Gary Shteyngart’s Pandemic Novel Is His Finest Yet
It’s impossible to read Chekhov without adopting his verbs. After an afternoon with “The Portable Chekhov” (which, at 640 pages, is not portable …
It’s impossible to read Chekhov without adopting his verbs. After an afternoon with “The Portable Chekhov” (which, at 640 pages, is not portable unless you have the hands of Manute Bol), I was suddenly “fetching” the groceries and “toiling” at my work and “heaving a sigh” at the sight of a clogged shower drain which I subsequently “troubled” to unclog.
Chekhov’s stories “have an atmosphere as distinct as an odor,” as the translator Avrahm Yarmolinsky put it, and the same is true of the work of Gary Shteyngart, a writer comparably superb at demonstrating absurdity and generating pathos. In Shteyngart’s case I would characterize the signature odor as tangy, briny and instantly appetizing. His books should come with a free bag of salt and vinegar potato chips.
“Our Country Friends,” the author’s fifth novel, is his finest. It begins at the onset of the pandemic, with seven friends and one nemesis gathered at an estate in the Hudson Valley to wait out what they’re sure will be a quick blip in their convenient and prosperous lives. The estate is bordered by meadows and a sheep farm and a forest overrun by scampering animals. Forsythia perfumes the air. Tree frogs croon.
Sasha Senderovsky is the owner of the property. He is a writer past his prime who battles groundhogs and other rural villains while freaking out over his dwindling career and funds. His wife is Masha, a psychiatrist who functions as the Spanx of the family: a soft but unyielding armature holding them all together. Their 8-year-old child is Nat, who worships the Korean boy band BTS and is undergoing an identity crisis. The visiting friends include a tech C.E.O., a hot young essayist, a sickly high school buddy and a globe-trotting gourmand. The nemesis is a celebrity known only as the Actor, who has come to work with Sasha on a script.
[ Read our profile of Gary Shteyngart. ]
The country house has been arranged in congruence with one of Sasha’s fondest childhood memories, when he vacationed at a colony of bungalows catering to Russian immigrants like him. At his own estate, pebbled paths connect simple cottages in the manner of a “tidy European village, the kind that would have never welcomed his ancestors.” These cottages are arranged alongside a main house with a cedar porch where the guests feast on “dirigible-shaped Greek olives” and cheeses aromatic enough to inspire “memories that had never happened.”
At the start of the tale, Sasha’s visitors sit “at a healthy remove from one another, as if they were organized criminals or dignitaries at the League of Nations.” But the distance quickly narrows and then disappears as moments of inter-guest coitus and hand-to-hand combat overrule the abstract principles of pathogen avoidance.
Sasha’s C.E.O. friend, Karen, has recently been enriched by her invention of an app that makes people spontaneously fall in love. The algorithm works a little too well; she is currently fighting a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of spouses whose partners used the app to fall in love with other people — a hazard that falls squarely into the category of “foreseen consequences.” But that’s something Karen’s assistant can worry about. On the first night of Sasha’s gathering, the app is tested out by the Actor and the young essayist, whose name is Dee Cameron — as in Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” get it? Plague wordplay! — with drastic results.
The Actor is one of Shteyngart’s best creations. He’s a gyre of charisma, recreationally cruel and, as someone in Masha’s profession might say, lacking in self-insight. One day he bursts nude from his cabin after accidentally applying a drugstore hair conditioner, convinced that the lowbrow substance will blind him, and screams, “I can’t live like this.” He prides himself on having once played the orchard in an avant-garde production of “The Cherry Orchard.” He strongly identifies with Odysseus.
But the Actor is not just a buffoon. He is a stray bullet ricocheting around the grounds. A black pickup truck stalks the margins of the estate — is it a crazed fan or a xenophobic local intent on menacing the group of imported urbanites? How come the Actor is making suggestive remarks about Sasha’s wife? Why are people in the neighborhood shooting guns when it’s not yet hunting season? The predicaments abound, the mysteries multiply, the betrayals proliferate. Weed is smoked. Sex is had. Death lurks around every corner.
“Our Country Friends” is brilliant about so much: the humiliations of parenting and of being parented; the sadism of chronic illness; the glory of friendship. It is also the first novel I’ve read that grapples with “cancel culture” in a way that didn’t make me want to chop my head off, light it on fire and shoot it into space. (I’m not saying other successful novels in this vein don’t exist, only that I haven’t read them.) I won’t reveal the character, or characters, who suffer this particular rite of contemporary mediated experience.
Like Chekhov, whose ghost floats pleasantly through these pages, Shteyngart is a master of verbs. Sasha’s hand “slaloms” through a signature on a credit card slip; a man’s eyes are “staffed” by 500 eyelashes; a woman’s dimples are “activated” when she smiles. Activated! Could verbs be the new adjectives?
To read this novel is to tally a high school yearbook’s worth of superlatives for Shteyngart: funniest, noisiest, sweetest, most entertaining. To those I will add a few superlatives that were not celebrated at my own high school: most melancholic, most quizzical, most skilled at vibrating the deepest strings of the anthropoid heart.
“Our Country Friends” is a perfect novel for these times and all times, the single textual artifact from the pandemic era I would place in a time capsule as a representation of all that is good and true and beautiful about literature. I hope the extraterrestrials who exhume it will agree.