"Everything sucks in my books," joked national award-winning satirical author, Gary Shteyngart at his book talk in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall on Monday, Nov. 5.
Those in attendance that night may disagree. The room was filled with bursts of laughter as Shteyngart read from two of his three best-selling novels: Super Sad True Love Story and The Russian Debutante's Handbook. Afterward, Dr. Kathy Lawrence, a literary scholar and wife of University President Frederick Lawrence, moderated a discussion with the author.
Shteyngart's visit garnered University-wide support; the event was sponsored by the Center for German and European Studies; the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry; the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry; the Department of English; the Program in Creative Writing; the Department of German, Russian and Asian Lan-guages and Literature; the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies; and the Russian Club. The support of these numerous on-campus organizations attests to Shteyngart's popularity within the Brandeis community. The wide audience of proud Russian speakers, regular students, Brandeis faculty and off-campus visitors also verified his broad influence on American readers. The author felt very welcome on Brandeis campus: "About 83 percent of my books are sold in the Boston area. ... No one else cares!" he snickered.
Shteyngart's unique voice, a self-deprecating fusion of Russian colloquialism and American wit, is the base of what makes his writing so engaging. Shteyngart attributes his style to his unconventional immigrant upbringing. His grandmother was a journalist for the newspaper Evening Leningrad, and she rewarded him with cheese for writing his first story, "Lenin and His Magical Goose," a fairytale about Lenin's adventure with a goose to set up a Communist republic in Finland. The dark tale ends when Lenin devours his avian comrade.
As an immigrant living in New York, young Shteyngart was forbidden to speak anything but Russian at home, and he wasn't allowed to watch TV until his bar mitzvah. "No one wanted to play with me because I had a big fur hat on all the time," he recalled.
All of Shteyngart's books grapple with and jeer at Russian-American immigrant identity. His most recent novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is a satire that describes the future col-lapse of America centered around the romance between Larry Abramov, the son of Russian immigrants, and Eunice Park, the daughter of Korean immigrants.
"All of it is humor from the edge of the grave," Shteyngart said, referencing the dark comedy that permeates his writing. "It's rooted in tragedy that's already happened or tragedies that will happen soon."
Although Shteyngart and his family fled Leningrad during the Cold War, he still visits Russia at least once every two years. "I go to Russia because I enjoy suffering a lot," he said. He gets writing material from his travels and the characters he encounters along the way. While Shteyngart says he enjoys being miserable, he prides himself in never suffering from writer's block. He simply has too much he wants to write about. "Like after a bad stomach virus, the words flow right out of me," he explained.
Shteyngart's most recent project is a memoir, which he said is 10 pages from being finished. And, if his grandmother were still alive, he would look forward to a thick slice of cheese once it is published.