Interview by Margaret Zamos-Monteith, Pictures by Matthew Monteith.
Author Gary Shteyngart has just moved from the Lower East Side and already he is back at Brown Café on Hester Street, one of his favorite breakfast spots. “If I were a Russian spy,” he claims, “I’d work here.” He gestures to the wooden bar and adds, “As a barista.” I’ve ordered the bread basket for us, though it turns out, Shteyngart does not eat carbs. He admires its beauty, but won’t touch it. So very American of him and he is also wearing shorts. “Don’t get the shorts in the picture!” he shakes his head. “If that leaked to Europe, I wouldn’t get any sales there!”
Shteyngart will be heading to Europe soon for a reading at the American Consulate in Russia, where he says, “The consulates all come together and choose a book, whatever consulates there are. It’s a whole literary community there.” They have selected his newest novel, Super Sad True Love Story, a literate act at odds with the scenario portrayed in the book itself. In the near future world of Super Sad True Love Story, books are called “media artifacts” and are regarded as too smelly to own.
When I ask Gary if he is really as pessimistic about the future of books as all that, he proclaims, “Over! So over! Oh my god.” When I point out that there will always be bookish types such as ourselves, he counters, “How many of us will remain? Will there be 3 million of us? Will there be 300,000 of us? Will there be 30,000 of us? How much will it take for me to sustain a living doing what I do best, well, doing the only thing I know how to do? Well, actually, I don’t even know how to read.”
That’s the thing about Gary Shteyngart: in real life, as in his writing, he is very, very funny. And the general future, he says, isn’t as dark for humans as it is for smelly old books. According to Shteyngart, the bookless future is going to be very “slutty,” which is what he likes about it. It’s going to be great, with see-through jeans, and he can’t wait.
“What am I doing in the present?” he groans wistfully. “There’s not enough good stuff yet!” He is a bona fide character and, while he is a great writer, he just might be an even better actor. Perhaps the real Gary Shteyngart is a very private man despite his assertion that he puts the “I” in TMI. Maybe by laying a version of himself bare in fiction, in person, and even in this hilarious video trailer for his new book, he has created the perfect protective shell to hide behind.
And so Shteyngart, whose book and book trailer are both partially set in his old Lower East Side apartment, has now moved near Union Square. He needed more space, two bathrooms to be exact, and he claims that his former residence, the Seward Park Cooperative on Grand Street, does not allow dogs, weenie or otherwise, and Gary really wants a long-haired dachshund weenie dog.
“I need a building that’s really weenie friendly,” he insists, so he’s now living in Frank McCourt’s former building: another immigrant writer, another product of Stuyvesant High School. But sitting back in this familiar haunt, Shteyngart claims he’s still a local. “I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else,” he points and sighs.
“Ten years. Clandestino is my home. I walk in and they hand me a vodka tonic and these little bits of duck. Oh and garlic sausage.” Clandestino is his bar. “I miss it so much already,” he says. Later he tells me, “A week without Clandestino, is like…I live at Clandestino. I love them so much. They have a nice dog, Samson. He’s half something. Half weenie dog.” He wants a dog like the one in his book trailer, a student’s dog who came to Shteyngart’s immigrant literature class at Columbia University. “Oh my god, this dog!” he breathes. “The dog was one of the best students at Columbia.”
These broad statements collide with a microscopically detailed skewering of everything under the sun. It’s all potential material for Shteyngart, who was recently included in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 Fiction Issue. The scope of his humor and the tenderness with which his satire is rendered reflects the range of his interests and loves, and the Lower East Side is one of his most admired darlings.
TLD: You’ve spent ten years on the Lower East Side, and it figures in all three of your novels. Now that you are living off the LES will the neighborhood still play a part in your fiction?
Absolutely. It’s still the only diverse neighborhood left in downtown Manhattan. The three H’s: Hasidic, Hispanic, and Hipster. Those are necessary to make an interesting story. It’s full of characters and the douchebag quotient is very low, relatively speaking, of course. I’m not comparing this to Portland. I love Portland. I have this Portland Index. How close is a society or civilization to Portland, Oregon. It would help if Portland had a black person.
TLD: In your books, geography is often a character, so if the LES were one of your characters, instead of a place, would it be a he, she, or an it?
One of those old Jewish men that sits in the corner of one of those concrete parks and keeps sighing, “uhhhh,” but even within that complaint, there is some happiness.
TLD: Your books are dark and satirical, but there is an amazing tenderness for the characters and places. Describe your tenderness for the LES.
