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Gary Shteyngart: Finding 'Love' In A Dismal Future

Gary Shteyngart's third novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is a black comedy set in America at some point in the near future: books no longer exist, Americans spend the majority of their time watching videos on their iPhone-like "apparats" and the country is on the brink of complete collapse.

It is also a love story. Amidst the chaotic visions of a dystopic future, a schlumpy salesman named Lenny Abramov falls in love with Eunice Park, the daughter of Korean immigrants and a newly minted college graduate. Lenny spends his time convincing her to love him back — to create some form of stability in a world that is growing increasingly fickle and ephemeral.

In an interview on Fresh Air, Shteyngart tells Terry Gross that he needed to set his novel in the future because the present is moving too fast for novelists to fully contemplate.

"We're all living in the future constantly ... because right now things are happening so quickly." he explains. It's a problem writers such as Leo Tolstoy may not have felt so acutely. "In the 1860s, [Tolstoy] wanted to write about the Napoleonic Campaign of 1812. If you write about 1812 in 1860, a horse is still a horse. And a carriage is still a carriage. Obviously, there have been some technological advancements. But you don't have to worry about explaining the next killer app or the next Facebook ..."

Shteyngart's debut novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook received the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. His second novel Absurdistan was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review and Time Magazine.

Interview Highlights

On attention spans

"Sometimes technology outpaces humanity's ability to process it. I think that's where we are right now. My mind has been sliced and diced in so many ways. There's so many packets of information coming at me, especially in a city like New York, which is so dense with information no matter where you go. ... It's just shocking: how is literature supposed to survive when our brain has been pummeled with information all day long at work — if we're white collar workers. When we go home, are we really going to open a thick text with 350 pages and try to waddle through it?"

On death

"A good friend of mine turned 50 recently and he said 'Oh my God, Gary, I can see that life is not eternal.' And I thought 'You just figured this out now?' Because death has been on my mind since I was a little pup. I was very, very sick when I was growing up in Russia. The ambulance constantly came to our house. I had horrible asthma that is easily treated in America but they didn't even have inhalers back in Russia. So what I remember the most is just constantly being in that ambulance trying to breathe — can't breathe — and even as a little child you're thinking 'This means I'm going to die and what will happen after I die?' ... I always think that good writers should be growing up on the brink of death — it really lets them see mortality very clearly."

On identifying with your parents

"In the end, you really are them [even] with all of the things you've done to not be them."

On humor

"Humor is what I have. People say 'Oh, he's going to write some schticky crap ...' Oh, please. Without humor, I cannot go on and I doubt many of my readers would go on either. Humor is so important. I am here to have fun here with my work. I'm here to entertain people. ... I just want fiction to remain a vital force for entertainment and not just for contemplation. Both things can exist."

On new technology

"Here's the thing with this new technology. I think it's incredibly effective. I just don't think it's made anyone much happier. If anything, we are now always connected but we don't know what we're connected to. It's just an endless stream of information."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.