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Gary Shteyngart: Finding 'Love' In A Dismal Future.

His third novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is a black comedy set in a futuristic America — where books don't exist and where the economy has collapsed. Shteyngart explains why he decided to write a love story in this dystopic vision of the future — and why he thinks technology is changing the way we think.

44:23

Other segments from the episode on August 2, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 2, 2010: Interview with Gary Shteyngart; Review of the film "Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno."

Transcript

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Gary Shteyngart: On Crafting A 'True Love Story'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Imagine an America in which the economy has collapsed, and people are
divided into two classes: low-net-worth individuals and high-net-worth
individuals. There's only one political party, but parts of the country
are on the verge of civil war or a class war.

The news media is dominated by the New York Lifestyle Times, Fox Liberty
Prime and Fox Liberty Ultra. Most of the news is journalists texting
about themselves.

This is the America that Gary Shteyngart has created in his new novel,
"Super Sad True Love Story," which is set in the very near future. In
novelist Jane Smiley's review of the book, she wrote: It's as amusing
and harrowing a reflection upon the world we live in now and the
direction we could be heading as you can hope to find.

Shteyngart, who is 38, was one of the writers featured this year in the
New Yorker edition featuring the 20 best writers under 40. Shteyngart
when he was seven. He's written two other satirical novels: "The Russian
Debutante's Handbook" and "Absurdistan."

Gary Shteyngart, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. GARY SHTEYNGART (Author, "A Super Sad True Love Story"): Thank you,
it's so great to be here.

GROSS: It's a pleasure to have you. I'd like you to start with a reading
that will give us a sense of the satirical notes that you strike in the
book. So we've agreed on what the reading will be. So I'll ask you to
just set it up briefly for us.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Sure. Well, Terry, what's happening here is Lenny
Abramov, who is the hero of my book, is about to return from a year in
Rome. He's about to return to America. But you can't just return to
America anymore. You have to actually go through this process of
reentry, and the program is called Welcome Back, Partner, and it takes
place at embassies across the world. So this is at the U.S. embassy in
Rome, or the U.S. consulate, I should say.

And one more thing about it, like all citizens and all people in
America, he wears a pendant around his neck called an apparat(ph), and
what the apparat does is it basically controls everything in your life.
It also ranks you. So when you enter a room, people can say, oh, he's
the 18th ugliest man in the room, but he's the seventh richest man in
the room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHTEYNGART: So it also rates your personality, and Lenny's
personality is very sparkling, but he's very unattractive. So his
apparat is the device that he uses in this scene to communicate with the
government.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: (Reading) A half-dozen of my fellow citizens were seated
behind their chewed-up desks, mumbling lowly into their apparati. There
was an earplug lying slug-dead on an empty chair and a sign reading:
Insert earplug in ear. Place your apparat on desk and disable all
security settings. I did as I was told.

An electronic version of John Cougar Mellencamp's "Pink Houses" - Ain't
that America, something to see, baby – twanged in my ear, and then a
pixilated version of the plucky otter shuffled onto my apparat screen,
carrying on his back the letters A-R-A, which dissolved into the
shimmering legend: American Restoration Authority.

The otter stood up on his hind legs and made a show of dusting himself
off. Hi there, partner, he said, his electronic voice dripping with
adorably carnivalesque. My name is Jeffrey Otter(ph), and I bet we're
going to be friends.

Feelings of loss and aloneness overwhelmed me. Hi, I said. Hi, Jeffrey.
Hi there yourself, the otter said. Now, I'm going to ask you some
friendly questions for statistical purposes only. If you don't want to
answer a question, just say I don't want to answer this question.
Remember, I'm here to help you.

Okay, then, let's start simple. What's your name and Social Security
number? I looked around. People were urgently whispering things to their
otters. Leonard or Lenny Abramov, I muttered, followed by Social
Security.

Hi, Leonard or Lenny Abramov, 205-32-8714. On behalf of the American
Restoration Authority, I would love to welcome you back to the New
United States of America. Look out, world, there's no stopping us now.

A bar from the McFadden & Whitehead disco hit, "Ain't No Stopping Us
Now" played loudly in my ear. Now tell me, Lenny, what made you leave
our country, work or pleasure? Work, I said. And what do you do, Leonard
or Lenny Abramov? Indefinite life extension. You said effeminate life
invention, is that right? Indefinite life extension, I said.

What's your credit ranking, Leonard or Lenny, out of a total score of
1,600? Fifteen-hundred twenty. That's pretty neat. You must really know
how to pinch those pennies. You have money in the bank, you work in
effeminate life invention.

Now I just have to ask, are you a member of the Bipartisan Party? And if
so, would you like to receive our new weekly apparat stream, Ain't No
Stopping Us Now? It's all sorts of great tips on readjusting to life in
these United States and getting the most bang for your buck.

I'm not a Bipartisan, I said, but yes, I would like to get your stream.
I was trying to be conciliatory. Okie, dokie, you're on our list now.

