Gary Shteyngart is a man who has always felt comfortable in the absurd. His novels, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Absurdistan and the current Super Sad True Love Story are scathing satires that border on the grotesque. This year, The New Yorker named the Leningrad-born Shteyngart one of America's top 20 fiction writers under the age of 40. Novelist Erica Jong caught up with the New Yorker at his perch at Columbia University, where he teaches creative writing. Shteyngart talks with Jong about Hebrew school, sex at Oberlin College and whether his books are good for the Jews.
Often in your novels there's a cartoonish image of Jews that may be taken out of context. Do you wonder about nascent anti-Semitism in your books? I certainly wonder about it myself, and in the works of the late J.D. Salinger and Mordecai Richler, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Philip Roth and other Jewish North American writers. But you can't censor satire, and you can't cut funny, so what do you do?
Whenever a new book comes out, my father asks, "Is this book going to be good for the Jews?" and I say, "It's not gonna be good for anybody." My main targets, especially in a book like Absurdistan, less so in Super Sad, were nationalism and religion -- organized religion. And this is a case of "Write what you know."
I grew up in a horrific Hebrew school environment in Little Neck, New York, where [Jews] were trumpeted as the race to end all races, the Chosen People. Arabs were [considered] despicable creatures ... Obviously I'm influenced by the older generation, like Roth, and the key is not to glorify anyone. Now, does that sometimes reach into the opposite view, a kind of caricature? I'm sure it does. The criticisms I wanted to bare are based on my views of geopolitics and my own criticisms of Israel. I think these are important things to say. Of course, if you invent a 335-pound guy, running around, screwing everyone in sight and eating sturgeon, as in Absurdistan ...
The epiphany for that character is a circumcision late in life. And that's not something I'm unfamiliar with myself. And the pain and the awfulness of that--all done for religious reasons just as pubescence was approaching. ... Nobody in Russia thinks of any psychological impact on anything. It is the land that Freud forgot.
I think Jews in America, and even in Russia, are now so well established and wield such important positions within each society . …