Gary Shteyngart and the American comic novel

I had been in something of a blue funk about the state of the American comic novel until about a year ago, when I came across Gary Shteyngart, whose latest from Random House, Our Country Friends, was gingerly deposited on my doorstep yesterday afternoon. Lake Success, published in about the middle of the Trump Era (or, perhaps, the First Trump Era; the possibility of a second makes my teeth itch), chillingly and hilariously described the social and cultural foundations of that particular madness; Super Sad True Love Story, Shteyngart’s 2010 dystopian satire, described the crumbling of an urban, youth- and image-obsessed civilization that had earlier not been without its charms; and Little Failure, his memoir of his arrival in the United States and subsequent childhood and adolescent traumas and embarrassments, remains one of my favorite true-life shaggy dog stories of recent years. Since then, I’ve been pressing copies of his novels and the memoir into the hands of my increasingly annoyed friends and family, who, I insist, do not know what they’re missing.

Though Shteyngart’s perspective is that of a recent immigrant from the former Soviet Union, this doesn’t narrow his appeal to native-born Americans, especially not those who realize that they too or their parents are in many ways still immigrants themselves, and to call him a “comic novelist” isn’t to pigeonhole him into a particular genre, either — especially since many of America’s greatest novelists, in particular Mark Twain, have been marginalized by that characterization itself. The American comic novel, from Twain through Nathanael West and Ring Lardner through Joseph Heller, William Gaddis, and Terry Southern, exhibits themes and qualities all its own: a mastery and delight in the spoken American vernacular; an enthusiasm for the tall tale; a dark mistrust of and irreverence toward authority, conformity, and their media products; a willingness, even an enthusiasm, for offending the right people; the burden of dragging around our parents and ancestral memories; a reluctant but cheerful pessimism; and a trust in the integrity of the individual rather than community conscience (however much there’s a nagging fear that even this trust in the individual might be misplaced). Shteyngart brings a Central European flavor to the mix, tossing in a handful of Gogol and Gogol’s twentieth-century Russian progeny Vladimir Voinovich.

Along with Carl Hiaasen, then, Gary Shteyngart gives me hope that the American comic novel might not be quite dead yet, even now, when most of the United States seems to have lost its sense of humor: a sense that provides irony, perspective, compassion, and a dollop of humility, a necessary sense especially in these most uncertain times. Shteyngart provides an introduction to his novel and its themes in his interview with Dave Davies on yesterday’s Fresh Air; you can listen to it below. Meanwhile, I’m off to the liquor store to stock up on a few bottles of wine to quaff while I sit down with Our Country Friends tonight.

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