GROSS: That's Gary Shteyngart, reading from his new novel, "Super Sad
True Love Story." Gary, so you have some very funny satirical things
going on here that are kind of alarming close to the present.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yes, alarmingly, I would say. You got that right, Terry.

GROSS: So let's start with what's going on politically here. The reading
had a reference to the Bipartisan Party. What's the Bipartisan Party?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: There's only one party left at this point in America,
and it's the Bipartisan Party. And it's really nice because we don't
have to choose between Republicans and Democrats, which were different,
but, you know, they had some commonalities. So it's much nicer and more
streamlined to have one party, the Bipartisan Party.

The Bipartisan Party runs something called the American Restoration
Authority, which is basically a bunch of very armed national
guardspeople running around, trying to save the infrastructure, which is
collapsing as we speak. The Williamsburg Bridge goes down during one
point in the book. And everything is basically slowly, slowly, slowly
falling apart.

GROSS: There are great political divisions in that country. There's even
an insurrection that happens in the book. What are the divisions about?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, the divisions are about whatever happens when a
country begins to slowly begin its descent, especially when it's a major
country, you know.

I grew up in the Soviet Union, and then we came to a Hebrew School in
Queens. So I know about dystopia. I know about things that don't work. I
know when things begin to fall apart, especially when a country is as
big as America or Russia, a country that has a kind of messianic belief
in itself that we are not just important but we are the most important
country in the world.

And for countries like that, a decline is never pretty because the
landing is never as soft.

GROSS: Why did you want to write a book set in the future, so that you
could do something satirical?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: There's no present left. This is the problem for a
novelist is the present is gone. We're all living in the future
constantly. How I envy...

GROSS: What do you mean by that? I'm not sure what means.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, look, back in the day, Leo Tolstoy, what a
sweetheart of accounts and a writer. He wanted – in the 1860s, he wanted
to write about the Napoleonic Campaign, about 1812. If you write about
1812, you know, in 1860, a horse is still a horse and a carriage is
still a carriage. Obviously, there have been some technological
advancements, et cetera, but you know, you don't have to worry about
explaining the next killer app or the next, you know, Facebook or
whatever because right now, things are happening so quickly.

I think that's really at the heart of this novel because this is the
first time I've written a love story, and I actually began to feel
something for my characters. I love Lenny and Eunice. And they're from
different planets, basically, because even though there's a 15-year
difference between them, they're basically standing on opposite cliffs
with this huge abyss between them because Lenny still belongs to the
ruminative generation, the generation that reads, that tries to
understand this place in the world.

And Eunice, who is much younger, now lives – she's a very, very smart
young girl, but she lives in a whole different world where the only
thing that matter are things that happen instantly. They pop out at you,
and then they're forgotten, and we move on to the next thing.

GROSS: And she doesn't even know how to read books. She knows how to
skim texts for information.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Right. There was something called Eurotexts(ph) in her –
she went to Elderburg(ph) College, it's a small women's school in the
book, where she was taught to scan texts. So you can just get all the
information you need very quickly and then just throw the book away.

This actually is not science fiction. I think this is what happening on
college campuses now. But she majored in images, and she has a minor in
assertiveness. So those are very important things to have in the future.

GROSS: Do you feel like Lenny, like somebody who is an artifact of the
past because you read books and, even more artifact-ful, you write
books?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yeah, no, it's so depressing. I feel like I'm insane to
write novels. I’m like one of those, you know, those last Japanese
soldiers on one of those islands who's like, hiding in a cave and still
shooting at the Americans are advancing, and he still hasn't heard that
the emperor has surrendered. That's what I feel like all the time. I'm
one of those guys.

GROSS: So what about, like, your texting life and your smartphone life?
Like, how distracting or informative and useful has that been for you?
And do you find that your concentration span as a writer or a reader is
being changed?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: It's over. My concentration, my reading life, it's been
shot. I mean, this is one of those cases where - I'm not against
technology. I love my iPhone passionately. I think it's a beautiful
piece of technology. But sometimes technology outpaces sort of the
humanity's ability to process it. You know, I think that's where we are
right now. I know that's where I am right now because 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. I mean, even our cabs have television screens and info centers
built into the backseat.

You know, and it's just shocking. How is literature supposed to survive
when our brain has been pummeled with information, sliced and diced with
it all day long at work, if we're white-collar workers? We go home. Are
we really going to open a thick text with 350 pages and try to waddle
through it, or are we just going to turn on "Mad Men," which is a
wonderful show, for example.

GROSS: It's a great show.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: It's a great show, but, see, what "Mad Men" does, which
is so wonderful about it, is it takes a lot of the things that make
novels great. It takes so much of that novelistic precision and, also,
it takes time to explain its characters, to develop its characters and
also to try to get into the mind of its characters, as far as film will
allow.

