Gary Shteyngart’s third novel, Super Sad True Love Story, was named a best book on more than forty end-of-the-year lists. It’s out now in paperback. Jon Wiener spoke with him on KPFK 90.7FM in Los Angeles on July 6.
Q: Your novel Super Sad True Love Story is set in “the near future,” when everybody wears a pendant around their neck called an “apparat.” What does the apparat do?
A: It’s a wonderful invention that ranks everybody. When I enter a bar in downtown Manhattan, my entire history is broadcast to everybody, and immediately everyone knows I’m the eighteenth ugliest man in the room but I have the fourth-best credit rating.
What are politics like in your version of “the near future”?
Everything’s great! There’s only one party, the Bipartisan Party, it’s a rabidly right-wing party. The world is divided into two classes: the High Net Worth Individuals—the “H.N.W.I.”, a very small part of the population, and, everybody else, also known as “L.N.W.I.”
Tell us about the media in your version of future.
We have the New York Lifestyle Times, a collection of advertisements. The last two channels are Fox Liberty Prime, which is like our Fox News, and Fox Liberty Ultra, which beyond anything we’ve yet experienced. But mostly what people do is stream about themselves. Everyone has a corporate sponsor, and everyone tries to make funny newscasts about themselves while slipping in the names of their corporate sponsors.
In this world you have placed our hero, Lenny Abramov.
Lenny is not a High Net Worth Individual, but he does have a job—he works for a company that thinks they’ve developed a cure for death. It costs 20 billion Yuan—the dollar is worthless, so most people use the Yuan. The company calls it “indefinite life extension—exclusive immortality assistance for High Net Worth Individuals.”
Lenny’s “hopelessly cute” girlfriend Eunice doesn’t read books. Where did you get this idea?
Like Lenny, I’m the owner of a wall of books in my apartment. A young man in his early 20s came up to repair my cable, and he said “Oh man, why you got all those books here?” Then he looked at my television: “… and you only got a 25 inch TV!” It was very emasculating. I realized that I come from the last generation when books were loved and cherished.
The Wall Street Journal described Super Sad True Love Story as “a funny book about the financial crisis.” Is that the way you would describe it?
I started writing this book in 2006 before the financial crisis. In my original draft, horrible things happen: Lehman Brothers fails, GM and Chrysler fail. Two years into writing this, all these things were actually happening. So I had to make things worse and worse. That’s one of the difficulties of writing a novel these days—there doesn’t seem to be a present left to write about. Everything is the future. That makes writing a novel difficult —it’s much easier to write a blog about something.
The Village Voice called Super Sad True Love Story “the finest piece of anti-iPhone propaganda ever written.”
I was a person like Lenny, fairly analogue, and to research this book I hired an assistant who got me an iPhone, and got me on Facebook and Twitter. I went from somebody who didn’t want to have anything to do with this new technology to somebody who became wildly addicted to it. Then, after finishing this book, I began developing strategies for not being online all the time.
Do you have any advice for people with the same problem?
I am very lucky that, where I live in upstate New York, the main provider for the iPhone is ATT, which doesn’t really know how to connect signals to telephones. When I go to the country, just two hours north of Manhattan, there’s no reception. So my advice is to find an ATT iPhone and then go out into the countryside.
You say it’s important to stay away from your iPhone —and yet there is a Gary Shteyngart iPhone app.
Yes, but I’ve never used it and I don’t know how it works.