Living Writers Series Features Gary Shteyngart

 

 

Leah Robinson

Persson Auditorium was shrouded in 100 bright copies of Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel “Super Sad True Love Story” last Thursday, September 19. Alongside the bright polka-dotted hardback book covers sat students, teachers and members of the Hamilton community contentedly snacking on a decadent display of shrimp cocktails and mango tarts. Associate Professor of English Jennifer Brice, who described Shteyngart as witty and exhilarating in her introduction, reminded the audience that Living Writers Online is enabling alumni and Hamilton participants to tune in to live webcasts and join in the active literary discussion. Brice and Thomas A. Bartlett Chair and Professor of English Jane Pinchin are running the Living Writers course this fall, marking the program’s 30th year in existence.

While George Saunders’s highly anticipated visit to Colgate earlier this month would be a hard act for any author to follow, Shteyngart’s effortless humor and poise earned him an appreciative and excited audience. His semi-corny jokes about the Hamilton bar scene and compliments of the Colgate campus helped bridge a connection between author and student.

Shteyngart’s humor and literary talent have been appreciated by a national and international audience, as evidenced by the author’s host of awards. Shteyngart has won the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction, the Book-of-the-Month Club First Fiction Award and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. His earlier novel, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” was named a “New York Times” Notable Book and heralded as one of the best debuts of the year by “The Guardian.” Shteyngart has been named one of the five best new writers by “Shout NY” magazine and his novels have been distinguished for various awards by “The New York Times” Book Review, “Time” magazine, the “Washington Post,” the “Chicago Tribune” and the “San Francisco Chronicle,” among others. The author was also named one of the “New Yorker” magazine’s “20 under 40” luminary fiction writers.

Shteyngart began the Living Writers event by reading aloud from a chapter in his third novel, “Super Sad True Love Story,” which won the 2011 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic literature. A piece of speculative fiction set in a dystopian future, the novel has many parallels to present-day America. A National Security Agency-like entity monitors each citizen and the chasm between rich and poor is growing. The United States is falling apart as doctors scramble to find a cure for death and illiteracy is rampant. Like in all his past novels, Shteyngart’s main character, Lenny, shares many similarities with the author himself, including a Russian heritage and an understanding of Jewish and New York cultural norms. Steyngart’s vivid descriptions of antiquated Russian customs, the academic pressure of prestigious New York City public schools and futuristic novelties like the “?app?ar?at” are all weaved together to create a novel that blurs the lines between past, present and future.

With the whole audience laughing, Shteyngart read aloud the descriptions of Lenny’s mother greeting him and his girlfriend, Eunice, in her white bra and panties and running to drape a garbage bag over her sofa before the couple sat down. Shteyngart’s reading consumed his listeners, pulling them into his created world through his perfected Russian and Californian accents and vivid hand motions. Shteyngart’s honest portrayals of his own upbringing in an immigrant household shone through in Lenny’s fictional experience, immediately connecting the author to his audience. Pointing to Lenny’s monetary concerns as that which “scared and connected” him and his father and describing the ruminating smells of Baltic Sea canned fish that filled the parents’ dining room, Shteyngart brings his own, honest self into his pages. Such descriptions remind the audience that the complexities and brilliant flaws found in romantic love and familial tradition will characterize the human condition well into the future.

Shteyngart commented on his many unique stylistic choices during a Q&A led by Pinchin and Brice. The author spoke to many of his larger beliefs concerning the future of literature. Explaining the way in which Lenny and his girlfriend are products of an age that no longer respects language or literary introspection, Shteyngart implies that present-day Americans similarly lack interest in such matters. The author’s infamous YouTube trailer created for his most recent novel points to Americans’ disinterest in reading by joking that even acclaimed authors like himself are no longer literate. In doing so, Shteyngart points to a larger message concerning the futuristic life Americans currently lead.

“Historical and sci-fi novels are doing really well right now, but it’s so hard to write about the present these days because the tense doesn’t exist in the same way,” Shteyngart said. “What does it mean to live in a world where books are being replaced with ephemeral technology? We are all trying to figure out what it means to fall in love and interact in a world where what it means to be human is up for grabs.”

Contact Leah Robinson at [email protected]