Shteyngart, great 21st century satirist, here today

He'll read from his books, answer questions at Rapaporte Treasure Hall

If Sasha Baron Cohen had been a writer instead of an actor, he’d probably have been something like Gary Shteyngart.

This Leningrad-born, New York-bred literary phenom always seems to be in character, and his character is profane, ironic, comedic, melancholic, sarcastic, satirical…. The list goes on.

Shteyngart will at Brandeis Monday [Rapaporte Treasure Hall, 4:45 p.m.] for what’s being described as a “literary encounter.” Given his predilection for absurdist poses and exuberant prose, you can probably assume it will be neither staid nor academic in tone.

This is a guy whose Facebook page features snapshots of him popping up Waldo- or Zelig-like everywhere from Beijing to Paris to the Canadian Arctic, accompanied by ersatz diary entries like this one pasted over a panorama of a serenely beautiful fjord:

“Day Two of the Scandinavian Occupation. So far, so good. I like our hot, tall, athletic overlords. They put me on fjord maintenance duty for the week. Lars the Overseer can be a bit melancholy, but when I told him I got the milkmaid pregnant, he gave me FOUR years of paternity leave. So long, suckers!”

It is a guy whose second novel was described by the New York Observer as “the first truly effective satire of the twenty-first century,” in which “the novel’s antihero, Misha Vainberg, an obscenely fat Russian, finds himself lovelorn in the imaginary republic of Absurdistan, a country swiftly descending into a civil war.”

And whose third novel, "Super Sad True Love Story," is summarized (in part) like this on its website:

“ In a very near future — oh, let’s say next Tuesday — a functionally illiterate America is about to collapse. But don’t tell that to poor Lenny Abramov, the thirty-nine-year-old son of an angry Russian immigrant janitor, proud author of what may well be the world’s last diary, and less-proud owner of a bald spot shaped like the great state of Ohio. Despite his job at an outfit called Post-Human Services, which attempts to provide immortality for its super-rich clientele, death is clearly stalking this cholesterol-rich morsel of a man. And why shouldn’t it? Lenny’s from a different century—he totally loves books (or “printed, bound media artifacts,” as they’re now known), even though most of his peers find them smelly and annoying. But even more than books, Lenny loves Eunice Park, an impossibly cute and impossibly cruel twenty-four-year-old Korean American woman who just graduated from Elderbird College with a major in Images and a minor in Assertiveness.”

This is a guy who told the Jerusalem Post earlier this year that he feels at home in Israel not because he’s Jewish, not because he’s Russian, but because he grew up in a tumultuous environment and gets bored in peaceful places.

Shteyngart will read from “Super Sad True Love Story” and perhaps from “Absurdistan” as well before answering questions from Dr. Kathy Lawrence and the audience at large on Monday.

The fact that Lawrence -- whose expertise is in the American transcendentalists -- is joining the Center for German and European Studies, the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry, the Department of English, the Program in Creative Writing, the Department of German, Russian and Asian Languages and Literature, Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and the Russian Club in supporting the event is testimony to Shteyngart’s broad appeal.

“Ultimately you could call him Emersonian in a way,” Lawrence said. “He’s invented his own style, he is his own person, he combines the sense of freedom he has in America with a critical look at his adopted country.”

More to the point, Lawrence said, “he’s an important writer. Forgetting the ethnicity, the identity politics, he’s our new Philip Roth. He’s important because he’s cutting edge, and his form mirrors his content. He’s one of the few writers we have today who’s trying to push the stylistic envelope. I’m a big fan.”

“He’s sort of Don DeLillo meets George Orwell,” she said. “There’s a sense of things falling apart in these largely autobiographical novels of his.”

In the Jerusalem Post interview, Shteyngart said of writing that “If there are limits then you haven’t really done your job.”

One of the ways he defines “no limits,” he told the Post, is that, when his father asks whether his latest book will be “good for the Jews,” he can honestly say that not only won’t it be good for the Jews, it won’t be good for anyone.

"I feel like I’ve been blessed with the ability to make fun of everyone,” he says. “From a Shteyngart novel nobody comes out looking good.”

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

Return to the BrandeisNOW homepage