So it satisfies all our narrative impulses. That's what we want. But we
don't have to open a book to get it. We just watch it on the screen.
"The Sopranos," "The Wire," "Mad Men," all these shows very cleverly are
indebted to novels, and all the creators of these shows frequently talk
about how they're indebted to novels. I just don't want novels to die
because that's what I do.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like that's what you are trying to do because you
say you lost your concentration. So where are you now as a writer and a
reader?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: As a reader, I go upstate to New York, upstate, and
there, because I have this i-telephone, it can't connect well up there.
And all of a sudden, my mind begins to readjust and I fall into this
idyllic state. And all of a sudden, books make sense to me again.

Sometimes, I'm so used to the iPhone that sometimes I'm, like, pressing
on the cover of the books, waiting for some piece of information to fly
up, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHTEYNGART: My friend bought me this beautiful photograph and one of
the pictures in the photograph – it was a bunch of people sitting at a
table, and one of the faces was too small, and I started to try to
spread it open like you could on an iPhone to make it bigger. And then I
realized, oh, wait, it's just the photograph. It's not digital.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gary Shteyngart, and his
new novels is a satirical novel set in the near future. It's called
"Super Sad True Love Story." Let's take a break here, then we'll talk
some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

My guest is Gary Shteyngart, and his new novel is called "Super Sad True
Love Story." It's a satirical novel, set in the near future.

Okay, so Lenny, the main character in your book, he's working on a life
extension program and he decides in the very first sentence of the book
that he's going to live forever or as close to forever as he can through
this scientific life extension program.

And he says that he believes that any life ending in death is
essentially pointless. Is that something that you've dealt with?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yes. A good friend of mine turned 50 recently. He said:
Oh my God, Gary, I can see that life is not eternal. And I thought: You
just figured this out now? You know, because I've been - death has been
on my mind since I was a little pup.

You know, I was very, very sick when I was growing up in Russia. The
ambulance constantly came to our house. I had horrible asthma that, you
know, 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's going to
happen after I die?

You know, and in Russia, growing up in Soviet Russia, there's not even
the consolation of heaven. Maybe you become a great red pioneer in the
sky or something, but there's not a consolation of that. So, you know, I
always think that good writers should be growing up on the brink of
death. It really sort of lets them see mortality very clearly.

All my characters think about death in one way or another, all my
previous characters in previous books. But with Lenny, what really is
terrible for Lenny is that he works at this place called Post-human
Services, which caters to the very rich.

And it's one thing to do in a world where everyone will eventually die,
but to work with people who won't die and to know that you, yourself,
are slated for mortality, that is too much for Lenny to even begin to
contemplate.

So he sinks a lot of his mortality wishes into his girlfriend, Eunice
Park, who is as lively and young as anybody in his world. And he begins
to displace a lot of his own feelings, his own dreams of mortality, onto
her, which of course in the end does not work.

GROSS: Did you go through the death of any family or friends while you
were writing this book?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Not when I was writing this book, but my grandmother,
you know, we came to America, and I was surrounded by completely insane
people in all levels of life - this awful Hebrew school, my parents
dealing with the horrors of immigration.

And there was one woman, my grandmother, who was unbelievable. She –
whenever the school bus would pull up from Hebrew school, she would – I
was already 13 years old – she would run out, and she was so afraid. You
know, America's a very dangerous country, Queens especially. She would
run up, grab my hand, and just slowly, we would walk to make sure – you
know, she was like a little terrier, looking out to make sure nobody
would jump us. This was Forest Hills, Queens. And we would walk back to
her apartment.

And then she would say, oh, lie down, lie down (unintelligible).
Igor(ph) is my Russian name. Gary is some kind of stupid American
invention. So she would make me lie down on the couch, and in this kind
of almost Caligula-like position, she would come bearing trays and trays
of food.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHTEYNGART: There would be several pizzas and several hamburgers
and, you know, and I became so fat that for my Bar Mitzvah, I had to
wear a specially made husky suit, made out of, you know, four other Bar
Mitzvah suits.

But when she died, I lost this beautiful, tender connection that I think
I could never have again. I mean, it was the kind of unconditional love
that is, let's say, the very opposite of the love that Lenny finds with
Eunice, who is constantly critical of him. She doesn't like the way he,
you know, gives himself pedicures and all this kind of stuff, very petty
stuff. But that was the love that's sort of my platonic idea of how
family can interact.

GROSS: So your grandmother, it sounds like she tried to not only express
her love but protect you from the world by giving you immense amounts of
food.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: You know, she grew up under Hitler and Stalin, the siege
of Leningrad, all this stuff, where people were dropping like flies. So
to have a fat child is a dream for her, you know. And she was – my
father never got very fat. So she was just – and then she would sort of
weigh me like a big, prized fish. Wooh, 100 kilograms. Now we're getting
somewhere.

GROSS: But you probably didn't feel that way about your weight.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Oh, I didn't care.

GROSS: You didn't?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Oh, no, I didn't care. When you were a Soviet kid in a
Hebrew school back then, you were so low on the totem pole, there wasn't
even a totem pole. I mean, we were just – remember all those movies back
then, "Red Dawn," "Red Gerbil," "Red Hamster" or whatever. I mean, it
was constantly – my big dream, I remember back then, was just that there
would be a nuclear war so I could just start afresh.

