A conversation with Gary Shteyngart: “We are enslaved to technology.”

by John Allison    /  June 30, 2011  / No comments


Photo: Laura Mustio

Gary Shteyngart is an American writer born in Leningrad, USSR, in 1972. Much of his work is satirical and relies on the invention of elaborately fictitious, yet somehow familiar, places and times. His novels include The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story.

John Allison, an associate editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, interviewed Shteyngart in one of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s houses just before the author read excerpts from Super Sad True Love Story to 160 people gathered under a tent on Sampsonia Way.

Super Sad True Love Story is a disturbing, funny, and believable satire of the near future, where books have no place in a hyper-technological society. In this conversation, consequentially, Shyteyngart quips on the tyranny of technological devices and the slowness of the United States in the world’s technology race. Like the many facets of Super Sad True Love Story‘s alternate future, the conversation–sprinkled with dark humor–turned to unexpected topics like pornography, immortality, and Russia.

There’s so much going on in Super Sad True Love Story—the end of America, the death of reading, the love-conquers-all story, the urge to live forever, the worship of youth. The theme of procreation pops up early on and continues subtly. So I have to ask: What do you think about kids? Do you like kids?

I like kids … I met some the other day. They’re small. I don’t have any. I have dachshunds.

Some people have perceived the book as anti-youth, but I love youth. It’s not their fault that they’re turning into something different. Society is at fault.

So I worry for children, not just in the sense that corporations are contributing to their illiteracy, but in the sense that physically it’s not going to be a very pleasant planet to live on. So, sorry youth. But I had a great time. I read, I live in a fairly temperate climate, so stuff is good.

Can you see having children as a stab at immortality?

Sure. There’s a line in the novel—there’s very few women who take a crack at the Post-Human Services because they see the ability to have children as a kind of continuation. But that’s kind of weak for me, the idea that one lives on forever through children. The first pages of the book go through that line, “I believe children are the future.” I tend not to say that I’m going to die eventually for my children. 

Lenny [the book's 39 year-old co-protagonist] probes philosophically in various ways at trying to live forever and discovers that nothing ever really works out. Death is inevitable.

Have you read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr [subtitled “What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”]?

I read that after I read Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near and found it to be very complementary reading material, especially in the sense that it’s our brains being re-ordered, and one of the things we can’t do is to concentrate on long-form text. The book kind of points fingers, but we are passively being rewired on a biological level. 

Our brains are not going to be the same brains that existed. And obviously our brains change quite a bit, but this is a humongous leap in a very short amount of time. I can’t concentrate. It’s hard, I do most of my reading on an airplane, because that’s when I’m captive. Or on the subway. There’s nothing better to do.

Can you carve out time at home?

It’s so hard. It’s very hard to get people to buy a book or read a book, so I’m constantly promoting.

So when you aren’t writing, you’re on tour.

I mean, it takes what, three years to write a book? But it takes about a year and a half to promote it worldwide. Can you imagine? It used to be people would say, “Oh it’s a book, now I’m gonna get it!” And now it’s like you have to go to Akron and be like, come on. Buy it. BUY IT! You know you want it! Hmm? Hmm?

And you’re on Facebook. I “Liked” you yesterday.

Thank you. People are good, they’re very responsive on there.

And so are you.

Well, you gotta be.

Do you enjoy that?

Yeah. Well, you know, at this point, if you enter the [digital] world, there’s no going back. The Internet is a harsh mistress. 

And the iTelephone? Oh my God. My baby. It was a present in 2006, or 2007. And then when I got it turned on, [my life] just went out the window. 

See this Hudson Valley T-shirt I’m wearing? I go up to the Hudson Valley to get a reprieve. AT&T is so bad up there.

And is there where you do the bulk of your writing?

A lot of Super Sad was written there. I write very well in Italy for some reason, so a lot of Super Sad was written there too. There’re a lot of castles owned by various royalty in Italy that I live in for a while. A huge part of that novel was also written in Olympia.

