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Report from The Gary Shteyngart Roast

There were nearly one hundred and fifty souls at the Harvey Theater two nights before Thanksgiving. Outside, it was just a few degrees south of fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Inside, the writer Gary Shteyngart waited to be roasted with the heat of a thousand suns and the pain of a million overwrought metaphors.

Shteyngart was introduced by John Wesley Harding (aka Wesley Stace) with a slideshow of great Russian writers as “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” played over the speakers. Harding, who may or may not have been pretending to be British, had big gray eyes bulging with murderous suggestion in the dark. Presumably, this was one pivotal characteristic which had secured his role as host. He was keen on nouns which connoted human tragedy.

“And what has this incredible legacy of suffering,” boomed Harding into the mike, “what has this incredibly legacy of suicides, what has this incredible legacy of gulags, repression, this legacy of bubonic plagues, of famines, of forced labor camps calling for a revolution? What has this legacy given birth to, ladies and gentlemen?”

This was followed by a slide of Shteyngart, with a bottle of champagne and a pig. Yet there was neither Dom Perignon nor a prize porcine specimen circulated on stage. The audience learned later that animals were forbidden. It was believed that some clever person at the Brooklyn Academy of Music had induced this prohibition because someone would have to pay these wild beasts a performance fee. Whatever the reason, this callous ban had prevented Shteyngart’s beloved dachshund, immortalized through an endless concatenation of photographic pride on Twitter, from making his stage debut.

The four panelists emerged from their hidden positions: Kurt Andersen settling into a seat on stage right, followed by Sloane Crosley in a purple top, Edmund White in dapper suit and cane (the only figure among the quartet who came with a prepared list of barbs, which including a funny blurb for Mein Kampf that he let loose later in the evening), and New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman in red boots so striking in hue that one wondered if she had spent half the day kicking in the teeth of MFA aspirants who hoped to enter her estimable pages.

Then there was Gary Shteyngart, clad in an evening jacket a few sizes too big and purportedly donned for the second time in his life. This ostensible target of wit and no-holds-barred barbs seated himself in a tiny wooden chair designed for a small child. He remarked almost immediately on his ass. This was an understandable fixation, given the chair’s regrettable physical dimensions. Mr. Shteyngart was to mention his backside two additional times over the next hour.

The evening wasn’t really a roast. The format was more Q&A, with Harding asking questions of the panelists, often unfolding an inquiry into a biographical multiple choice option which permitted an audience member to stand on stage with a winning raffle ticket that had been painfully extracted from the staple in the top right corner of the program. The queries felt more like vaguely invasive biography rather than outright ridicule. The barbs, if they can be called that, were mostly kind. Much of the time was devoted to apparent outtakes from Shteyngart’s two book trailers for Super Sad True Love Story, although it was noted early on that the artifact-laden footage had been shot on an iPhone.

This was a pro-Shteyngart crowd. When the collected spectators were asked if there had been anybody there who had never read a word of Shteyngart, a few handfuls of people raised their hands. Gary Shteyngart proved to be a brand name. One does not have to read his books to comprehend his imposing and often cardiac arrest-inspiring influence in the literary community.

The evening was mostly pleasant, especially when Shteyngart was presented with material to react to (such as his physical recreation of the non-Jewish walk from The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, that fabled first book that Shteyngart referred to as The Russian Debutante’s Handjob). Shteyngart appeared to be grateful for the company, both on stage and off, and talked largely in his natural métier rather than the clueless immigrant character who had charmed half the world on YouTube.

This was also the first public event in which Shteyngart’s prolific blurbs were given an official tally, although the number was as suspiciously pat as a late career Tony Scott film title. Presumably, the paying crowd had earned the right to learn that Shteyngart had blurbed 123 books. Shteyngart had not remembered the first book he blurbed, but he believed that his maiden blurb involved California in some way. The massive screen behind the stage mimicked Shteyngart’s blurb prolificity by running a rolling set of credits with the blurbs and the titles, although this reporter noticed several key blurbs missing (such as Benjamin Anastas’s Too Good to Be True). It remains unknown if the people who put this show together had obtained the vital details from Jacob Silverman’s invaluable Tumblr or an independent investigation. This reporter is too occupied to summon his inner Seymour Hersh. He is, in fact, trying to thaw a turkey at the last minute while writing this report.

Of the four ostensible roasters, Kurt Andersen was notably the weakest, peeling off easily observed details about Shteyngart’s height, his immigrant experience, and early pictures of Shteyngart on the Web without bothering to build a story around this. Crosley was surprisingly laconic through much of the night, but she did call Shteyngart a hack with the relish of a dear friend. The clear star of the four was Edmund White, whose sharp and ribald wit led him to take more risks and elicit more laughs. When the conversation shifted to teaching, White said, “I teach at Princeton, where the students are too smart to actually go into writing. They all go into finance.” In describing the details of Shteyngart’s forthcoming autobiography, White said Shteyngart had called himself “the leading Eastern European pimp with a stable full of Russian whores built for all tastes.”