You have to be nice to [your characters and places], you can’t just beat them up. You gotta snuggle up to them every once in awhile. Oh my god! Look how ugly it is. Look outside. I love it. It’s like going out with a hunchback. No offense to the hunchbacks in the audience. It’s a mess. You forget that you’re living in New York. I feel like [we] are living in some kind of elemental 19th Century or even early 20th Century Henry Roth [novel, like] Call It Sleep. It’s like a pleasant dystopia. I spent ten years here, five and five, broken up into two pieces. That’s longer than I have spent anywhere.
TLD: In the book, Lenny often wonders if New York is still his city. Is New York still your city?
Where else would I go? I’ve been all over the world and I don’t know where else I would go, but sometimes I wish there really would be an economic collapse, so we could get rid of some people and bring in some new blood. Like social workers. In New York, every borough should be composed of 40% clinical social workers.
TLD: Did you finish the first draft of the book before the economic collapse?
I started the book in 2006 and at first I had the collapse of the banks, the collapse of the auto industry, and then as these things started actually happening, this is when fact overruns fiction, as this shit was starting to happen. I had to go back and rewrite things and make it worse and worse and worse to the point where everything gets bought by a Norwegian hedge fund. Ah, if only I were a blogger instead of a novelist! Then I’d have something griping to say every day. I think this initial crash is very good for dystopian fiction. It really opened up the door. Now anything is possible. Throw in Global Warming. Throw in all this other shit. Oh man. I’m so glad my vision is so dark. But I also love. I love to love.
TLD: Is the LES still a place where people can come to create? Do you have to go to elsewhere, like to Staten Island as characters do in Super Sad True Love Story?
I don’t think so. I mean, I know it’s getting expensive and stuff, but those, what the locals call the JPs, the Jewish Projects where I used to live, those are not that expensive. They’re about the same price as Brooklyn, sometimes even less, and I feel like we are living in the suburbs in Manhattan Island. It’s really interesting: there is a scene in Westbury [Long Island] in the book, and I went out to Westbury and that’s more diverse and kind of cooler and more economically diverse than Manhattan these days because you have actually struggling immigrants trying to make it… There is a great Central American restaurant there. So delicious. You’ve got everything there.
TLD: In the same manner that the movies Wall-E or Idiocracy are set in the future, but reflect certain contemporary situations, the book feels very much like now. Would you agree?
All satire and speculative fiction is about the present. It’s not about the future. There’s no present anymore. We are living in an endless future. The future is now. The only thing that really worries me is illiteracy and the way the Internet has destroyed our ability to concentrate. It’s destroyed my own ability to concentrate. I can’t read books anymore. I don’t even know how. I used to be number one book reader in the world. Now I’m just a writer.
TLD: I like that your futuristic version of Facebook is called Global Teens. Thirty used to be the new twenty and in Super Sad True Love Story, seventy is the new teenager. Even the senior character of Joshie wants to be a teenager.
Joshie is dying to be a teenager. That’s been everyone’s dream forever, to be a teenager or twenty something, but knowing what you know so you don’t have to experience the pain.
TLD: Lenny has a push-pull of wanting to be his own independent self, but he is still beholden to the past, to his ranking in high school, to his group of friends from when he was younger. On the one hand, they all want to be or to stay young, but you also explore that it is not actually easy to be a teenager. Being a teenager is hard.
Lenny’s circumstances aren’t that different from most: the tension between being young and old, the tension between wisdom and ignorance, the tension between wanting to recapture youth and seeming to forget how difficult youth was. This is how we live now. The other thing is that we are all now equipped with something that previous generations did not have, which is the ability not to have children if you don’t want to. So many grown men write or read comic books. It’s fascinating.
TLD: New York has always represented a dream destination for people. Do you think that is still true?
I’ve always dreamt of New York, of being here, but now I am so tired, I dream of going upstate, spending most of my time there. Now that’s the best New York. It’s just a bunch of people who have escaped New York…And Gary needs a swimming pool.
TLD: I think that is what makes you a New Yorker, living here and dreaming of being someplace else while others dream of being here, no?
Whenever I come back to New York from being abroad, it feels nice. You love New York by leaving it, and then by coming back…I was thinking about that when I was writing this book: the infrastructure keeps collapsing, the Williamsburg Bridge is collapsing, and things like that, that feels very real, especially in comparison to China. You know I’ve been to China and you’re like, wow, holy shit, these dudes are, at least in certain parts of China, this is what America must have been like a century ago, the sort of excitement and optimism, and people actually building and making things, paving over stuff, and building these amazing airports…buildings taller than the Empire State. WTF.
TLD: You have a lot of acronyms in Super Sad True Love Story. So what is your favorite acronym, either real or made-up, in the book?
