Gary Shteyngart's new novel Super Sad True Love Story is a hilarious satire on contemporary America.
Gary Shteyngart on how he stayed ahead of the 21st-century curve
Gary Shteyngart is having a thought about technology. It's the kind of thought that is abundant in his third novel, Super Sad True Love Story.
"I use all this technology, Facebook, Twitter, all that," says Shteyngart, in a low, New York almost-drawl, "but sometimes I wonder who is in charge.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm an app, moving through the world, producing this output. It's like: who is using who?"
If Shteyngart were an app, he'd be a well-downloaded one. The 39-year-old American has published two previous novels - The Russian Debutante's Handbook and Absurdistan - to great acclaim. Now Super Sad True Love Story is an international bestseller, has just won the Wodehouse prize for comic fiction at Britain's Hay Festival (the first American book to do so) and Shteyngart, whose Jewish Russian family moved to the US when he was seven, can count himself among the feted "20 writers under 40" named by The New Yorker last year. Indeed, Shteyngart's presence in the London hotel at which we meet is itself telling: he's in town on publicity duty for the UK paperback release of Super Sad. Only thoroughly successful novelists go on paperback book tours.
It's a success that is well-earned: Super Sad is an hysterically funny, cutting satire on contemporary America; one of those rare pieces of literary fiction that feels as vibrant, as grounded in 21st-century life, as an episode of The Sopranos or The Wire. The novel is set in a dystopic near-future, and orbits around twin suns: the decline of American power and the rise of the connective technologies that now mediate so much human interaction. Lenny Abramov - late 30s, physically slight, hyper-smart, and in these ways a cipher for Shteyngart - returns from a long business trip to find the US amid economic collapse and owing vast debts to China. Meanwhile, life is becoming ever more virtual: young people speak to each other in near-incomprehensible English on a platform called GlobalTeens, and Lenny's peers are endlessly glued to their mobile devices, via which they livestream every moment of their existence to thousands of subscribers. Here is a novel interested, then, in the way we live; but one that also, indirectly, asks questions about the future of the novel itself.
Summarise the world of Super Sad in this way, though, and something becomes apparent. When Shteyngart started writing in 2006, all this sounded futuristic. Fast-forward to late 2008 - via the world financial crisis, and the rise of Twitter - and, well, not so much.
"I was in Berlin in September 2008, watching the financial crisis. It all happened so fast, the collapse of the banks, the collapse of the auto industry. It got to the point where I was scared to turn on the TV.
"Meanwhile, when I started writing this book everyone was using MySpace. Where the hell is MySpace now?
"It meant I had to keep deepening America's crisis in the novel, to stay ahead of reality. It was always my intention to satirise the present day by talking about the future. I just didn't expect the future I'd created to arrive so quickly. "
Therein lies an example of a problem currently exercising both novelists and literary theorists: can fiction keep pace with our 21st-century reality? Or must we admit that the novel - once the central art form for social documentation - is just too slow to keep up?
"It's a strange feeling being a fiction writer in these days," says Shteyngart. "The novel is a conservative form because it takes two or three years to write a decent one, and in that time reality does overtake you.
"There is this feeling of: shall we just cede the ground to non-fiction? Other fiction writers are going to history, and finding present-day resonance in the past. But I don't really like that approach. I'm too fascinated, and too scared, by the present. The solution I found was to set the novel in the future."
It's a solution that paid dividends. No other recent novel has satirised the frenetic, always-connected, information-saturated feel of early 21st-century living as Super Sad does. In particular, its portrait of a generation in which every citizen is a content-producer anxious to increase his "following" eerily foreshadows these past two years, and the tyranny of the 140 characters. We've all now, much as Lenny does, sat in a restaurant with a friend while that friend tweets to 1,000 strangers: "I'm in a restaurant!"
"This new technology seems to be a great separator of people," says Shteyngart. "There are good things about it. It's nice to have a useful app when you visit a new city.
"But I'm pretty sure my life has got more anxious and less happy now that I'm constantly wired in. Half my overnight bag is electronics. It used to be just books."
That's a thought that has occurred, surely, to many novelists. So given the ferocious pace of social change, and the challenge of endless distraction via new technology, can the novel survive?
"Our heads have been sliced and diced in so many directions. People get in from work after a whole day looking at text on a screen, and it's hard to pick up a novel.
"Also, we live in a culture of endless self-expression. No one wants to be the passive follower: you want to be the one producing. Fiction in the States has reached almost the same situation as poetry: most of the people reading it are also writing it. We're getting to the stage where we have more writers than readers.
"Something of the novel will survive; the question is what. The Kindlisation of books will turn novels into just another text file; books won't be a sacred object any more, and that will further erode the status of writers. We'll just be authors of text files, and we'll have to burnish our credentials by doing other things. I think that's the future."
Indeed, Shteyngart says, that future, too, has already arrived: he points to the vast amount of multi-platform publicity work he's done for Super Sad, and ascribes part of the success of the novel to a funny supporting YouTube video he made, which has been watched 150,000 times.
"But what am I going to do, be a blogger? Novels still capture something that you don't get when you're writing instant stuff for your Facebook page."
The origins of Shteyngart's compulsion to chart American decline lie in part, surely, in his childhood journey from one ailing superpower to another that seemed, back then, vigorous.
He was seven years old when his parents - who grew up under Stalin - left St Petersburg for New York. Shteyngart spoke with a thick Russian accent until he was 14, and at school he was bullied because he hadn't watched the popular television series The A-Team. "I guess it was like being a Saudi immigrant today," he says.
Super Sad gives us an America that is eating itself from the inside out: is that where he thinks the US is today?
"I grew up in an empire so full of contradictions that it had to collapse," he says. "America isn't quite so full of contradictions, but they are still there. In the last century, the US wanted so badly to be the premier country on earth. And it got there, through this incredible hubris, this incredible hard work. Now I go to China, and they want it so badly, too; they want it even more. And there are 1.5 billion of them: America can't compete with that.
"But Americans are not ready to play second banana. That's where you get this reactionary backlash that is happening now because people know that American pre-eminence must eventually end, and they're not ready to accept it."
Some hoped that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 would act to soothe the American consciousness. If anything, though, the public conversation in the US has only grown more toxic since then: witness the latent racism in the "birther" movement, and the shooting of Democrat politician Gabrielle Giffords.
"Obama's election was an incredible moment," says Shteyngart, who refers to George W Bush as "the idiot". "But even a humane, intelligent president - especially one who has proven less effective than we'd hoped - can't stem the rising anger. It's just that Americans have realised they no longer have a monopoly on what direction the world should take. Shenzhen was a fishing village 30 years ago. Now it has buildings taller than the Empire State. Detroit, Cleveland, these cities used to be marvels of the world. Now Shenzhen is the marvel."
We pause for a moment, as though from inside this small, perfectly still hotel lounge we might hear that storm of vast, impersonal change buffeting the windows.
All this talk, I say, reminds me of a line of which Shteyngart is reportedly fond: "Things are trending downwards these days".
"Oh yeah, that's a line from The Sopranos," says Shteyngart. "Tony Soprano says it to his analyst in one of the early episodes." Then he puts on his best Tony Soprano voice, and says, laughing: "It just seems that things are trending downwards these days. Yeah."