September 6, 2012

Satirical Shteyngart Sure to Delight

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The way Gary Shteyngart predicts the future in his black comedy dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story, we’ll all die clutching our iPhone-like “apparats” in a post-literate world, genitalia visible through our trendy transparent Onionskin jeans. What a way to go. If  Brave New World and any one of George Saunders’ short stories had a baby, Super Sad would be its love child. Witty, facetious and eerily plausible, Super Sad True Love Story has won over many critics, and today, Shytengart is coming to Cornell to let his work win you over too. The always amusing, best-selling author will read excerpts from his third and latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story.

Any zany Russian dude who hobnobs with Anthony Bourdain and extols the virtues of carnivorism should be universally fascinating in my book. Our mutual admiration for Shanghainese soup dumplings was enough to have me swooning, but the man’s got an entire iPhone app intended to semi-stalk him and his work. If my brief correspondence with him is any indication of the riotous time to be had today, then for once I can vouch an academia-sponsored event might take precedence over that Friday afternoon pre-debauchery nap. See for yourself.

The Sun: In past literary readings, you’ve been known to really go for it. The whole song and dance bit. Multiple heavy accents. Will you be doing that today?

Gary Shteyngart: Of course. You’ll really get your money’s worth.

Sun: In Super Sad True Love Story, you create this dystopian New York consumed by media and retail. What part of that world do you believe is truly possible and what part was simply for the sake of satire?

G.S.: It’s not just possible, lots of it is already here. OK Cupid has a function that allows you to scope out hotties in the same bar you’re in. There are transparent jeans on the way. Basically, I’m like a prophet of two months from now. A very minor Nostradamus.

Sun: In the novel, you seem to make some funny jabs at some political topics, such as America’s dependence on Chinese loans and America’s eagerness to engage in warfare. How important are these issues to you in real life?

G.S.: I’m pretty dependent on Chinese loans myself, but I’m not all too eager to engage in warfare given that I’m 5’6” on a good day and weigh 135 pounds.

Sun: In your trailer for Super Sad, you seem to play a kind of Borat-type character, this fumbling immigrant capitalizing on the literary world’s pretensions for your own financial gain. It’s satirical for sure and particularly effective in a reverse psychology kind of way. Did you come up with the premise? How did you get James Franco and Jeffrey Eugenides on board to cameo? Was it difficult to get it produced as something that might confuse readers new to your style?

G.S.: Hey, 237,000 hits, right? Though most of them for Mr. Franco, who was a student of mine [at Columbia University], and Jeffrey E. is a friend. One of the themes of Super Sad is illiteracy and I thought, hey, what if I was a writer who never learned how to read?

Sun: Many of your works, especially Super Sad True Love Story, seem equal parts sad and equal parts funny. Why is that? Are you equal parts sad and equal parts funny?

G.S.: I’m mostly sad with a little bit of funny in real life. Imagine bitter kale topped with a maraschino cherry.

Sun: What’s the difference between you after your first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and you now?

G.S.: Hair loss. Lots and lots of hair loss.

Sun: Who are your crushes?

G.S.: I have a literary crush on Margaret Atwood.

Sun: Besides your working writing beloved book blurbs (of which an entire Tumblr is dedicated to their pithiness), is there a new novel on the horizon?

G.S.: Because the average life expectancy of a Russian man is 56, I have started to work on my memoirs.

Sun: You’ve mentioned to me you almost went to Cornell three times in your life. As a prospective undergraduate, why did you apply to the hotel school of all places?

G.S.: Hospitality is my middle name! I’ve always wanted to say, “Welcome to the Dubuque Holiday Inn. My name is Gary Shteyngart and “ll be assisting you with check-in today.” Oh, god, why did I become a writer?

Gary Shteyngart will speak at Schwartz Auditorium in Rockefeller Hall at 3 p.m. today.

Original Author: Alice Wang