We leave more vulgar minds to speculate on the vital question of Shteyngart’s underworld connections. One thing was certain: wild horses couldn’t keep the appreciative crowd away from BAM on Tuesday night. Perhaps in five more years, the second Shteyngart roast will permit room for a dachshund.

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The Bat Segundo Show: Gary Shteyngart II

Gary Shteyngart appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #352. Mr. Shteyngart is most recently the author of Super Sad True Love Story. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #121 and was ambushed by a Noah Weinberg type earlier in the year.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Too old and too much of a hack for Conde Nast’s cryogenic chambers.

Author: Gary Shteyngart

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You’ve probably seen this video of this 11-year-old who’s being cyberbullied by 4chan. Did you hear about this? She’s going by the name of Slaughter. And there’s a video where her dad is shouting in the background. And it’s truly horrifying. Surely, I think people would still value their privacy to some degree. Or they would say, “This is going way over the line.” Harassing people. Providing every bit of personal information. I mean, that’s got to trump any seduction by technology.

Shtyengart: Who knows? Things happen so quickly. Our values are changing so quickly. I mean, one of the things that this book doesn’t state, but maybe believes, is that change is okay. Change is going to happen. The end of slavery was good. Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia — the dilution of all these things in states outside of Arizona. That’s good. But change happens quicker than we’re able to accommodate it. Because we are really flesh and bone and certain whatevers going on in our heads. But there’s only so much we can do. And when we’re addicted to constant change that’s changing at a breakneck speed, what happens when the change overruns us and begins to condition this group mind that we have brought together? It begins to condition us more than we condition the group mind. That can be very depressing. I mean, going back to the television people — when television was revealed — there was a similar worry. But what this does is a little more insidious. It takes away our privacy, for one thing. But it also deputizes all of us to be writers, filmmakers, musicians. Which sounds lovely and democratic. But when a book ceases to become a book, when a book becomes a Kindle application, when it become a file — how different is it in the mind of somebody from any other file that you get? Sitting there at your workstation — if you’re a white-collar worker — all you do all day long is receive bits and bits of information. And in some ways, you begin to privilege these bits of information. But in another way, one email is as good as another. It’s all just coming at you. Streaming at you. You go home. What’s the last thing you want to do? The last thing you want to do is pick up a hard brick like the one I’m holding right now, open it, and begin to read linear text for 330 pages. It’s the last thing you want to do. Who the hell would want to do it? And I think that because America is such a market economy, there’s still a real love of storytelling. That’s why you look at something like The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men. You know, what they’ve done is they’ve very cleverly — and they’ve talked about this — they’ve repurposed fiction — the way it used to exist between covers — in a way that can be transmitted inside an eyeball, in a way that satisfies our craving for storytelling. But without all the added benefits that you get from a book.

Correspondent: Hmmm. Well, I don’t know about that. I mean, to some degree, by having jokes and by writing an entertaining book — which I think this is an entertaining book…

Shteyngart: Thank you.

Correspondent: …you are kind of contributing towards this entertainment-oriented storytelling.

Shteyngart: That’s right.

Correspondent: What makes you different, eh?

Shteyngart: Well, you hit the nail on the head with your big hammer. I still believe that fiction is a form of entertainment. In my crazy world, which may not exist, I’m still hearing about a book that I have to read. And I’m getting out of bed. And I’m running to the bookstore. And I’m buying it. In the way that people run to the cineplex. I’m excited. And that’s what I want fiction to do. If it doesn’t entertain me, then it’s work. When I was researching parts of this book, I had to read a lot of books that were not entertaining. And they were work. What worries me is the academization of literature. When it becomes just an academic pursuit, where we sit around, we create serious works that are then discussed by serious people in serious settings, and the entertainment value is nil. And we become a small tiny society that’s obsessed with things. In other words, we become where poetry is today. Utterly irrelevant. Beyond a certain beautiful wonderful circle of people. And the poetry hasn’t gotten any worse. The poetry’s great. And the fiction hasn’t gotten any worse. Some of it is amazing. But the way we approach these things has become too serious.

Correspondent: Well, to what degree should books be work? I mean, I’d hate to live in a world in which Ulysses was banned simply because it was considered to be too much work. I find it a very marvelous journey to just sift into all those crazy phrases and all that language. But it doesn’t feel like work to me. And I don’t think it feels like work to everybody. And we still have Bloomsday and all that.

Shteyngart: I’m not talking about Ulysses. I’m talking about self-important crap.

Correspondent: Like what?

Shteyngart: Well, I’m not going to say.

Correspondent: Ha ha! Very convenient.

Shteyngart: Very convenient. I’m not going to say. Madame Bovary. Talk about a page-turner. I can’t put that thing down. I read it all the time. Jesus Christ, and there’s still part of me that thinks, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it, Madame B. Stay away from that schmuck.” Because it’s so damn involving. It’s brilliant. It’s funny as hell. You know, the apothecary. There’s so many elements in it that are working. It’s perfectly researched. The language is just right. It doesn’t — I suppose it could be considered work. But it’s not any more work than one needs to do in order to gain the maximum enjoyment and understanding of these characters.

Correspondent: Yeah. But isn’t there some sort of compromise? Aren’t you trading something away for this happy medium? Are we talking essentially to some degree about approaching books and literature as if it’s a middlebrow medium?

