Correction: Earlier versions of this article about author Gary Shteyngart incorrectly described a plot twist. In his novel, the United States is in a conflict with Venezuela, not Argentina. This version has been corrected.
You want a good literary prize to have harrumph and stature, and that’s why you want to win the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. The British award, named for author P.G. Wodehouse, involves not only a trip to a posh arts festival in Wales and a boatload of champagne, but a pig named after your book.
Such is the haul pulled in by Gary Shteyngart, the first American to win the award in its 11-year history, for “Super Sad True Love Story,” a wild, dystopian blast in which a “Russian Jewish nebbish” guy named Lenny Abramov and his much younger Korean American girlfriend, Eunice Park, try to negotiate the pitfalls of love, bunions, American social disorder and e-mail exchanges. It’s so super, so sad and so true that even James Franco appeared in the promotional trailer for the book.
“My plan is I’m going to get really drunk with the pig and go to a pub in Glasgow,” Shteyngart said in a telephone interview from his home in New York, of accepting the award at the Hay Festival in June. “That’s usually how my trips over there turn out.”
He’s kidding — probably — and may also have been kidding when he said his writing regimen was to sleep till 11, then lie in bed and scribble for four or five hours and break for lunch. Then again, he’s 38, lives with his fiancee, has no kids and teaches writing at Columbia, so maybe not.
Peter Florence, director of the Hay Festival and a judge of the contest each year, loved Shteyngart’s book: “He’s a big satirist . . . whilst at the same time writing a heart-rending love story,” he writes in an e-mail.
The pig in the award cachet (a “locally-bred Gloucestershire Old Spot,” no less, according to the awards committee) stems from the Blandings Castle series of books that Wodehouse penned during his long and prolific lifetime. “Empress of Blandings,” the hugely fat pig that Lord Emsworth so adores in the series, is rivaled in Wodehousian lore only by his classic characters Bertie Wooster and his manservant, Jeeves. The award’s pig is named for the book, but, alas, the honoree does not get to take the pig home, or even to a respectable pub.
The Wodehouse estate is not directly involved in the award, which began life in 2000 to honor the best comic novel published in Britain in the “spirit” of Wodehouse’s work. Previous winners include heavyweights such as Ian McEwan and Howard Jacobson. It is sponsored by Bollinger, the champagne company, and directed by the Everyman’s Library, which publishes dozens of Wodehouse titles.
No doubt the man himself would have gotten a kick out of the fact that the first American to win the prize is writing in his second language. Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972 and immigrated to New York with his family in 1979. He says it took about seven years for his English to get up to speed.
His two other novels, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” and “Absurdistan,” are also satires, filled with Russians bouncing around the globe, often in ways that parallel his own existence, in high-spirited, rambunctious prose.
The United States has so fallen apart in “Super” — a war with Venezuela, financial disasters, various social calamities — that when Abramov goes to the U.S. Embassy in Rome, he finds that “only a few of the saddest, most destitute Albanians still wanted to emigrate to the States, and that lonely number was further discouraged by a poster showing a plucky little otter in a sombrero trying to jump onto a crammed dinghy under the tagline, ‘The Boat is Full, Amigo.’ ”
The problem in writing the book over the past four years, Shteyngart said, is that things kept getting so dire — the recession, financial collapse on Wall Street, wars abroad — that, to keep it satire, “I had to keep making things worse and worse.”