Having loved some of his previous books, especially Super Sad True Love Story, I was eager to read this one that is set in early pandemic times. After I finished it, I read what I’d written about his other books and the terms “over the top” and “exhausting” come up. So you can assume those are the starting point here.
An expat Russian couple (he’s a writer) has an upstate New York country house with nearby bungalows in a semi-circle for guests. Thinking of Boccaccio’s Decameron, I envisioned a book with all of the writer’s learned friends telling brilliant stories, just like that 14th century work about friends who escaped the plague by sheltering in a villa outside Florence. In this case instead of the guests sharing stories, the hosts and guests act out in their “over the top” and “exhausting” ways, performing stories, rather than telling them.
I highlighted a lovely and unusual moment that came early in the book, after the host picked up his friend from the train station: “Senderovsky watched Vinod sleeping in the back seat, his face pressed deep into the tinted Swedish glass, and he could not escape the strength of his own feelings, the untinted brightness of his love. Uncharacteristically, he slowed down to let the moment take.” There were too few of these moments.
One of the characters was younger than the others, and though successful at writing edgy essays, was from a distinctly less intellectual background. She finds herself laughing along with the others when she has no idea what the references mean. In one case, the reference in question was to Miss Porter’s school, in another it was to the Suzuki Method of learning to play a musical instrument. “Dee summoned a smile. She was missing more references than usual. White ignorant folk like me, she thought, we’re the immigrant today.” And then there’s her name: Dee Cameron. Though I did know the references above, I was mystified many times as I read this book.
Shteyngart’s recent interview on Fresh Air was affecting. He tells about time he spent as a child at a “Russian bungalow colony” in upstate New York where he had very happy memories of other immigrant children, away from the cruel kids of his New York school. His own upstate New York house felt safe to him during the pandemic and he and nearby friends created a pod during those early pandemic times. He said creating a book where the characters “romped around” helped him through those times.
In that interview he tells about the botched circumcision he experienced shortly after arriving in the US when he was seven years old. He suffered infections for years; then during the pandemic the “surgery’s mistakes reasserted themselves,” he said. He was in great pain for six months and saw 20 doctors searching for a solution. He said the pain and the drugs he was given did affect the book and that is apparent to a reader. One section was a long fever dream. Writing the book, his family, and his friends were important in surviving this traumatic time. Now he has a medication applied topically that improves the pain significantly.
For someone with his life experiences the stories he recounts are not so “over the top.”
Gary Shteyngart, Our Country Friends, Random House, 2021, 317 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.