The True Name of Gary
By JOSH LAMBERT
Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan is the
hilarious tale of Misha Vainberg, the obese son of one of Russia’s wealthiest
men, and his exploits in a decrepit post-Soviet republic. Before being blown up
by a landmine himself, Misha’s Beloved Papa, a passionate Zionist and decidedly
non-traditional entrepreneur, murdered an American businessman, and so the
American government is refusing to readmit Misha, even though he is a proud
alumnus of Accidental College, a Midwestern temple of the liberal arts.
Stranded in St. Petersburg and pining for his Bronx-raised girlfriend, Rouenna,
and his Upper West Side analyst, Dr. Levine, Misha zips down to Absurdistan in
the hopes of finagling a passport that will get him back to Manhattan. A comedy of errors ensues, of course, and
the book is not only laugh-out-loud funny on nearly every page, but also a
poignant exploration of our increasingly globalized, and increasingly absurd,
A couple of days after his punim
graced the cover of the New York Times Book Review, and just before he set off on a coast-to-coast publicity tour, I sat
down with the author to discuss the new book, his imaginary friends, and—what
else?—the future of the Jews. Appropriately enough, we met for a drink in Shteyngart’s
neighborhood, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in a dim hipster bar surrounded by
Asian grocery and hardware stores, and catercorner from the grand old Forward Building,
now being transformed into high-rent
condos but still bearing the busts of Marx and Engels on its façade. Recent
immigrants, a healthy dollop of Jewish history, Communist icons, more than a
whiff of the East in the air: this is the territory Shteyngart has staked out
as his own, and it is as much the homeland of his globe-trotting fiction as
Newark is for Philip Roth’s. The following are some excerpts from our
In Absurdistan, you’ve got not one Nathan Zuckerman-like
alter ego, but three, by my count: Misha Vainberg, Jerry Shteynfarb, and (in a
repeat performance from The Russian
Debutante’s Handbook) Vladimir Girshkin. Why so many?
Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, and when I was growing up—especially
in America, when I didn’t speak English for a long time—I literally invented a
doppelganger for myself. I was sort of my own best friend. I went to this
pathetic Hebrew school in Queens, and the kids wouldn’t even talk to me,
because I dressed like a shmuck and ate unkosher salami in the bathroom. Not a
cool thing. So I talked to myself in Russian. It was funny, I imagined whole
different people. Even at that age—maybe it was schizophrenia—I could imagine
the American me, the me still living in Russia.
Did they have names?
There were two names for sure, because Gary’s not my real name. My name is
Igor. So there was Igor, Gary, and then I was playing around with Jerry,
actually. When I was very high in college, I would invent this alter ego named
Jerry the Geriatric, as a joke, pretend to be this old American Jew, you know
[switching to Jerry the Geriatric’s voice]: “Ach, I’m gonna go to the mikveh today.” I always had a lot of fun
This is what happens when you’re an only child, all alone, and no friends.
Is one of these alter egos closest
to your heart?
Shteynfarb is ostensibly me, but I hope is not… When I teach, I try not
to sleep with my funky students. Girshkin was a very autobiographical figure;
he’s not really in this book. He’s just a side-gag.
So in some ways Misha… You know, I always think, what would have happened
if I hadn’t left Russia? And when you look at the list of oligarchs, the worst
of the worst, especially in the beginning—now it’s a little more
diversified—but in the beginning: Berezovsky, Gusinsky, all
these guys, like 80 percent of them were Jewish or something like that. It’s
hysterical. I always thought, what would have happened if I had been left
behind? I don’t think I would have become that
venal, but I do remember watching Wall
Street as a kid, and thinking, “I want to do that, and not get caught.”
The materialism—there’s a scene in the book where they’re back in the college,
and Aloysha-Bob says to Misha, “I’ve been associating Russian life with
spirituality.” And Misha says, “Well, some of us are believers… But mostly we
just want things.” And I wanted things so
In that scene, Misha looks at Shteynfarb
and Girshkin, and he says to himself,
“Three Russians from Leningrad. Striving for the attention of a solitary
American Jew… Why couldn’t we form a team to assuage our loneliness?” I know
that American Jews loved your first book—it won the National Jewish Book Award,
for one thing—but I’m curious as to how your fellow Russians have responded.
Any hate mail?
Maybe a little bit. But you have to understand that the older generation—my
parents’ generation—for the most part can’t read that well. I don’t think they
could get it. That’s, I think, the saving grace.
I’ve heard of some people my parents’ age reading it and spitting on it.
But people of my generation seemed to have really taken to it. I think they
probably account for a huge percentage of the sales of the first book. Because
the first book was—everyone had done, at this point, there had been a Dominican
novel, a Korean novel, an Indian novel—a hundred Indian novels—there hadn’t
been a Russian novel. After my book, the floodgates seemed to open, there was a
whole slew of them, but back then, nothing. And people really seemed to take to
it. And not just to mine, but to [David] Bezmozgis’ and
others’. I would speak in front of the most educated Russians, people of my
parents’ generation who can read English and understand the nuances, and that
was a very nice feeling.