You live in Manhattan now?

Yes. But I can’t concentrate in Manhattan. Ugh, so hard. Manhattan’s like a giant Internet device.

Do you feel like you’re reporting when you’re in Manhattan?

I used to take notes in a cab and I enjoyed looking out the window, seeing the world at this level. But now there’s always this screen in front of you in Manhattan cabs. You can’t turn it off, as well as you may try. But at the same time that I’m hitting the off button, listening to some jabber on the TV, I’ve got my own iPhone out and I’m looking at that. It’s like the screens are everywhere. The screens are winning.

Super Sad completes a circle: the post-literate future yields another kind of future. So you’re not painting us into a dark corner. Maybe you see another kind of literacy?

The interesting thing about Eunice’s [the book's other protagonist, a 24 year old Korean American] communication is that she’s very literate. Or as literate as one gets with a major in Images and a minor in Assertiveness. But in the future there are no long-term sentences. There’s no subject and predicate. It’s all little bursts of data. But Lenny and Noah still speak in pretentious sentences. And Eunice is very literate, so you know, there were some concessions to the fact that hey, it’s a novel, it can’t just be little bursts of information.


Photo: Laura Mustio

And forgive me for prying even more. Are you in a relationship with a Korean-American woman?

Oh sure, yeah. I went to Stuyvesant High School. All I know are Koreans. My mentor is Korean, [the writer] Chang-rae Lee. My best friends are Korean. Surrounded by Koreans.

And no backlash from them?

Surprisingly no. No backlash. I experienced backlash in Russia itself. But not from Russian-Jews here, or from Jews in general. My father would have said it wouldn’t be good for the Jews. [I never said it was going to be good] for anybody.

Do you involve yourself with Russian affairs?

Russia doesn’t really censor writers now because they don’t matter as much as they used to. That’s the whole thing. They don’t allow opposition TV to exist. There is one radio station that is an alternative station, but the regime is fine with it—let a million intellectuals listen to it and then we’ll see if we have freedom of the press. It’s the same with newspapers; let a few thousand people here read it. But TV, as they say, where real opinions are made, is heavily censored and controlled.

Are you outraged about that? Do you feel like you’re on a mission to do something about it?

Nothing ever changes in Russia. The worst feudalism, the worst socialism, and now the worst turbo-capitalism—it’s just one nightmare after another. What are you going to do? That is the status quo. There’s a restaurant called 1913 and I said, “Why’s your name 1913?” And the owner said that was the only good year in Russian history.

What about America? Are we lost?

You know, some nations rise and fall, and I think this country’s just very tired now. This country’s worked its ass off for a very long time. The spirit is sort of out of us: we’re gonna climb every mountain. The immigrants still have it, but the population in general—I know of kids who will never work as hard I worked, and why would they? Other nations just want it more than we do now. China and India are in such poverty and they see a way out and they’re gonna hustle.

So are you saying you’ve lost the immigrant drive?

Well, I think I sort of tuned out for about 10 years, took it really easy, got high a lot, partied like a University of Pittsburgh student on spring break, Daytona Beach, partied hardy for 10 years of my life. But then that instinct to work hard again took over, and the last 12 years have been a lot of work.

You went to Oberlin.

I was so stoned. I worked fairly hard there—I think I majored in The Beatles, or something. Advanced Ringo studies.

Were your parents disappointed that you went to Oberlin?

No, they were disappointed when I got out of Oberlin. Had hair down to my ass, you know. Stoned. Worked as a paralegal for a year and I was like nuh-uh, I’m not going to do law. That was a big shock to them. Every month I’d get a tickler from one grad school or another to apply—urban planning, masters in public administration. I was lost, but it’s all right. That was my 20s.

I think post-college is even a designated demographic now.

Well now it lasts until like 43! The way it’s structured now, there’s no jobs. It could be interesting to see what the next generation will be like without the cushion of being the world’s No. 1 nation economically, and pop-culturally, and in so many other ways. It’s going to be different for them. Good luck, kids.

