It’s still leavened with a thousand punch lines, though. “I’m never taking the humor out,” he says. “That would be idiotic. That’s my multiple-warhead delivery system”—a way of mitigating the rather depressing ideas he sums up (several times throughout our day) with a timeless quote from Tony Soprano: “Things are trending downward these days.”
Shteyngart likes to speak all his characters’ dialogue aloud before committing it to the page—fitting for a novelist who proudly declares himself “a performer.” During a shvitz in one of Spa Castle’s cooler saunas (he refuses to enter the ones that top 150 degrees), Shteyngart fondly recalls taking an acting class taught by Louise Lasser, Woody Allen’s early co-star and, briefly, second wife. “She would always yell at me, ‘You’re so fake and manipulative.’ And I always thought, ‘It’s true! I live in New York—how am I supposed to survive?’ She said, ‘You’re probably like this in real life, too.’ I love Louise.”
There is a common knock against Shteyngart: He’s a mascot playing off Russian and Jewish stereotypes. Here he is, posing with a bear on a leash on the back of Handbook; there he is, in a promotional video for the new book—co-starring Mary Gaitskill, Edmund White, and former student James Franco—playing an illiterate peasant pretending to be a writer, or possibly a ’shrooms casualty pretending to be an illiterate peasant pretending to be a writer. It’s funny, needless to say, even if it’s undeniably shticky. “Sure, well, it is a shtick,” he says. “I believe in entertainment—I love entertainment. I am authentically me. And part of it has to do with my 401(k). Every author who straddles cultures is inauthentic in a way.”
“I’m never taking the humor out. That would be idiotic. That’s my multiple-warhead delivery system.”
Chang-Rae Lee, who taught Shteyngart at Hunter and launched his career by sending Handbook to his editor, puts it differently. “He’s not an actor,” Lee says. “I think he’s more like a stand-up guy. He’s sort of baring himself out there.” Or, rather, a version of himself—but isn’t that what all stand-up comics do?
In the current book, Shteyngart has left Eastern Europe far behind. (“Oh, God, I am so sick of Russia,” he says.) In its place is a new subject of loving mockery: the Korean-American. Eunice Park has serious daddy issues, and her mother is a Jesus freak. The food is portrayed in tender detail. Lee is just one of Shteyngart’s many Korean friends, on a list that includes two exes as well as his fiancée. He was one of Super Sad’s first readers, vetting it for ethnic sensitivity. “He’s become one of us,” says Lee. “He knows us in and out—maybe that’s an unfortunate turn of phrase. He has great respect and love, clearly, for Koreans.”
At the outdoor hot tub, Shteyngart happily points out that the ladies joining us are ajumas, using that vaguely derogatory term for middle-aged Korean housewives. “I love ajumas—soooo cute!” Later, Shteyngart will insist on going to You-Chun, an outpost of authentic Korean cuisine well beyond the 7 train. He’ll chat up the waitress in Korean, explain that a certain dish is “the healthiest of the dumpling family,” and find it impossible to get his mind off what he’s eating. When I ask him whether the book was cut significantly, he thinks I’m talking about the hand-cut cold noodles.
Shteyngart admits that he feels closer to other immigrants than to Russians or Jews. When he went to Stuyvesant, “I discovered this world of immigrants who were also striving like me, and who also came from funny places.” Korea, where he went for a month with his fiancée, almost feels like home. “It’s one of the most stressful societies in the world,” he says. “Korea’s a lot of fun, but it doesn’t seem like a happy nation.”
Back at the color-therapy sauna, which offers a choice of six hues under which to sweat, Shteyngart peruses the options. Blue relieves anxiety: “I’d like that.” Yellow promotes creativity: “Don’t need it.” And violet “Creates Hope and Encouragement.” “Yes, yes! I need hope! Let’s go get some hope!”
“Dear diary,” Lenny Abramov writes on the first page of Super Sad True Love Story, “Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die.” Lenny is the Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator of the Post-Human Services Division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation, and if he can save up the cash, he’d have easy access to his employer’s state-of-the-art life-extension technology.
It’s no accident that Lenny falls for a woman ten years his junior. “How do we live forever?” Shteyngart asks. One way, for men, is “by dating younger women.” He has certainly done so in the past, “but I don’t love youth as much as I used to.”