Shteyngart: Oh what does it mean? Middlebrow, lowbrow, highbrow. These brows. I raise my brow at those brows.

Correspondent: Very bromidic

Shteyngart: The whole bromidic stuff is nonsense. What makes Jeffrey Eugenides or Franzen’s works — what makes them stay in our minds? They use whatever language they want. If they need to deploy highfalutin language, they’ll do it. If they need to use street slang, they’ll do that. The range is always there. And you try to capture a world. A place and time you try and capture as best as you can with the best people who you can deploy. The best characters you can deploy doing them. And to do that, you need to care about these people. Maybe I failed. But I certainly have tried with Lenny and Eunice more so than with anyone else. I’ve tried to live inside their skin. I’ve tried to make myself feel the love that they both have toward each other in this very difficult world. And you know, that doesn’t sound highbrow. But to me, it’s the most important thing I can do with my art.

(Image: Morbinear)

The Bat Segundo Show #352: Gary Shteyngart II (Download MP3)

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BEA 2010: An Impromptu Conversation with Gary Shteyngart

The following is a transcript from an impromptu conversation with Gary Shteyngart at BookExpo America. Due to inexplicable file degradation, the color within the video is not what it was in reality. Mr. Shteyngart’s skin proved so stunning that it caused at least 300 heads to turn during the course of the interview. And we only talked for two minutes! 300 heads in two minutes isn’t a statistic to easily discount. We regret to report that the video degraded, thus sullying Mr. Shteyngart’s charismatic complexion. There were several attempts at color correction, but the technical team proved too lazy (and too deadline-challenged with paying work) to do anything about it. So we present the results from the decent elements we could cobble together. You can listen to the conversational madness by playing the file at the bottom of this post. This Shteyngart guy, who is apparently under forty and designated as “hot” by The New Yorker, has some novel coming out called Super Sad True Love Story, which we hope to read more closely. We were unable to perform the appropriate tests to confirm Mr. Shtyengart’s “hotness,” but we hope that some scientific authority will gauge his body temperature in the immediate future and prove the inevitable.

Correspondent: Okay, so I’m here with Gary Shteyngart, who has a new book that’s apocalyptic. You’re apocalyptic-minded now!

Shteyngart: I’m apocalyptic-minded! (mimes plane crashing into an illusory horizon)

Correspondent: Yeah. Would BEA be the apocalypse?

Shteyngart: This is the end of all-known literature. After today, no more books.

Correspondent: Oh really?

Shteyngart: Yes.

Correspondent: Super Sad Love Story is your final book.

Shteyngart: Super SadTrue.

Correspondent: Yes, I know. It has too many modifiers.

Shteyngart: Oh my God! Modify this! This is definitely it. I’m hanging up my gloves and I’m becoming a duck farmer in Maine.

Correspondent: Okay. Duck farming is easier than writing novels?

Shteyngart: It’s what Henry Roth did. After he wrote Call It Sleep. he became a duck farmer. Every good Jewish boy becomes a duck farmer.

Correspondent: And there’s a new Henry Roth novel coming out from scraps! So you have a bunch of scraps you’re sitting upon while you’re writing. While you’re doing the duck farming.

Shteyngart: And plucking. And plucking the duck. Oh my God! It’s called dressing the duck.

Correspondent: Well, this is apocalyptic. There are credit poles involved. And there are numerous aspects. I’m curious. Was your checking balance poor these days? Or what happened?

Shteyngart: Well, you know, Ed, I grew up in one failing empire. And now I’m living in America. So I’m sick of doing Russia. I said, “Hey, why not try something new?” And this country is giving so much now. Everything’s falling apart! And I love it. So I really had a good time with it. When I started writing the book in 2006, I predicted stupid things like the collapse of the financial system. And then it actually started happening. So I had to make it worse and worse and worse. So in the end, everything gets bought by a huge Norwegian hedge fund.

Correspondent: So you contrived all these apocalyptic aspects years before they happened. And yet the novel takes two years to come out.

Shteyngart: That’s the thing! That’s the thing with goddam novels. You can’t keep up. That’s why my next book will be set thirty years in the future. We don’t live in the future anymore. We don’t live in the present anymore. There’s no present. It’s all the future now.

Correspondent: Really? So I’m not actually talking to you now. I’m talking to you in 2018.

Shteyngart: You’re talking to me in 2018!

Correspondent: You’ve aged very well.

Shteyngart: Thank you. You too!

Correspondent: Hey!

Shteyngart: Oh my God! We’re looking pretty good for our age.

Correspondent: I know.

Shteyngart: We’re what? Like 73 at this point, I am? Excellent.

Correspondent: I don’t know. You do the math.

Shteyngart: I can’t do math.

Correspondent: All right. You can write novels though.

Shteyngart: Yes, I’m trying. I’m trying so hard to write them. Oh, but this is the last one. From now on, duck farming.

Correspondent: Unless of course, you’ve already written three before this in the future.

Shteyngart: Yes! And somebody bought the options to the movies. Then we’re set.

BEA 2010: Gary Shteyngart (Download MP3)

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