Gary Shteyngart’s super, sad, true comedy


Gary Shteyngart's novel was hailed as one of the best of 2010. (Random House)

Friday night at the Folger Library, the Russian immigrant held up a copy of his celebrated novel “Super Sad True Love Story” and told us, “The best thing about this book is its cover.”

Baloney. The Washington Post, like dozens of other newspapers, chose it as one of the best novels of 2010.

Shteyngart claims the publisher brought in a focus group of students to test the dust jacket design. “They picked it up and started trying to turn it on — pressing these buttons. If you have a small dog, like a dachshund, it’s great to play Twister on.”

There’s a touch of Robin Williams in Shteyngart’s schtick, which swoops from absurd to tragic in a single sentence. The writer, who teaches at Columbia University, was in town last night for a PEN/Faulkner reading.

You really haven’t experienced his dystopic comedy “Super Sad True Love Story” until you’ve heard Shteyngart perform it with all his accents and silly asides. The end of Western culture has never sounded so hilarious.

“It’s very depressing to write this novel,” he said as the audience kept laughing. “It’s personal: It’s my city. New York is my home. It’s always been my home. To see it be destroyed was very depressing. Fortunately, when I got to that part of the book, I began outsourcing large sections of it to India.”

When a cellphone went off, he didn’t miss a beat: “Where are you? The Folger Coffee Library?”

As anyone who’s read his work knows, there’s something deep below the farce. “The comedy is the intercontinental ballistic missile that gets the payload over to where you need it to go,” he said. “And that payload is deep despair.”

Still, it’s hard to stay down for long around him.

“I take inspiration from my grandmother who said, ‘You’re such a loser, the only thing you’ll be able to do is write.’ She told me to write a novel, and she paid me in little pieces of cheese. Now, given the state of the economy, Random House still pays me in cheese.”

What’s next for the author? “I’ve given up on fiction,” he said. “It’s too hard. I’m working on a memoir about growing up in the Soviet Union. And like every other writer in America, I’m working on an HBO series.”

Don’t believe him — not completely.

charlesr@washpost.com

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.

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