What concerns him more is death—something he says he’s been obsessed with since the age of 1. “My life expectancy could be around 60,” he says, citing little more than sky-high cholesterol as evidence. “When my doctors look at my chart, they say, ‘There’s no hope here, just die.’ It’s about harm reduction, which means I eat meat only when it’s exceptional.” He says this while discarding a tough piece of beef that’s inflamed a dental filling.
Super Sad can easily be mistaken for the work of a crank, middle-aged before his time, and Shteyngart, with his talk of dachas and death, does little to dispel the impression. But he’s as distractible as any iPhone user (constantly taking pictures: “I love Chinese Snoopy,” he says, snapping a Chinese bank ad featuring the cartoon pooch) and even writes his own Facebook page (“okay, i hate food porn as much as the next person, but this photo of my favorite bone marrow appetizer at l’express on rue st-denis takes me back … mwah! i love you, bone marrow”). Twitter, though, is an app too far: “After that, you’re more machine than man.”
Nonetheless, a deep, anticipatory nostalgia for books does infuse the novel. “I can’t believe that writing used to be one of the main sources of entertainment,” he says. “Who knows, maybe literature will come back some day. It just sucks to be in the butthole of it all of a sudden—it sucks for me personally.”
But then something seems to dawn on the author recently chosen as one of The New Yorker’s twenty best writers under 40, who’s sold hundreds of thousands of books, who teaches fiction at Columbia, who takes cabs everywhere, who will soon live near Gramercy Park and can reasonably contemplate a country house. Or maybe that violet color-therapy sauna actually works. “I’m very lucky—I’m one of the five or ten luckiest people of my generation when it comes to this job … I don’t know if anyone will be reading literature at all in the next twenty years, but I’ve got some good ideas. I’m hopeful! See, here’s the thing. This is so Soviet of me. I believe in myself as an individual. I’m just worried about the whole shebang.”