‘The collapse of humanity is deathly funny’: Gary Shteyngart on writing comedy in difficult times

From The Guardian:

do not write historical fiction. But I envy those who do. I can picture them sitting in the lamp-lit halls of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, thumbing through fraying, early 20th‑century telephone directories or spinning the roulette of the microfiche machine, or meeting at a nearby coffee dispensary with fellow history-minded wordsmiths in the wee hours of the day, like hunters getting ready to put a bullet through the heart of a wildebeest. The best are able to address the current moment through deft metaphysical journeys between the present and the past, to illuminate our wayward realities by reminding us that it has ever been so, that the past is not even the past, or whatever Faulkner said.

Personally, I have trouble building a literary time machine. A decade ago, when I wrote a memoir set primarily in the 1980s, all I could remember of that era was Michael J Fox running around in a varsity jacket. The rest of my memories were just volumes of mist that sometimes trickled out of my minor brain holes, tantalising but highly suspect emissions that bore news of events which may or may not have been. When one’s teenage years are a distant Greek island, imagine trying to write a novel about the romantic entanglements of the Italian futurists or the political cataclysms of Meiji-era Japan, or anything at all about the ancient Egyptians.

As a child of two failing superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, I have always found myself in a maximal historical position. The headlines of the newspapers, whether Pravda or the New York Times, were always screaming about events on a global scale. There was no “Local Drive-In Theater to Feature Annual Jaws Marathon” or “Piggly Wiggly 5k Marathon Nets Hearts and Dollars for Muscular Dystrophy Research”. It was all “The Struggle Continues, Angola Will Win”, or our Marines lying dead in the rubble of Beirut. For as long as I’ve been alive, I have been, like the character of John Self in Martin Amis’s Money, addicted to the present. And writing about the perfidy, the hubris, the insanity of these two large, imploding imperial suns, the US and USSR, in something like real time has been my mandate from the start. My first novel, written as a five-year-old and paid for in pieces of glossy Soviet cheese by my literature-obsessed grandmother, concerned Lenin meeting a magical socialist goose and conquering Finland. The rest of my work has pretty much followed suit.

When the pandemic first hit, I had been writing a humour-forward dystopian novel in which New York University had taken over most of Manhattan, building walls and checkpoints round the island, and deputising its own military force, the Violet Helmets (violet is one of the school’s colours), to keep out the non-matriculated. Come March 2020, reality rushed over the draft of my funny dystopia in waves. Once people started dying and our president continued lying, I realised the smallness of my attempted novel, the way the academic satire seemed much too easy and glib. I had undershot my historical mandate and had to make amends immediately. I trashed 240 pages of NYU conquering Manhattan and began to write a tight Chekhovian take on the disaster at hand, a novel with the simple title Our Country Friends.

The importance of the moment presented itself right away. My first novel looked at the world through the prism of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the immigrants who had washed ashore on the other side of the Atlantic; my second through the prism of oil politics and American foreign policy. My third examined the advent of tech as the ultimate arbiter of American society (and the death of its democracy); my fourth the way America had become fully financialised by a class of useless and clueless meritocrats. I had always hovered around the present moment, a few years behind it or, in the case of my third novel, Super Sad True Love Story, slightly ahead of it. That book was recently mentioned in the pages of this newspaper in an article about how banks such as Lloyds and NatWest have demanded the firing of faculty staff at London’s Goldsmiths art college – in Super Sad, the school has been rebranded as HSBC-Goldsmiths and offers double qualifications in finance and art.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

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