You know, all of society would be destroyed. Hebrew school would be
destroyed, and I could just pick up the pieces and start from the
beginning in some nice radiated future.

GROSS: My guest is novelist Gary Shteyngart, and his new novel is set in
the near future. It's a satirical novel called "Super Sad True Love
Story."

Eunice, who is the younger girlfriend of the main character, Lenny - let
me read a sentence about her. You write: Unlike others of her
generation, she was not completely steeped in pornography, and so the
instinct for sex came from somewhere else inside her. It spoke of the
need for warmth instead of debasement.

I thought that was a really interesting sentence, implying of course,
that you think a lot of young people now are growing up with
pornography, probably from DVDs and mostly from the Internet, that I
would guess you think is really wiring or changing the wiring of their
sexual fantasies.

So I'm wondering what you've seen or what you're seeing that's leading
you think about how pornography is affecting how people develop sexually
now.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: We have no idea in the end what it will mean down the
line for people who develop in an era where pornography is completely
commonplace.

I mean, there are sites where you can go online and see naked people,
and they watch you naked doing things to yourself, and anybody can
access that. I mean, there are obviously parental controls, but I think
for the most part, kids can find ways to ignore them.

I'm not being moralistic here. I'm just saying, I have no idea what it
will mean down the line when kids grow up with constant access to
pornography.

I mean, I remember when I was a kid, and somebody snuck in a People
magazine with Brooke Shields’ decolletage showing, and we were just
stunned by it, and it fueled our fantasies for so long. But our
fantasies were mostly about how much we wanted to just get a nice hug
from Ms. Shields.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Now, kids are not dreaming of hugging Mrs. Shields or
who's this famous jail star, Lindsay Lohan, or something. The point is,
I think, that there's no place – after you've seen the kinds of sexual
expressions, there's nothing left to the imagination. You're just – it's
all, it's all there. And then you just have to process it, and I think
kids will end up learning how to process it a lot faster.

A character like Eunice Parks has been completely pornified from the
first days of her life. She doesn't blink about it at all. But there's
still something lovingly different about her. And that's what Lenny I
think talks about, how she wants contact more than anything.

What draws Lenny and Eunice together is the fact that both of them –
they're so different, they're just from different planets, but they both
come from deeply dysfunctional, immigrant families. And they need a kind
of bond that they didn't have in childhood. And they find that bond
together, despite the odds, despite everything that stands against them,
despite the society that stands against them.

In a way, when I think of "1984" and "Brave New World," two brilliant,
dystopian books, I remember some of the ideas better in "Brave New
World" because I think some of the ideas were stronger and more
developed that Orwell's sort of Stalinist take on Russia.

But I remember "1984" as a novel better because the romance between
Julia and Winston was real. It was real, and it was a romance that stood
against a society that just wanted to destroy them. And I think, you
know, that's why you root for Winston and Julia because you know that
they're doomed.

GROSS: Just one more thing about that sentence about pornography that I
quoted from your novel, you emphasized the word debasement. So is most
of the porn that you think is influencing people now about debasement?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: I haven't gotten a master's in porn, unfortunately. I
don't have the time or the bandwidth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHTEYNGART: But, you know, I will say that I think debasement is one
of the areas in which it traffics, obviously.

You know, it's so interesting because now many more woman, young women
get college degrees than men. You would think that the scales really are
tipping in favor of women. Men can't seem to go to college and get, you
know, as educated as women. There's a huge reversal in that.

But there's still, on college campuses, there still is this kind of
macho, terrible thing that happens, and I think women do feel often very
debased. And the pornography certainly reinforces that because it's
never, you know, it's never men being hurt, et cetera, it's always – the
desire is still from a very male perspective.

GROSS: My guest Gary Shteyngart, will be back in the second half of the
show. His new satirical novel is called "Super Sad True Love Story." I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Gary Shteyngart. His new
satirical novel “Super Sad True Love Story” is set in the near future.
There’s only one American political party, the Bipartisan Party, and
literal class warfare is breaking out. The infrastructure is collapsing;
the global economy has already collapsed.

Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972, and moved to Queens, New York
with his family at the age of seven. The main character in Shteyngart’s
novel is named Lenny Abramov.

So in your novel, Lenny’s parents are immigrants from Russia and his
girlfriend, Eunice’s parents are immigrants from South Korea. As is your
fiance. She’s of South Korean descent, right?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yes.

GROSS: So what are some observations that you’ve had based on your
relationship with your fiance? Yeah, based on the fact that you’re both
from completely different countries and cultures but you share the bond
of being, you know, from immigrant family.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Mm-hmm. Well, the Korean culture is a culture I've been
fascinated with every since I went to Stuyvesant High School, which is I
think 95 percent Asian. I think I was the one white guy there. It just,
it felt so warm and real to me because it reminded me so much of Soviet
Jewish culture in the sense that, you were a small – Korea’s a small
country surrounded by giants like Japan and China. The relationship is
sometimes horrible, sometimes less horrible but it’s a small country
surrounded by others.

