a lot with my own personal experience, but now it’s time to look at other things as well. I want my next book to be set all over the world. Shanghai, Dubai, Mumbai and all the ‘ai’ cities.
KYD: So you’ve finally escaped the guy in the mirror with the toothbrush.
GS: At last! Although, of course all books that the author writes will always have a lot of that author, no matter who the hero or heroine, or where it’s set. They’re always you to some extent.