Reports of Gary Shteyngart’s hairiness have been greatly exaggerated.
The first and best Russian-immigrant novelist out of the gate in his generation, Shteyngart has long perpetuated those ugly rumors. During interviews plugging his sprawling 2002 comic debut, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (which he now insists on calling “The Russian Debutante’s Handjob”) and its messier follow-up, Absurdistan, he said he’d grown up “small, furry, and poor” in Little Neck, Queens. In both profiles and fiction, he created a mythically sad upbringing to which he credited both his sense of humor and his flagrant displays of self-hatred.
The truth about the hair, and the self-loathing, emerges at Spa Castle, a hard-to-reach five-story Korean spa emporium in College Point, Queens. Creepily modern and intensely relaxing, the destination has a few tenuous connections to his third book, a dystopian satire called Super Sad True Love Story. But the main reason we’ve come here to soak, sizzle, and float in saunas and whirlpools is that Shteyngart himself suggested it, in the following e-mail, reprinted in full: “we go to korean bathhouse in queens and catch new social disease …”
In its brevity and innovative syntax, the missive resembles the GlobalTeens (think Facebook) messages that make up much of Shteyngart’s new novel, set circa 2018. The chats are at once bewildering and frighteningly familiar: Twentysomethings spend their days typing about their personal problems (like a repulsive furry Russian boyfriend); or rating the fuckability of high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs); or trying to keep their credit (displayed on sidewalk “credit poles”) high enough to avoid the authorities; or surfing on their all-knowing äppärät devices to drop some serious yuan-pegged dollars on this year’s fashion craze (translucent Onionskin jeans from JuicyPussy).
The repulsive Russian in question is a Shteyngart stand-in named Lenny Abramov, the lone character in Super Sad who sounds familiar from his other books. There is also, of course, the outrageous humor with which Shteyngart skewered nineties American expats in Handbook and the post-Soviet world in Absurdistan. But this time, the object of derision is the United States of America, and New York comes in for some summer-blockbuster-worthy destruction. (Even worse, the hipsters have moved to Staten Island.) It’s a world spinning completely out of control. The only thing keeping the book from doing so as well is the love story at its heart—between Lenny and a young wisp of a girl named Eunice Park.
Love, it turns out, is doing much the same for the author. While changing in the spa’s locker room, Shteyngart gets a message on his äppärät, a.k.a. iPhone: He and his Korean-American fiancée have been approved by the board to buy a two-bedroom apartment near Gramercy Park. Like Lenny, Shteyngart has for years inhabited a 740-square-foot apartment in the sprawling middle-income Co-op Village complex on Grand Street—when he hasn’t been making epic global journeys for his books or his Travel & Leisure features. No longer.
“I’ve been roaming around the world so long, and I wanted something peaceful,” he says. “I’m 38, and I feel like everything’s been so saturated.”
What he’d really like to do is move to the country for half the year. “Anything north of Rhinebeck is okay with me. Even an acre’s fine.” He adds, with a dramatic sigh, “I dream of dacha. Upstate, looking out the window, just trees.” He pictures himself writing in bed, as he usually did on Grand Street. “And I’ve got a long-haired dachshund by my feet. That’s got to be better than Tolstoy ever had. Because he had that wife.”
“Nuclear holocaust—my favorite kind of holocaust,” Shteyngart says during our lunch break, digging into a salad-bar smorgasbord at Spa Castle’s cafeteria. Barefoot Uzbek couples dressed in gender-specific uniforms look (as we do) like extras from Logan’s Run, especially as they pay for their food with I.D. bracelets that resemble Swatch watches. For years, Shteyngart has been gearing up to attack science fiction. It’s an obsession that began at his Conservative Jewish grammar school, where the ostracized young immigrant escaped by reading the short stories in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and which persisted despite his middling performance at science-driven Stuyvesant High School. In those stories, “set amid all the depressing crap, there was always some love story, and to me that would always be so interesting. I guess I went whole hog with that idea.”
But even as a neophyte attending Hunter’s M.F.A. program, Shteyngart sensed that sci-fi was not an ideal genre for a first novel. “There’s no way to force this on an unforgiving public, unless you want to be pigeonholed forever as the speculative-fiction guy.” Besides, he believes that he wasn’t ready: “Absurdistan just rolled off the assembly line. This book was hard work.” With it will come, he hopes, greater rewards. “[With Absurdistan], people would just say, ‘Oh, it’s like a literary Borat.’ This cuts closer to the bone, and it should.”