When you’re a Soviet Jew, you’re a small people - the Jews surrounded by
a larger nation like Russia. You never feel completely accepted. So the
one thing, though, that you have that’s great is this incredible need to
succeed through knowledge. Knowledge is so respected by both cultures.
It’s respected by a lot of cultures but I think here there's almost a
kind of insane emphasis that often has a terrible effect on kids.

I mean, I remember just how our parents would say, what, you know, with
grades like that you'll only get into Cornell or University of
Pennsylvania. And I still remember my average, 86.894, which is the
average that I gave to Lenny. So in my life I've been so lucky because
I've met so many wonderful Korean people. My mentor, Chang-rae Lee, of
course is a wonderful Korean author. And when I was writing this book I
was a little nervous and I thought, oh boy, you know, it’s always okay
to write about your own kind, you can write whatever you want. But, you
know, here I am, Mr. White Guy, writing about Korean culture.

So one of the first things I did is, of course, I gave it to him and I
said, is it okay Chang-rae Lee? And he said, you know, he said you write
us very lovingly. And that - I took a deep sigh and I thought, all
right, no matter what people will say, at least I have my mentor and my
friend's approval.

GROSS: Let me ask you about a scene that you were maybe a little
uncomfortable to write. This is a scene at a church with a Korean
minister and congregation. It’s Reverend Sok’s(ph) Sinner’s Crusade. Why
don’t you describe this church and what’s going on in it.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, this was one of these parts of the book that reads
to me more like journalism than actual fiction because a good Korean
friend of mine, he and I went to one of these crusades at Madison Square
Garden. And so the scene that I describe is fairly accurate. This Korean
minister gets on the podium and there's all these people who look like
they just came back from working 800 shifts at their store somewhere,
they look tired. And the last thing they need is for this guy to climb
on the podium and he starts screaming at them for hours on end about how
they're not good, they're dirty.

And especially, the one thing that really struck me was the line: You
must throw away of yourself. You must throw away of yourself. You are
not good. You are not good enough to stand before Christ yet. So you
must throw away of yourself and then you will be okay to stand before
Christ.

And, you know, for me, I'm getting all kinds of flashbacks to Hebrew
School, to all these different things. Like you had to say the prayer –
the boys were separated and they had to say the prayer, thank you God
for not making me a woman. Things like that. Things were religion is
shouting at you, telling you, you have to do this and this and this and
this. And you’re a tired impressionable immigrant and you’re just
sitting there receiving all these strange waves of negative energy.

And yet, I think a lot of people really, you know, I walked out of there
shell-shocked but a lot of people seemed to – they almost breathed a
sigh of relief like going to a very damaging deep sauna and they just
said, okay, well, we were beaten with a birch twig for eight hours but
now we're ready to go back and work the night shift at whatever business
we have and try to succeed that way, you know.

It was a very moving thing because it made me remember what it’s like to
be at the bottom of a place, not know anything and you want to reach out
for the figures that you think are going to help you – the authority
figures, whether it’s priests or rabbis or even immediate members of
your family. And when they fail you in some way, that hurt is so much
deeper because there’s nothing else that you can reach out to. You’re
all alone in this country with them. That’s all you have.

And that, I think, is the deep pain that Eunice feels and tries to
express throughout the book. And that is I think why she turns to Lenny.
She sees him - he’s older, you know, there’s certain things he knows.
She sees him as a kind of authority figure – somebody who can step in
and help her the way nobody helped her when she was growing up. And
Lenny, sweet as he is, I don’t think is ultimately up to the task.

GROSS: Now your character Lenny, says at one point in your novel, who
was I? A secular progressive? Perhaps. A liberal? Whatever that even
means anymore. Maybe. But basically, at the end of the busted rainbow,
at the end of the day, I'm little more than my parent’s son.

Do you identify with that?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yeah. Sometimes when I listen to my voice and the
intonations and the expressions and I'm talking in a fairly
sophisticated English, and my father’s English was never that
sophisticated, but sometimes I hear him so clearly. And despite our
different political orientations and despite the fact that we really are
from different planets, I can feel that strange life force of his inside
me, which is very unnerving, you know.

I realize that as far as one can go, and I've come very far and I tried
to do so many different things in my life, in the end, you really are
still them with all the things that you’ve done to not be them. And I
think...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: You know what I mean?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: And Lenny and Eunice are both those people, too. As far
as they try to run, in the end, both realize that all they can be is
their parents, and added to that, the stuff that they’ve tried to do to
make sure they don’t become them.

GROSS: You know, in our previous interview from 2002, you talked about
how you tried out all these different things, Judaism, after leaving the
Soviet Union; then capitalism when you were in high school at
Stuyvesant; then becoming a hippy when you went to college in Oberlin.
And you said after all these manifestations, the real question was who
am I? Who is Gary Shteyngart? I didn’t know. Then you said that the
creation of Gary Shteyngart as a viable persona began when you started
seeing an analyst.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And this might be too personal, but I'm wondering how an analyst
helped you integrate the different parts of yourself into a person.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, when you come from a country like Russia, you have
very different expectations of what makes sense and what doesn’t, you
know. So what I think my therapist did in some ways, my analyst I should
say, is he simply listened to things. And then he wouldn’t render a
judgment but he would make me understand that the way I was brought up,
it may work in some parts of the world but that doesn’t have to be my
destiny. You can be a different person.

