Locked Down With Friends, Lovers and Rivals, in Gary Shteyngart’s New Novel

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By Dana Spiotta

By Gary Shteyngart

Not long after 9/11, Don DeLillo wrote: “Language is inseparable from the world that provokes it.” To write now is to write in the wake of 2020, whether one engages it or not. Some readers may want to escape the present, but there are those of us who want to see a writer find the language for what is unfolding, to give us the slanted, intimate clarity that can’t be achieved in other ways. After months of epidemiology Twitter, after the reportage about the dying and the dead, I turned to writers: Zadie Smith’s lyrical writing about the moral implications of the privileged stay-at-home class, Patricia Lockwood’s hilarious piece about getting Covid, and Lorrie Moore’s unstinting story “Face Time,” in which the description of isolation from a father as he died made me feel less isolated in my own grief. Gary Shteyngart brings his version of the above to his reflective, earthy, humane new novel, “Our Country Friends,” which is rife with the problem of privilege, the profoundly leveling experience of the virus, and an ever-present sense of absurdity and humor.

“Our Country Friends” takes place in 2020 at the Hudson Valley estate of Sasha Senderovsky, a once very successful writer of “stupid comic novels” that sound a lot like an unflattering version of Shteyngart’s own oeuvre. Naturally Shteyngart makes him the butt of most of the farcical humor here, as Sasha spends the novel flapping around in a ridiculous dressing gown and drinking ungodly amounts of alcohol.

He and his wife, Masha, a psychiatrist, both emigrated from Russia as children. It was Sasha’s dream to have a house surrounded by little cottages, a colony like the one he remembers from his childhood summers, and he has spent far beyond his means to maintain his “dacha.” They have a daughter adopted from China, Nat, who is 8 and has anxiety, an obsession with the K-pop group BTS and a precocity that sometimes unnerves adults. Sasha has invited his closest pals to ride out the lockdown in his cottages: Karen, a Korean American who designed an app (Tröö Emotions) that makes people fall in love and has made her very rich; Vinod, an Indian immigrant and an unpublished, brilliant writer who has lost part of a lung to cancer and lost his adjunct professor gig; Ed, an heir to a wealthy Korean family and a snobby sophisticate; and Dee, a white former student of Sasha’s who’s very attractive and has written a provocative book of essays about her poor background. Also invited (partly to lure the others and partly to seal a TV deal Sasha is working on) is a famous person, “the Actor.” He’s ridiculously good-looking (after he arrives each of the women masturbates about him in her own super-specific way); he talks about his time in “New Haven” rather than saying Yale; and he compares himself to Odysseus before anyone has even had coffee. In short, he’s a perfect monster, half Tom Berenger in “The Big Chill” and half Terence Stamp in “Teorema.”

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    There are many mentions of Russian literature, from Lermontov to Tolstoy to Chekhov, and toward the end, the characters actually perform “Uncle Vanya.” In some respects, “Our Country Friends” does feel like a Russian novel. The narration is not the close third person of Shteyngart’s previous book, “Lake Success,” or the hyper-modern, hilarious alternating unmediated voices of his best-selling 2010 novel, “Super Sad True Love Story.” Here Shteyngart uses a 19th-century-style omniscience, moving from mind to mind within a scene (and, like Tolstoy, even occasionally inhabiting the minds of animals) while drawing back and commenting to the reader from a perspective that none of the characters are privy to. This choice seems suited to the subject: We were all thrust into a vast calamity that we didn’t understand and over which we had no control. The world feels relentlessly godless. Our all-knowing narrator steps in to give us the big picture in inimitable Shteyngartian style, such as this unexpected but apt simile extended to an absurd punchline: “Every diner … had learned something new about another, and the secrets were as piquant as the habanero-laced tonnato they were now shoveling down without regard for the country plumbing.” Or to give us asides: “He had missed his own pun.” This narration also allows the novel to adopt a tone of wry self-reflexivity, as in this slap at the very idea of writing a pandemic novel: “Stranded social novelists up and down the river … beseeching their higher power to help me make something out of all this stillness.”

    In forced proximity, affairs are had, old and new betrayals come to light. For much of this, Shteyngart backs away from his customary frenetic, high-satire register. Often time moves slowly (like a Russian novel or like “Terrace House,” the Japanese reality show the characters binge-watch). There are wonderfully vivid descriptions of food and weather and sex. Some aspects are somber. There’s no internet in the cottages, so the characters are isolated from what is happening down in the city. One of them thinks about “a series of refrigerated trucks parked behind his local hospital in Queens, collecting the forklifted bodies of the dead.” He writes emails to those left behind but then he goes back to looking at butterflies, reading, eating glorious meals. He feels guilt. “But he stayed. They all did.” Shteyngart’s engagement with the complexities of privilege, a subject made so stark in 2020, most compelled me.

    Yes, they are protected because of their access to this property and to money — even the ones who aren’t rich have cultural capital and connections. Yet many of them have suffered racism and xenophobia and damaged parents humbled by the hard terms of their new country.

    In the second half of the novel, it grows harder to ignore the world outside the bubble. They see the video of George Floyd’s murder, hear about the protests and note Blue Lives Matter signs popping up among the locals. Sasha admits to himself that he is complicit, that all these years he “saw, but he also did not see, or pretended not to see. (Or refused to see.) … He distanced his gaze from the country he inhabited.” As an immigrant, he began as an outsider but then did what he could to make his way. “By which point, you were just a scab sent in to reinforce the established order. … All of us are useful and expendable in turn.” A mysterious black pickup truck seems to menace them for being outsiders or nonwhite people. The locals — the peasants, to follow this Russian theme — are hired by Sasha and paid only sometimes. Some are racist Trump supporters, some have cryptic white supremacist tattoos and bumper stickers. Others are perhaps benign. But this isn’t their story, after all.

    Despite the estate’s isolation, the virus does indeed make its way there. There are no real bubbles, not forever. First social media virality hits, as one character gets a well-deserved callout that cascades into a relentless pile-on. Then the coronavirus slips in, invisible, searching out the vulnerable, culminating in a harrowing depiction of Covid delirium and tribulation.

    In this dense, ambitious novel, some elements fall flat. The speculative tech of the Tröö Emotions app seems to belong in a different book (although those umlauts are funny), and the more the characters tried to explain it, the less sense it made to me. And I didn’t need Sasha’s ongoing betrayal of one of his closest friends. I appreciate that Shteyngart wants to be unflinching about Sasha’s failings, but it struck me as too cruel for his character.

    The novel’s strengths abound. It upends clichés, pieties and commonplaces while also noticing salient details of the lockdown. One character can’t help obsessing over intubation, feeling for the tube in his throat and imagining the sound ventilators make. And how many writers could pull off a sex scene that climaxes with a request to put on a surgical mask for the transgressive kink of it, and also describe with exquisite precision how strange the beauty of the natural world felt during that hellscape spring and summer?

    Two romantic connections, and another unconventional maternal one, make an argument for love being a consolation: of the lockdown, yes, but of humanity, always. It works because the author is aware of his characters’ hypocrisies and vanities. Shteyngart doesn’t let them off the hook, but he does allow them (and us) some respite.

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