Outsider Art, From An Insider

Gary Shteyngart is still training his satiric gaze on the immigrant experience, Jewish and otherwise.

08/03/2010
Staff Writer
Gary Shteyngart
Gary Shteyngart

‘I don’t feel any need to disassociate with Jews,” said Gary Shteyngart, the phenomenally popular 38-year-old writer whose third novel, “Super Sad True Love Story,” released last week, is chock full of them.

You might expect a writer looking for a wide audience to play down the Jewish particularity in his work, but not Shteyngart.

“These days,” he said, “the more tags you have the better” — Russian, Jewish, black, Dominican, whatever.

Despite winning a National Jewish Book Award for his debut novel “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” in 2002, Shteyngart still populates his books with Jewish characters that are either thin guises of himself or the people he knows best. The protagonist this time is Lenny Abramov, the 39-year-old son of Russian Jewish immigrants living on Long Island. And like the real Shteyngart, he has fallen in love with a much younger Korean woman.

But all around Lenny are Jews: Joshie Goldmann, Lenny’s youth-obsessed boss at a company searching for a cure to death (the novel is a satire); Noah Weinberg, Lenny’s best friend from NYU, and his girlfriend, Amy Greenberg. Then there’s the United States defense secretary, known only as Rubenstein, who’s turned the country into a quasi-dictatorship (the novel is also dystopian, like a much funnier “1984”). And last, there’s Lenny’s parents, Boris and Galya Abramov, who foist an American flag and another for “SecurityState Israel” on their porch with equal pride.

While all the Jewish material might have hindered a novel’s success a generation or two ago, that is no longer the case, Shteyngart noted. “The Anglo-Saxons are the minority now,” he said, only half kidding. “By belonging to a small minority, everybody is part of the majority.”

Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972, but immigrated with his family to New York seven years later. He spent eight years at a Jewish day school in Queens before transferring to Stuyvesant High School, but those eight years had a big impact. “These were very, very difficult years,” he says, without much humor, his default mode. “In the end, the effect it had on me was that I was not religious” — he stressed the “not” — “though I still deeply identify as Jewish.”

Two instances stuck out from his Jewish day school years. One day he felt happy and wanted to sing. He grabbed the first melody that came to mind, but immediately the Orthodox students pounced. “‘What are you doing?’ ‘What are you doing?’ everyone was saying,” he recalled. “I was singing the Mourner’s Kaddish,” which in addition to being somber to begin with, was made worse by the fact of his parents’ health.

There were also his Russian eating habits, which did not jive with the school’s. Namely, he loved pork — in dumpling-like pelminis; the meatball kotlety; and kholodets, made from chopped, jellied ham boiled and mixed with spice. The school’s few Russian immigrants would sneak in whatever ham products they could, which was constantly held against them (perhaps not unjustifiably). Nevertheless, it contributed to Shteyngart’s alienation, compounding his sense of outsider-ness even among his own kind. “I felt extremely isolated there,” he remembers.

But those experiences have also become fodder for some of his new novel’s most arresting, insightful passages. Shteyngart describes a Korean Bible session at Madison Square Garden, hosted by the equally alluring and repulsive Reverend Suk. Lenny attends at the bequest of his girlfriend, Eunice Park, whose mother is a devout Christian. Suk, Shteyngart writes, “was a dapper man with a deceptively kind face … He seemed like the perfect preacher for citizens of an insecure, rapidly developing nation, a nation that Korea had recently been.”

But after Suk delivers a fire-and-brimstone sermon, beseeching his congregants to “not accept their thoughts,” and instead to “accept the world of Christ,” Lenny begins to fume. He imagines how he might respond, what he wants to say to Eunice’s mother who, throughout the novel, justifies the beatings by her abusive husband in the name of Jesus Christ.

Lenny imagines his rebuke: “We Jews, we thought all this stuff up, we invented the Big Lie which all Christianity, all Western civilization, has sprung, because we too were ashamed. … Do not believe the Judeo-Christian lie! Accept your thoughts! Accept your desires! Accept the truth! And if there is more than one truth, then learn to do the difficult work — learn to choose. You are good enough, you are human enough, to choose!”

Oddly enough, it’s through Shteyngart’s Korean characters, new to the struggle of acculturation and assimilation, that the older story of Jewish assimilation is cast in higher relief. The Koreans in the book “see Jews as a kind of precursor of their own success,” Shteyngart said about this point. “There’s a kind of identification there.” He added that while meatier Jewish communal issues are less explicit in this book — in contrast to “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” and his second novel, “Absurdistan” — they are reflected in the Korean experience.

Paradoxically, the novel’s American-born Jews — Noah Weinberg, Amy Greenberg, Joshie Goldmann — somehow seem the least Jewish. Or put another way, their Jewishness seems the least significant part of about them. When asked about this, Shteyngart replied: “I guess Noah and Amy represent the assimilated Jew,” which sounded like vague agreement.

After Shteyngart published his first novel, Jewish literary critics greeted his arrival with great enthusiasm. Here was a young Jewish writer whose work teemed with Jewish characters and themes, channeling the ribald humor of a young Philip Roth, while adding a unique immigrant story.

“I think that Shteyngart is part of a whole sweeping movement of young Jewish writers who are bringing a new multicultural picture to American Jewish fiction,” said Sylvia Barack Fishman, professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University, who has written extensively about American Jewish fiction.

But some were also concerned: after more than a half-century of American Jewish literature being dominated by the twin themes of immigration and assimilation, from Henry Roth to Philip Roth, here was yet another writer doing the same thing. Wasn’t it time to write about something else?

Shteyngart, who is well versed in these arguments (he teaches creative writing at Columbia), acknowledges that he may be making matters worse by playing up his Jewish immigrant roots. “The Soviet Jews came and sort of upset the apple cart,” he says. But he adds that it would be futile to avoid this world for fodder: “They’re not from the shtetl and their vision of the world is insane.”

Plus, humor matters. Shteyngart said that the explicit Jewish content is only in part what makes his work distinctively Jewish. “It’s [also] this humor from the edge of the grave,” which he sees as a Jewish sensibility, and one that deeply informs his writing. He said that he still plumbs Philip Roth and Mordecai Richler, a Canadian Jewish satirist, for inspiration, too.

Anyway, the work of other young-ish Jewish writers — Allegra Goodman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nathan Englander, Amy Bloom, Dara Horn, Michael Chabon — are so diverse that, even if he sets the clock back on American Jewish fiction’s development, the others are good enough to push it forward. “A huge amount of Jewishness permeates their books and yet everyone still consumes them,” he said. “Why? Because they’re good.” And that, he added, “is the ultimate barometer of success.”

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