Certain things will never change, but you don’t have to be completely
indebted to the past. And you don’t have to be a complete facsimile of
the past either. That is something very hard for people from very
traditional backgrounds. It’s like leaving the, you know, the Orthodox
Jewish faith or something. It’s very very difficult to do.

So I think being in analysis for so long, and I think I'm almost about
to leave, it’s time to depart, but it has completely changed my life
around because I know – I know who I am. You know, it’s not entirely a
great thing to be me, you know, it’s okay. It’s not bad. But it’s a
stable thing now. I wake up in the morning, there’s no, you know, I'm
not going to snort horse tranquilizer or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHTEYNGART: ...or run naked through the quads of Oberlin or
whatever. Those days are behind me. And what I want to do now is just
wake every day, be as productive as I can, try to fight my iPhone
fixation, you know, and eat foods that are low in carbohydrates.

GROSS: I think I've heard you say two contradictory things in the past
couple of minutes. One is that what you are is basically your parent’s
child with the things that you’ve added on to that in your life. But the
other is what you learned from your therapist, that you’re not just a
product of the past, you can be yourself.

Mr. MONTGOMERY: Right. Well, the things that you add on, you know,
that’s what - that’s something that therapy allows you to achieve. Those
add-ons don’t come from free.

You know, when started writing my first book, for example, the Ashkenazi
pessimism, the Soviet Ashkenazi pessimism that runs so deep through my
veins did not allow me to even submit my first book for publication. I
finished most of it my senior year at Oberlin. It just sat there and sat
there and sat there. Because, you know, I kept thinking, well, the same
kind of thought that my parents or their parents would think, I'm not
good. I'm not a good person. This is not a good book. This book won't
make anyone happier, richer, anything. This book will simply air our
dirty laundry. I can never submit this book.

One year into therapy I had a book deal. The book was, you know, the
book didn’t change. The therapist simply said, well, why don’t you
submit this book? And not like in a, you know, why aren't you doing it?
But simply, talk about the reasons you don’t want to submit it. And that
all happened within the first year of analysis.

So yes, you are your parent’s child. Always. Always. Always. But those
add-ons allow you to live a life that is not the life that your parents
would've prescribed for you. That’s a huge difference. And the hope is
that if you reproduce, your children will be even more so than you are.
They will have even more leeway to get away from you, and their
children, and their children, and their children.

GROSS: Your work is largely humorous, satirical. Do you think that humor
helps distance you from either pessimism or depression that is kind of
inbred in you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yeah. Yes. I think it’s time to whip out the serotonin
selective re-uptake inhibitor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yes. Humor is what I have. People say, ah, he’s going to
write some schticky crap and he’s just, you know, he’s a humorist, et
cetera. Oh please. Without humor I can't go on and I doubt many of my
readers would go on either. Humor is so important.

I am here to have fun too with my work. I'm here to entertain people.
Remember when you used to wake up and think my god, I've got to run to
the bookstore because X’s book is coming out? I can't wait to read it.
It’s going to be funny. It’s going to be sharp. I can't wait to get my
hands on it. And somehow, that kind of literature has begun to escape. I
mean, there's a very kind of mass market literature, but a lot of the
other kind of literature has become very academic.

You know, a lot of it is taught in MFA programs. I teach at one too. A
lot of it can be beautifully sculpted, wonderfully written, like a
little Faberge egg and at the same time, miss the vitality, the humor,
the feelings of being in love and the worry about death that often gives
rise to the highest order of humor of all, which is probably why Jewish
humor is so up at the top of the charts. For me that’s so, that would be
terrible, you know, and I just want, I want fiction to remain a vital
force for entertainment and not just for contemplation. Both things can
exist. Why does only “Mad Men,” why can only “Mad Men” tickle our funny
bones when so much literature can do just as well?

GROSS: My guest is Gary Shteyngart. His new satirical novel is called
“Super Sad True Love Story.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let’s get back to our interview with Gary Shteyngart. His new
satirical novel is set in the new future. It’s called “Super Sad True
Love Story.”

Now your new novel, you actually did a satirical trailer for it as if it
were a movie, like a movie trailer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It’s online. There’s a lot of, like, really good writers giving,
you know, fake testimonials about the book. And the writers include
Edmond White, Jay McInerney, Mary Gaitskill. James Franco makes...

Mr. SHTEYNGART: James Franco...

GROSS: He makes an appearance because I think he was one of your
students at Columbia?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yes he was. Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. So was it your idea to do a trailer, like a funny trailer?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yeah. I wanted to do a satirical trailer because there’s
so many – yeah, there’s so many heavy-handed sort of terrifying music in
the background kind of trailers. I was up at Yaddo, the artist colony
and I was really going through a lot of cabin fever. It was the middle
of winter. We were drunk all the time - you know, it’s Yaddo, you’re
drunk. And I woke up after a nap after drinking too much and I just
thought, you know, how about a trailer about a writer who never learned
how to read. He's completely illiterate.

