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.

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]


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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  1. Who took that darling picture? That is hands down the best, most lifelike (anatomically revealing) (that’s an outie if I’m not mistaken; and those are super tasteful nipple rings he’s sporting) (unless his nipples are simply as outsized as his talent), and childishly joyful picture I’ve seen of Comrade Shteyngart. It almost screams:

    I’m a little teapot,
    Short and stout,
    Here is my handle,
    Here is my spout,
    When I get all steamed up,
    Hear me shout,
    Tip me over and pour me out!

    Second verse:

    I’m a very special teapot,
    Yes, it’s true,
    Here’s an example of what I can do,
    I can turn my handle into a spout,
    Tip me over and pour me out!

    Hey, Eddie, but what’s with the goodie bag? Watch on the left wrist but goodie bag held in the right hand? Is he a rightie or a leftie? Or–aha!–a rightie posing as a leftie?

    I love the way he deflects your questions with his own questions–when he’s not being an outright Refusenik–that first “Who knows?” was downright ballsy and so “former Soviet Union!” Ya can take the boy out of the Evil Axis, but you can’t take the…etc.

    (I think I know that garden. It’s in the East Village, right? A stone’s throw from KGB Bar.)

  2. Frances (he said between packing)! Completely stumbled upon the pic by accident, but was as fond of it as you were (goodie bag mystery and all) and hope the accredited link at the bottom sustains all eager curios. You should listen to the whole interview, if you’ve got the time — where abundant and interesting inconsistencies that you’ve only just begun to notice manifest throughout the entire 37 minute jaunt. A radio answer to Alexis Madrigal’s great piece in the Atlantic that went up just last week (also worth reading if you haven’t seen it).

  3. Thanks, Ed. I shall.

    I heard Shteyngart read from Absurdistan a few years ago at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. In the Q&A he told about growing up inside an extended community of former Soviets and the difficulties they had adjusting to the new economic system here, in all arenas—housing, jobs, securing health care.

    In particular, he informed us that his neighbors were always telephoning governmental agencies like the Social Security Administration and reporting each other for various infractions, seeking to advance themselves by currying favor with bureaucrats and denouncing each other. He was laughing when he said it (even though what he was describing was super sad), maybe to cover his shame at confessing that the very hothouse of a milieu that had shaped him was one of chronic betrayals, dishonor and pettiness in the extreme.

    He also told of his parents’ and his own immigrant’s fears and quest for above all financial security. They wanted him to be a lawyer and were skittish about his choice to pursue writing as a career. “I worry about it too,” he said, and then explained, “But I told them what I make [salary] and they’re okay with it.”

    Naturally, I pity him the damage done to him, and maybe understand why he’s such an eager little Apparachik in the book industry: Goodies for him.

    Good luck with the packing. The sum total of my wisdom on such matters is: Don’t skimp on the bubble paper!

  4. You know who I feel the sorriest for in the whole “Russian” emigree as “important writer” business line? Tatyana Tolstoya.

    Hoping the Tolstoy brand would rub off on furry little Shteyngart, Remnick dispatched them out on the reading trail together when she was here for the 2007 PEN conference (summoned for the purpose of…?). And the thanks she gets for playing along? Eunice, one of the characters in Super Sad refers to Tatyana’s paternal granpappy Alexsei–“Tolesoy.”

    In the Q &A at the “Imaginary Geography” panel, hoping to get away from Treisman’s iron grip on the script, I asked the panelists something of an open-ended question: “What’s on your mind?”

    Alarcon said immigration, to be honest I don’t remember what Japin’s reply was, but Tolstoya (and lord I wish there had been a photo snapped at that moment to capture the bone-deep ennui conveyed in her one-word answer) said, and I quote: “Stamina.”

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