They responded well?
Very well. Even though I was in some ways making fun—but that’s fine. When
an immigrant group feels good enough to laugh when it’s being laughed at or
gently—or not-so-gently—poked at, and they can respond well, that’s a sign that
it’s fairly assimilated.
Speaking of other Russians, you’ve been part of a wave of post-Soviet-Jewish
novelists writing in English—yourself, Lara Vapnyar, and
Bezmozgis, to name three. (It’s been tempting to compare the three of you to
the Bellow-Malamud-Roth combination
that took over American literature in the late 1950s.) I wonder if you see
yourself or your work in dialogue with these other young Russian writers.
Oh, not at all. I love their work, but it’s—it’s really nice, because I
think together we span this huge gamut. I’m a satirical writer, clearly.
Bezmozgis and Vapnyar are very different. Vapnyar has a real outsider’s
mentality, much more so than any of us, I think. She really is from a different
planet—Staten Island. She’s very sweet. She worries about what Russians think
of her. She’s worried about the backlash in the community, because she really
is a part of that community. Whereas for me, Brighton Beach is a place I go for
a fun reminisce—the Soviet Union, 1979, in amber.
Do you have any thoughts about why this
wave happened in the last few years?
Who the hell knows? When you think about it, it’s really surprising that
there’s only three of us—and now, there’s a couple more. [But] given the
literary tradition, it’s shocking.… I have a couple of theories. One is that
Russians, more than any of those groups, don’t want their dirty laundry aired.
We’re so frightened about the reaction of our compatriots. And I think that’s
maybe one reason why it took me so long to get my first novel out. It was only
after I had been in analysis for a couple of years that I was able to send this
book out. Now I couldn’t give a shit about what any of them say.
So I think maybe that’s one reason. Another reason is of course the heavy
professionalism of Russian kids. Parents pushing their kids. [Writing] is a
hobby, at most; it’s something you put on your resume. My mother’s first
reaction to the success of the first book was, “Now you can apply to Harvard
The impression I get from what I’ve read of your work, and other interviews, is
that you’re not a fan of Jewish institutions—day schools, synagogues, etcetera.
Well… I read Hebrew. I’ve gone through the whole [Jewish day school] thing.
I prayed my little head out. I believed so much in this. It was interesting: I
was treated like shit, and yet I still believed. It was a typical Russian
mentality: you know, the more they whip you, the more you—I remember scouring
the house for chometz.
It’s not just Judaism. It’s religion in general. In my books, I wail on
Judaism and Christianity. Islam takes care of itself—I don’t need to do
anything with Islam.
At the same time, you’ve received at least two Jewish book prizes—and I assume
you wouldn’t say no to more.
I don’t say no to any of this. No, no—look. I’m a Jewish writer, there’s no
doubt. I just don’t believe in no Yahweh.
Most of the money for these sorts of prizes, though, seems to come from sweet
elderly Jewish men and women who made a bundle on real estate or manufacturing,
and are now hoping that books and culture will turn out to be an option for
Jewish communal identification where synagogue, schools, and summer camps have
failed. Do you see yourself as participating in that, as an author or as a
reader? Can books keep us together?
Well, I served as a judge on the National Jewish Book Awards. And I have no problems with cultural Judaism; in
fact I support it. I love it. My favorite American writers—Roth, Roth, Bellow;
and I love the current crop of writers—Allegra Goodman is wonderful; Chabon.
My problem is, I think a lot of this stuff, behind it lurks the idea of
Jewish continuity: we have to breed with
other Jews. That’s a really—what the hell is that? We should breed with
whoever the hell we want. Or not breed!
There’s this anxiety, this incredible feeling of guilt behind all this. “We
are a small nation that’s been screwed over by history, and we’ve got to
survive, one way or another.” I dated an Armenian girl in college, you
know—very similar. Very similar. In fact my father loves Armenians. I thought
he only loved Jews, but he also loves Armenians: “The same problems we have… ”
So this incredible burden, and guilt. People should do whatever the hell makes
them happy. From my experience, religion is at best a placebo, and at worst…
So: culture, definitely. It’s a fascinating culture.
The question is, if we all interbreed, will there be such a thing as Jewish
culture 100 or 200 years down the line? Well, I think down the line, we’ll all
be a nice shade of brown. And I think small nations in the end just don’t
survive. Yiddish doesn’t survive, the Assyrians didn’t survive, the Armenians,
the Jews, probably the Portuguese… We’re one of the oldest nations around, in a
sense—if you think of us as a nation—but history has just started to be
written. 5,000, 3,000, 2,000 years down the line, hopefully all this
stuff—Islam, Christianity, Judaism—will be referred to the way we refer to Zeus
and Apollo. So let’s enjoy what we have now. It’s a fascinating moment. But
let’s not tie our carriage to this horse of continuity forever. It is what it
is, as Rummy would say—and let’s enjoy what we have.