In 2008, did you have apocalyptic visions of America collapsing?

I started writing Super Sad in 2006, so I heard about the collapse of banking and the auto industry, and by 2008 it was all coming true. Things were getting worse and worse and worse. But what’s interesting is that the finance people really landed on their feet. Society’s structured that way. 

I thought Russia would become more and more like America as the years went on after the fall of communism. But America became more and more like Russia as the years went on. We had this erasure of the middle class, the growth of a very small group of people who were in charge, and very little advancement from a group of people who, from the beginning, were not judged to be slated for that kind of success. We’re slowly turning into a developing country. 

And really developing because of our technology. As much as I dislike the Internet and what it’s done to my attention span, I wish it was faster. Korea’s [internet connection] is two and a half times faster.

Everyone says the Internet is just a porn delivery system.

Well, I mean, it’s a major … that’s what it’s there for. Information and porn.

The numbing effect. In Super Sad, I really like the way you capture the numbing of sex and desire. Those clothing lines: JuicyPussy, AssLuxury. Eunice’s approach to sex is so perfunctory. She calls it “Magic Pussy Time.”

There’s an urge for closeness, but she doesn’t have the capacity to articulate it. She and a friend were talking about watching a video, “Old Man Spunkers,” in kindergarten. You know, where do you go from there?

How much of the numbness that comes from these devices is coming from people watching porn on them?

There’s a level of being comfortable with sitting there by yourself and indulging in these fantasies and it reminds of you of how difficult actual life is and relationships are. You know, there’s that famous case of the couple in Korea, the very wired society, who had this online game where you raise a kid, but they also had a [real] kid, and they were so busy playing this online game that their kid starved to death. And that’s the mentality. Virtual life has fewer consequences.

Is technology eating us alive?

Technology can’t fix all of our problems. It can fix some problems, but it creates other problems. Why do we have these devices? To save labor, to have time to relax and enjoy things. But that’s not how it works at all. It sucks us into a world where we’re working harder and harder. The devices own us, not the other way around. We are enslaved to technology.

Up in Hudson I see second-home owners who are quite wealthy. They’re older, and they’re sitting around a table talking about technology, talking about the next killer app—not grandchildren, or the book they’ve just read.

So Lenny hopes to live to see the future.

Yeah, he takes Lipitor. Just 20 grams a day can change your life.

Yeah, but the future’s always happening.

There’s no present left. We’re living in the future. This is the future. I have a device upstairs that can do just about anything, like magic.

Can it write a book?

Yeah, I mean, I don’t even write these books anymore, I just outsource it to India, give them the basic plot. “Yeah. I’d like a love story, sad and true, and make it super.” “Super? Make it 8,000 more rupees please.”

[Pauses as he hears the children of Khet Mar, City of Asylum/Pittsburgh writer-in-residence, speaking through a megaphone, promoting his reading in the next hour]

This is weird, hearing children playing outside. I hear their voices. I haven’t heard a child’s voice in so long. We don’t really have them in Manhattan. It does become odd to have children and procreate.

If I recall correctly, David Foster Wallace, Richard Ford and Jonathan Franzen are writers who declared they wouldn’t have children, for various reasons including that they were too dedicated to their art.

Well, I wouldn’t look at it that way. I mean, if you have a child, you just give it to someone to take care of—20 nannies per child, I don’t know. It would be good material. I find it very helpful to be surrounded by young people. By young I mean in their 20s. It’d be interesting to see a 5-year-old. What are their political views?

Watch Slideshow: Gary Shteyngart reads and trades quips with audience

Watch Video: Q&A with Gary Shteyngart

Read Gary Shteyngart wins Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction

Watch Video: Gary Shteyngart Reads From Super Sad True Love Story

About the Author

View all articles by John Allison

Leave a Comment

comm comm comm