ROFLAARP is great. I think that actually exists. Rolling on the floor looking at addictive rodent pornography. I invented JBF. Just butt fucking you and TIMATOV, or think I am about to openly vomit. It sounds almost Yiddish.
TLD: Your protagonists tend to mirror your age, so will your next protagonist be in his 40s?
TLD: Will he live on the LES or near Union Square?
We shall see. I’m working on a collection of essays, which will be called a memoir at the end. Taking some time off from fiction. I need a little inventory clearing. Everything must go!
TLD: Do any of the essays take place on the LES?
I don’t think so. They are about my youth. Maybe some will, but I definitely will be back on the Lower East Side at some point. Maybe my next novel.
TLD: You’ve lived abroad a lot, so what do you miss most about the LES when you are away?
The quiet is wonderful. Just walking around and the commerce is so subdued. I miss this restaurant. Brown is great, such a non-pretentious place. Clandestino is my bar. Overseas Asian on Canal is the best Malaysian restaurant I’ve ever been in. They have the best Nasi Lemak. That’s a great dish. What I’d give for a nice Nasi Lemak. Oh my God. Overseas, what else, I miss how you really live in a little village outside New York. Now I feel like I’m living in New York proper. If I want a cab, I just have to go outside. Where I used to live, I had to call Delancey Car Service. “Thank you for calling Delancey Car Service,” and then what ever you said, they said, “Five minutes, five minutes.” If I said I wanted to go to the dark side of the Moon, they’d be like, “Five minutes, five minutes.” That’s the business model. Five minutes. By the way, [in the book] I used the exact apartment number that I used to live in, E-607…There’s like 18,000 people that live in that building.
TLD: And they are always dying in your book.
I know! That was a huge influence because I was writing about mortality in a building where you go downstairs and the Shiva board is filled with dead Jews. Talk about mortality. The Sabbath elevator will take you to the Shiva board.
TLD: And out of fear, Lenny has a certain contempt for their dying.
Yeah, he’s like, why are they dying. It’s so awful!
TLD: I do think it is interesting that part of the novel takes place in Rome, the ultimate creation myth city, and also the Eternal City. Very few places have such a strong creation myth attached to their founding.
Absolutely. A lot of this work was done in Italy, in Umbria, and dividing myself between the house of death over here and the Italian idea of eternal life, the eternal city, that really helped focus my mind on the process of writing about the big D word. When I was in Umbria, and you know Italy is wonderful because there is no internet there, it doesn’t work. They haven’t figured out how to lay that cable across the Tiber. It was great. It took years getting this book right, I kept messing up, and I spent a month and a half at Civitella, and the whole thing came together in a month and a half.
TLD: Speaking of the Internet, I saw you joined Facebook recently. I just became a fan of yours in fact.
I just love it! Please! Tell everyone to become a fan. I love my fans! And come to my reading [at Barnes & Noble]. Bring your friends. Bring bums off the street. I am reading at the Tenement Museum too. Tell everyone. I want the Lower East Side to come together and buy me a pied-a-terre. A weenie friendly pied-a-terre and I can be the Lower East Side writer-in-residence.
TLD: So, speaking of your Facebook video trailer, you are a great prankster, but I wonder, what are you serious about?
Good food. A bad meal to me is like a slap in the face.
TLD: Do you cook for yourself?
I don’t even know how to boil water. I tried once and it exploded. Who knew water was so explosive. I was in Beirut, but still. It slapped me in the face.
TLD: What is your favorite food store on the Lower East Side?
What’s interesting is the new thing that started, the Hester Street Fair. I had a really delicious Popsicle there. This neighborhood never stops giving. And there is this new tiki bar. Ah, ten years. A life. I remember when I got here, it was so Dominican. I lived on Canal Street in 96 or 97, something like that until 2001, then I moved. I went to Brooklyn. I helped to gentrify Ft. Greene, then I came back until 2010. I think everyone should feel like an outsider and now I am so an outsider in this new neighborhood. These dudes, some of them at bars are like, I’m a VC, and I’m like Viet Cong? And they’re like, “No, Venture Capital.” I’m a stranger in a strange land.
TLD: We’ll just call you Moses in Midian then. And what will you miss most from living on the LES?
The nice people. I’m surrounded by VCs now. I’m going deep into the jungle. Sarge!
To get a copy of Super Sad True Love Storyhot off the presses, come to his reading tonight at 7 pm at the Union Square Barnes and Noble on 17th Street and Broadway. Shteyngart will also be talking about SSTLS at the Tenement Museum on August 18th.