And I thought oh, I could do it in a Russian accent. You know, I can't
read. And I thought, well, who are we going to have for this? Then I
tell the testimonials and so many of my friends are such great actors.
They're just, you know, I always think that some of the best writers can
– they sort of, when they create dialogue on the page, they kind of say
it out loud and then they're able to just communicate as actors really
well. And my thesis proved to be completely correct.

Mary Gaitskill is hilarious. Edmond White is hilarious. Jay McInerney is
beyond hilarious. Jeffrey Eugenides is stunning. And, of course, James
Franco, who was a student of mine, is a brilliant actor. All I had to do
was find a perfect Dockson(ph), a really nice weenie dog to play my pet,
and one of my students had a great one. So it just came together and we
had a wild time. And you know, it was, I think it’s actually helping the
book because whenever people see me they say, you’re that guy who can't
read who wrote a book.

GROSS: So what do you think of the idea of doing a trailer to sell a
book?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, nowadays nobody wants to read books, so anything
you can do to sell book, you know, if I could sneak a book into - inside
a knish and sell it that way, you know, buy the knish and then read my
book when you finish eating it, that's fine with me too. Whatever it
takes to communicate to people that, you know, hey, books still exist
and some of them can be quite humorous.

I mean, the trailer had nothing do with my novel, obviously, but the
idea was to sort of get across, hey, Gary Shteyngart, he’s okay. You
know, he can make fun of himself and even though he can't read, he’s
still a good writer. And, because that’s sort of, that’s another thing
that I think the trailer’s sort of making fun of is that everyone is a
writer now. You know, everyone's a writer. Nobody wants to read but
everybody wants to write. These MFA programs, we can't, you know, we
can't turn them away. There’s just millions of applicants. Everybody
wants to be a writer. It’s this huge culture of self-expression.

And there's a magazine called Tin House in Portland that I love, which
did this thing where they, you know, in order to - if you’re going to
submit a story to them you also have to submit a receipt showing that
you bought a book recently. That’s the only way they’ll look at your
story. So I think that’s absolutely hilarious. And the other thing about
book culture that makes me happy, in Seattle - I think the Pacific
Northwest is like the last place where books will be read in the world.
In Seattle my friend Christopher Frizzelle, who’s the editor of The
Stranger, a wonderful newspaper there, runs this reading series where
nobody - I mean, people just sit there reading in this beautiful hotel
by a fireplace.

They show up, hundreds of people, sometimes it’s standing room only, and
they take out books, and instead of reading out loud, they just read to
themselves while this fire crackles and they drink wonderful bourbons
and things like that. That was so touching to me, to see a whole
community of readers just sitting there, not broadcasting what they're
reading. So it wasn’t about them basically. It was about the act of
reading, which is trying to commune with the mind of another human being
without constantly needing to express yourself, to upload your opinions
about something. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.

And that’s what I've been missing too, I think in a way, because now as
a writer, you’re now, you’re expected to be somebody who does everything
that he or she can to connect with people. And some of it is really
wonderful. But on the other hand, a lot of it takes you away from what
got you interested in doing this to begin with, which is just to sit in
a quiet place and try to understand what you are, who you are and what
the world is around you.

GROSS: Just one more question. Since your novel is so much about how
technology is changing people and changing things and shortening
attention span and changing communications and changing what we mean by
news, do you feel compelled to keep up with everything or do you feel
like you can afford to not keep up without being accused of being out of
date yourself? You know, as a writer you want to kind of connect somehow
to the zeitgeist. At the same time, keeping up is so hard. Every day
there’s so much new news and movies and books and television and
information and personal texting. I could go on and on.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yes. Yes. I think it’s true. I think - when I was
writing this book, I obviously had – the zeitgeist, I had, you know, I
had a big Z tattooed onto my forehead for zeitgeist because I had to
obviously keep track of everything that was happening. And thank God I
had a great research assistant. But it was an endless information
overload. It made me very, very unhappy because I was so tied in with
everything that was going on and I had no personal life of my own.

And it really, you know, it began to affect my personal relationships.
It began to affect the way I dealt with people. I got run over by three
cabs because I was so busy getting information out of my iTelephone,
just pressing it and pressing it and hoping something good would come
out of it, you know. And it was not - here’s the thing about this new
technology, I think it’s incredibly effective. I just don’t think it’s
made anyone much happier. I think if anything, we are now always
connected but we don’t know what we're connected to. You know, it’s just
an endless stream of information.

The next book I'm writing will be a collection of short essays which
will be sort of styled into a memoir. And that will allow me to actually
disconnect for a while, I hope for quite a long while, and to sit with –
my parents were so sweet. They saved every little scrap of information
about my past – every little, you know, when I was kid in Hebrew I wrote
a satire of the Torah called the Ganorah(ph). You know, with chapters
such as Sexodus instead of Exodus. It still exists. It’s still written
on a real scroll. And I can go back and look at that and try to
understand my past and write about it.

