GRAMAry Shteyngart’s contribution to the burgeoning genre of the lockdown novel is very, very Russian, in the best possible way. The premise is that a group of old friends are going to spend a month in the country (well, several months) weathering the New York pandemic in a small ad hoc colony in the Hudson Valley. The cast is a collection of privileged and gloomy “lishnii cheloveks” (as “superfluous men” were known in 19th-century Russian literature) in their late middle ages, arguing and bickering in rural exile, wondering where they are headed. the world and regretting the past.
The host of what is called the “Dacha of Doom” is Sasha Senderovsky, a scruffy Russian-Jewish-American author who, like Shteyngart, has had considerable success with a series of comedic novels about the Russian-Jewish-American experience. Now, however, his career is on the decline and if he can’t get a troublesome TV script across the line, he’s faced with losing the estate (well, a house with a few bungalows attached) that is his pride and joy. It doesn’t have an actual cherry orchard, but the reader notices. Here is something of an outlet, or at least a relaxation, for Shteyngart; Absurdistan’s antic international satire or sci-fi Super Sad True Love Story are muted, while on your stylistic mixer the melancholy slider has been turned up to 11.
Sasha and his wife Masha and their adopted daughter Nat (“Sasha, Masha, Natasha. They didn’t even try, these Russians”) are joined by their college friends Karen, Ed, and Vinod. The former are distant cousins of Korean descent, the latter is a down-on-his-luck Gujarati American, listed in the dramatis personae as a “former adjunct professor and fast-food cook” recovering from lung cancer. Ed comes from a wealthy family, single, and, as an extraordinarily detailed and delicious-sounding recipe for veal tonnato indicates, a very good cook. Vinod nurtures a timid, unrequited, lifelong love for Karen. Karen is a wealthy tech sister from the west coast, where she made a fortune with an app called Tröö Emotions that supposedly makes people fall in love.
The two wild cards in the group are Dee and a movie star known only as The Actor (although, oddly enough, we find out very late that his name is Joel). Dee is a former writing student of Sasha’s who has found success with a collection of bellicose essays about her poor white upbringing called The Grand Book of Self-Compromise and Surrender. He reveres Joan Didion, uses “you” judiciously, and likes to wear cowboy boots and a peasant blouse that “highlights a host of Pavlovian reactions in a broad cross-section of educated East Coast men.” The actor, heroically vain and pretentious, ostensibly to work on that TV script with Sasha, wields a power of his own: “Like a small damaged atomic reactor, he could generate his own variety of ‘feelings’, which he released into the air as a range of Everyone at the table except Senderovsky, everyone on the planet, in fact, wanted a fix.”
The first night we found them all on the porch, socially distanced, “sitting in their jackets and sweaters at a healthy distance from each other, as if they were organized criminals or League of Nations dignitaries.” The effect of the pandemic on writers is dryly acknowledged: “Stranded upstream and downstream social novelists diligently photographed hard-to-identify flowers and took notes on the appearance of storm fronts and threatening storms. More than one can be found looking at a sleeping owl or a sun-scorched meadow pleading with their higher power to help me make something out of all this stillness.” Meanwhile, the dismaying forces of Trumpian America seem to be circling just offstage: white supremacist stickers are posted at the train station and threats are seen from pickup trucks.
Soon, Ed and the actor are in love with Dee; Masha and Karen fantasize about the Actor; and little K-pop fanatic Nat, who is brilliant and obsessive, is being semi-adopted by Karen, who has no children. At night, “according to the rules of Russian novels, each thought of the other.” One MacGuffin is the manuscript of Vinod’s first novel, which Sasha doesn’t want to admit is still hiding in a shoebox in her attic; another is Karen’s app, which is blamed for the actor going after Dee. Chekhov’s gun? That would be, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say it, a man with only one lung in a Covid epidemic. (The main flaw in the book is Vinod’s overly long and slightly repetitive dream/hallucination scenes.)
The story is framed by a series of references to Russian literature (towards the end, the colony’s inhabitants even stage a production of Uncle Vanya). But this is, Shteyngart being, a far cry from a solemn homage to his literary ancestors. Among other things, there is a pop cultural parallel when the group becomes addicted to a Big Brother-style Japanese reality show. True Chekhovianism is the way in which Shteyngart’s comic style (the book sizzles with good one-liners) is so consistent and to such placidly sprinkled effect.
Here’s Karen on a country walk: “She stole a big whiff of a budding forsythia, and then another, a suddenly grateful city girl. Easter was coming soon, but her mother was still dead.” Or Karen in her bedroom: “There was a piece of paper on her side of the bed, the excerpt from a lesson Karen had been teaching Nat, spelling out the most important Korean phrases in Hangul and English: ‘My head hurts, My eyes hurt, my mouth hurts, my legs hurt, there’s too little, there’s too much, I don’t like it’”. A deftly equivocal note of sadness towards the end of the book seems to me to capture the tone particularly well: “They sat among the ferns and the busy bike path, passing plates of food, surrounded by faces that resembled their own.” These characters, with their various frustrated ambitions for love and fame, struggle to realize that they are ordinary, mortal, vulnerable, just like everyone else. We are all lishnii cheloveks.