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Improve Your Taste With... Gary Shteyngart
The author of Super Sad True Love Story and Absurdistan on M.I.A., Romanian movies, and his favorite gender.
By Ben Reininga
It would be easy to read — and enjoy — Gary Shteyngart for solely the playfulness and humor in his writing. His novels, Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and the forthcoming Super Sad True Love Story, depict a cast of characters full of bumbling charm, well-intentioned pathos, and nuanced but relatable flaws – and make them all laugh-out-loud funny. That humor, when paired with his razor-sharp political sensibilities, is what makes him one of the most interesting satirists of our time. We sat down with Gary to talk about dystopian fiction, interviewing M.I.A., and to figure out if there’s any truth to this ridiculous YouTube video.
Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women
I’m illiterate! I can’t read! No, I just read A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert. It’s a novel, in sort of linked episodes. It tracks an entire family’s existence from the late nineteenth century to today. It’s really just sweeping, sweeping stuff and brilliantly written. That would raise the cultural quotient of just about any reader…Ah, women, they’re the best. They’re my favorite gender.
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx,
My favorite nonfiction is Adrienne Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. She goes to the South Bronx and she lives with this family for like ten years. It’s completely nuts. She’s this nice Brown graduate, and she goes and lives with this family, and she lives with the family and she suffers with them. Talk about field research, my God. It’s immersion journalism; it’s brilliantly done. It reads like a novel; that’s what makes it so great. She doesn’t make it into a study, she makes it into real life. That’s the genius of it. It’s like watching The Wire but better.
I interviewed M.I.A. That’s the last music I’ve listened to. Before that, Ice Cube. So, for about twenty years I heard no music. But then GQ asked me to interview M.I.A., and so I had to listen to it. I think they thought of her as a refu-gee and me as a refu-Jew. It was fun, we hung out; she’s really great. She has really great hair and great convictions. It’s hard to find those two things in a pop artist all at once. If I were more ambulatory, I would dance to /\/\/\Y/\. But I’m always in bed, just lying there, pumping up the air conditioning. I dance a little lying down. I nod my head and do that white man’s overbite as I bob to the music.
Movies are in trouble. Movies are in deep, deep trouble. The intelligent kind of movies, that cost something to make – but not, you know Avatar budget, they’re really in deep trouble. In fact, I can’t think of a good movie I’ve seen recently that hasn’t been a foreign film. I love this Romanian film. It's called Police, Adjective, it’s hysterical. It’s a police procedural where almost nothing happens. That’s what makes it so tense. The main scene in it is an argument over a dictionary definition. Leave it to the Romanians. They’ve been having such great movies. That abortion movie, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Spectacular. And so intense. I’m never having an abortion again.
I think The Sopranos and The Wire have been the two monumental fictional enterprises in the last twenty years. One hundred years from now when people want to find out what it was like to live between 1995 and 2005, those two things will be the major guideposts. And Mad Men makes me laugh, it’s so funny. And so nicely done. I hate wearing suits, but if I had one, I would definitely choose one of those — a number like Don and company wears. And Salvatore Romano, oh my god. His style is so amazing. And the whiskeys with lunch. I’m in the creative industry, so glug-glug-glug.
I love sci-fi and dystopian. I think as a child I even watched Logan’s Run more than once, if you can imagine. But everything for me goes back to Blade Runner – I just wrote some dystopian fiction, so I could watch it all day. I love nuclear holocaust stuff, like Threads, the BBC movie from 1983 or ‘84. And I love watching the movie version of 1984, Sir Richard Burton’s last role. Sometimes, when I get bored, I just rehearse the lines when he’s torturing Winston.
Image of Gary courtesy of Constantine Sholokh.