And in a sense, I can live an analog life at least during the time that
it takes to write this book. And then, of course, when the book is over
I'm probably going to write another novel that’s very much set in the
present future. And that will, of course, require me to, you know, by
that point, I'm sure there will be a wire connected right directly into
my brain and it will be pumping me with even more information.

GROSS: Gary Shteyngart, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Thank you. It’s always wonderful.

GROSS: Gary Shteyngart’s new satirical novel is called “Super Sad True
Love Story.” You can read an excerpt of the book and find a link to the
book trailer we talked about on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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'Inferno': A Catastrophic Film Finds Redemption

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

In the movie world, there’s a long tradition of movies about the making
of movies that take you behind the scenes as a movie is being created.
The new documentary, Henri-Georges Clouzot's “Inferno,” is one of those
movies but with a twist. It chronicles a production that goes
disastrously wrong.

Our critic-at-large John Powers, says that this film about the unmaking
of a movie will knock your eyes out.

JOHN POWERS: Early on in Kurt Vonnegut's novel “Helter Skelter,” the
hero says he thinks it a shame that young people are raised on
inspirational stories of success because that gives them a misleading
idea of life. In fact, he tells us, failure is the norm.

Normal or not, there are few things more irresistibly watchable than a
big, flamboyant belly-flop, especially by someone accustomed to nailing
every dive. That's precisely what you get in Henri-Georges Clouzot's
“Inferno,” a fascinating new documentary by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra
Medrea that tells the story of a notoriously catastrophic film project.

Its hero is the French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot, best known here
for the thrillers “Diabolique” and “The Wages of Fear.” In the '40s and
'50s, Clouzot was something of a Gallic version of Alfred Hitchcock or
Stanley Kubrick, a director who kept making box office hits out of
stories that were riveting and dark, even nasty.

But when the movies began changing in the early '60s — suddenly, New
Waves were everywhere — he felt challenged and threatened. He had a kind
of artistic freakout after seeing Fellini's “8 1/2” and decided he would
make a movie that would reinvent the movies. The project was called
“Inferno,” and in it, Clouzot hoped to use all of cinema's resources to
take us inside the mind of a middle-aged man, played by Serge Reggiani,
who becomes possessed with jealousy over his beautiful, young wife. That
was Romy Schneider, the delightful, talented and sexy Austrian-born star
who Hollywood stuck in pictures like “What's New Pussycat?”

The documentary charts Clouzot's own possession by mad artistic ambition
— he turned into a filmmaking Ahab. Blessed, or perhaps cursed, with an
unlimited budget, this moody, driven man spent six long months
obsessively burning money on endless camera tests of the most baroque
kinds. He tried different lenses, different lighting, different color
schemes, different ways of stretching and fracturing the human face. He
tried anything that might make the movie look brand-new. Bromberg and
Medrea show us those tests, and wow, they range from the totally cool to
the authentically breathtaking. Merely smoking a cigarette, Schneider
glitters with a glorious avant-garde beauty.

And that was just the beginning. Clouzot spent three weeks shooting
“Inferno” with a high-priced cast and crew, and we get to see the best
footage. It, too, is astonishing. What makes it unforgettable isn't
simply the spectacular photography — water-skiing has never looked so
wondrous — but the way that the images are charged with passion. I've
seen no more visceral image of a husband's fear of his wife's infidelity
than Clouzot's shot of Schneider lying nude in the foreground across
railway tracks as a train bears down upon her — and us.

In the end, it was Clouzot who got run over. And, unlike Terry Gilliam,
whose Don Quixote film fell prey to endless bad luck, he had nobody else
to blame. Clouzot hired several brilliant directors of photography, then
made them sit around for days as he dawdled over single shots. He did
take after take after take, causing Reggiani to quit. And to top it all
off, he then had a heart attack, ending the production. “Inferno” became
a legendary unfinished film, and Clouzot never did anything important
again.

Now, it's easy to view Henri-Georges Clouzot's “Inferno” as a cautionary
tale about the dangers of artistic overreaching. And there's no doubt
that Clouzot did torture himself and others trying to take the
considerable talent he had and, through sheer will, elevate it into the
genius he didn't. He simply was not a Griffith or Welles or Godard —
transcendent figures who forever changed the way that people thought
about movies.

Then again, he wasn't a hack. In fact, part of what makes this
documentary so memorable is that it offers teasing glimpses of the
dreamed-of masterpiece caught in the rubble of Clouzot's obsession. Even
in its fragmented and wounded form, his “Inferno” offers more
cinematically thrilling moments than anything currently on our screens.
Trust me, you'll remember this failure's images long after you've
forgotten countless other movies, even those that have been hailed as a
triumph.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed
Henri-Georges Clouzot's “Inferno.”

A little correction here. When John mentioned Kurt Vonnegut's novel he
said it was called “Helter Skelter,” but he meant to say “Hocus Pocus.”

You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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