Before my cats ever read Gary Shteyngart, they wanted to snuggle with him. A bonafide literary celebrity (that ultimate oxymoron) and yet such an adorably hirsute and unassuming man! Then they got their paws on the actual novels, and suddenly those dreams of lazy mammalian spooning became more… complicated. Shteyngart writes so heroically about a certain type of maleness—bungling, self-absorbed, chubby around the waist but a bit starved in terms of morals—that my two girls found frankly shocking. “Is this what they’re like?” they mewled, devouring the picaresque exploits of the men of Absurdistan, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and Super Sad True Love Story. “Is this what they think? Is this how they need?” (“Fiction is called fiction for a reason,” I lied, as always desperate to protect them from the real world’s cruel impositions.)
But my girls couldn’t get enough of Shteyngart’s unlucky-in-love bastards. His latest, Lake Success, did not disappoint. Its hero—a hedge fund douchebag, a failed father, a man with more compassion for watches than humans—ditches his own life and takes off on a cross-country Greyhound bus odyssey in pursuit of his own shriveled, absent soul. The reader, desperate to hate this jerk, is forced toward something dangerously close to empathy. “Gary is making us feel emotions that are confusing,” my cats complained, their eyes watery pools of inner conflict. I gave them some ‘nip, stroked their silly little heads, and suggested they unpack those feelings with the man himself.
UNI & CHLOE: You’re a teacher—an eager molder of young minds—and you’re also known as someone who loves to blurb. But we imagine that every now and then you’re presented with a dilemma: A writing student who can’t write; a novel that should have been drowned in the lake. How do you go about letting someone down gently without giving them irrational hope concerning their own feeble abilities?
GARY SHTEYNGART: No book deserves to be drowned in a lake. Sometimes political regimes burn books, but that’s kind of a compliment. (Burn my books, please!) I blurb heavily and indiscriminately. Often I’m drunk. And my students are all effing geniuses. Leave my students out of this!
UNI & CHLOE: Okay, but you can’t love every book. How do you decide which ones to purge?
GS: Every book ever written is a cry for help. How can I ignore the cry? What kind of person would I be?
U & C: By necessity, you delight in making shit up—inventing whole countries that kinda-sorta resemble actual places, or birthing characters that are basically just weirdo variants on your own Shteyngartian self. What is so liberating about being untethered from the truth? And do you think being a professional liar, on the page, has any effect on your general honesty, as a human-type person?
GS: It’s all about having the right accountant. But seriously, I do enjoy writing my crap. Picture me in bed (which is where I write), snuggled up under a heavy 1950s comforter, just giggling to myself like a little boy-child. Oh, how I make myself laugh. It’s disgusting, really. No one should have so much fun by themselves while they earn money.
U & C: We’ve seen that classic photo of you, bashful, while a small bear holds you on a leash. (Where is he now, Gary? We hope he’s adopted some other young novelist, hungry in their time of need.) But we were very curious about the role domesticated creatures have played in your life. Cats or otherwise. But mostly cats.
GS: Damn it, I’m allergic to you guys. Maybe send me a hypoallergenic cat. My daschund Felix is my writing partner and toe nibbler. He’s got a lot to say. Mostly WOOF. The bear is doing fine. He got an MFA in poetry from Bearsk State University in Omsk and is now waiting tables in Perm.
U & C: We’re going to have to factcheck that one, but we’ll trust you for now. But someone we wouldn’t trust: the anti-hero protagonist of Lake Success. A hedge-fund manager! A capitalist crook, a scumbag, a Part of the Problem! We assume it takes some major cojones to, in this year of 2018, launch such a fictional person in the world and expect us to fling wide our empathy-boxes. Why did you work so hard to make us care for someone so terrible?
GS: Usually I take someone from my stable of nebishes and try to make the reader care for them. But how hard is that? My readers are a bunch of nebbishes! (Spoken as the nebbish ne plus ultra.) But to make the reader care for a 1-percenter shmuck? That is a challenge I hope I’m ready for in my 46th year of life.
U & C: Actually, now that we think of it, many of your protagonists are pretty scummy, albeit in lovable ways. Do you take some uncommon delight in causing bad things to happen (and happen, and happen) to these morally flexible schmucks?
GS: Bad things happen to Gary, so why shouldn’t bad things happen to my shmucks? Oh, Jesus, now I’ve used the third person in referring to myself. See what you’ve made me do.
U & C: We don’t read Gary Shteyngart for the sex scenes, but we can say with dead seriousness that those sex scenes have been uncomfortably seared into our modest kittenish brains for all eternity. What’s your philosophy when it comes to writing about that most common and grotesque of human activities?
GS: Oooh, I got a good oral sex scene in this one! Won’t spoil it for the reader but it takes place near the end. Sex is not as serious as you think it is. Here’s an idea—next time you, the reader, have sex, videotape the event (with your partner’s permission). You’ll be in stitches for weeks.
U & C: Your name, while exotic and also fun to purr, is literally impossible to remember how to spell. Like, seriously, we have not typed it a single time in our lives without having to Google it, again. Have you ever considered a rebrand, for simplicity’s sake?
GS: Swinegart has a nice ring to it. Stonegart? Or let’s go full Svenska: Gary Skarsgård.
U & C: A bunch of years back you wrote a book, Super Sad True Love Story, that ended up being a well-researched documentary account of life in contemporary America circa now. Is there a place you’ve been, or a thing you’ve observed, that’s made you sit back and say: “Shiiiiit. I couldn’t top this if I tried”?
GS: All of it. Effing all of it. Let’s just invade Venezuela and get it over with. This “civilization” is finished. I’m done here.
U & C: A lot of your work dances around the issue of Russianness, and what we might call “the Russian soul.” Since we’re housebound, and very unable to travel, how might you suggest we get in touch with this “Russian soul”? Our previous attempts—a lost weekend involving several tubs of off-brand “Belugga” caviar and the first eighty-two pages of The Master and Margarita—ended only in sticky tears.
GS: Drink yourself stupid every night, read books like they still matter, and you too can have a Russian soul. But why bother? There’s kombucha now. Nobody has to suffer.
U & C: The University of Phoenix is offering a feline-focused M.F.A. program online with 0% down payment and a loan interest rate that’s generously pegged to the Kazakhstani tenge. We’re seriously tempted! But do you think (and we won’t tell Columbia, seriously) that there’s even a point to “learning” how to “write”? Is there some sort of test we can take to figure out if we’ve “got what it takes” before we Snapchat them our debit card number?
GS: You can spend your money on heroin or you can get an MFA degree. Some people, though not my cousin Oleg, would benefit more from an MFA degree.
U & C: Speaking of money: it’s a real driving force in a lot of your books. More often than not, it’s acquired by some super shady means. As cats, we don’t have all that many money-feelings; we proudly have our paws out for the dole. What’s your own emotional relationship to money, though, Gary? Is it healthy?
GS: I grew up poor so I do have to think about money. Heroin doesn’t grow on trees. Or does it? I wish I had taken science at Oberlin.