Locked Down With Friends, Lovers and Rivals, in Gary Shteyngart’s New Novel

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  • Nov. 2, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

OUR COUNTRY FRIENDS
By Gary Shteyngart

Not agelong aft 9/11, Don DeLillo wrote: “Language is inseparable from the satellite that provokes it.” To constitute present is to constitute successful the aftermath of 2020, whether 1 engages it oregon not. Some readers whitethorn privation to flight the present, but determination are those of america who privation to spot a writer find the connection for what is unfolding, to springiness america the slanted, intimate clarity that can’t beryllium achieved successful different ways. After months of epidemiology Twitter, aft the reportage astir the dying and the dead, I turned to writers: Zadie Smith’s lyrical penning astir the motivation implications of the privileged stay-at-home class, Patricia Lockwood’s hilarious portion astir getting Covid, and Lorrie Moore’s unstinting communicative “Face Time,” successful which the statement of isolation from a begetter arsenic helium died made maine consciousness little isolated successful my ain grief. Gary Shteyngart brings his mentation of the supra to his reflective, earthy, humane caller novel, “Our Country Friends,” which is rife with the occupation of privilege, the profoundly leveling acquisition of the virus, and an ever-present consciousness of absurdity and humor.

“Our Country Friends” takes spot successful 2020 astatine the Hudson Valley property of Sasha Senderovsky, a erstwhile precise palmy writer of “stupid comic novels” that dependable a batch similar an unflattering mentation of Shteyngart’s ain oeuvre. Naturally Shteyngart makes him the butt of astir of the farcical wit here, arsenic Sasha spends the caller flapping astir successful a ridiculous dressing gown and drinking ungodly amounts of alcohol.

He and his wife, Masha, a psychiatrist, some emigrated from Russia arsenic children. It was Sasha’s imagination to person a location surrounded by small cottages, a colony similar the 1 helium remembers from his puerility summers, and helium has spent acold beyond his means to support his “dacha.” They person a girl adopted from China, Nat, who is 8 and has anxiety, an obsession with the K-pop radical BTS and a precocity that sometimes unnerves adults. Sasha has invited his closest pals to thrust retired the lockdown successful his cottages: Karen, a Korean American who designed an app (Tröö Emotions) that makes radical autumn successful emotion and has made her precise rich; Vinod, an Indian migrant and an unpublished, superb writer who has mislaid portion of a lung to crab and mislaid his adjunct prof gig; Ed, an heir to a affluent Korean household and a snobby sophisticate; and Dee, a achromatic erstwhile pupil of Sasha’s who’s precise charismatic and has written a provocative publication of essays astir her mediocre background. Also invited (partly to lure the others and partially to seal a TV woody Sasha is moving on) is simply a celebrated person, “the Actor.” He’s ridiculously good-looking (after helium arrives each of the women masturbates astir him successful her ain super-specific way); helium talks astir his clip successful “New Haven” alternatively than saying Yale; and helium compares himself to Odysseus earlier anyone has adjacent had coffee. In short, he’s a cleanable monster, fractional Tom Berenger successful “The Big Chill” and fractional Terence Stamp successful “Teorema.”

There are galore mentions of Russian literature, from Lermontov to Tolstoy to Chekhov, and toward the end, the characters really execute “Uncle Vanya.” In immoderate respects, “Our Country Friends” does consciousness similar a Russian novel. The narration is not the adjacent 3rd idiosyncratic of Shteyngart’s erstwhile book, “Lake Success,” oregon the hyper-modern, hilarious alternating unmediated voices of his best-selling 2010 novel, “Super Sad True Love Story.” Here Shteyngart uses a 19th-century-style omniscience, moving from caput to caput wrong a country (and, similar Tolstoy, adjacent occasionally inhabiting the minds of animals) portion drafting backmost and commenting to the scholar from a position that nary of the characters are privy to. This prime seems suited to the subject: We were each thrust into a immense calamity that we didn’t recognize and implicit which we had nary control. The satellite feels relentlessly godless. Our all-knowing narrator steps successful to springiness america the large representation successful inimitable Shteyngartian style, specified arsenic this unexpected but apt simile extended to an absurd punchline: “Every diner … had learned thing caller astir another, and the secrets were arsenic piquant arsenic the habanero-laced tonnato they were present shoveling down without respect for the state plumbing.” Or to springiness america asides: “He had missed his ain pun.” This narration besides allows the caller to follow a code of wry self-reflexivity, arsenic successful this slap astatine the precise thought of penning a pandemic novel: “Stranded societal novelists up and down the stream … beseeching their higher powerfulness to help maine marque thing retired of each this stillness.”

In forced proximity, affairs are had, aged and caller betrayals travel to light. For overmuch of this, Shteyngart backs distant from his customary frenetic, high-satire register. Often clip moves dilatory (like a Russian caller oregon similar “Terrace House,” the Japanese world amusement the characters binge-watch). There are wonderfully vivid descriptions of nutrient and upwind and sex. Some aspects are somber. There’s nary net successful the cottages, truthful the characters are isolated from what is happening down successful the city. One of them thinks astir “a bid of refrigerated trucks parked down his section infirmary successful Queens, collecting the forklifted bodies of the dead.” He writes emails to those near down but past helium goes backmost to looking astatine butterflies, reading, eating glorious meals. He feels guilt. “But helium stayed. They each did.” Shteyngart’s engagement with the complexities of privilege, a taxable made truthful stark successful 2020, astir compelled me.

Yes, they are protected due to the fact that of their entree to this spot and to wealth — adjacent the ones who aren’t affluent person taste superior and connections. Yet galore of them person suffered racism and xenophobia and damaged parents humbled by the hard presumption of their caller country.

In the 2nd fractional of the novel, it grows harder to disregard the satellite extracurricular the bubble. They spot the video of George Floyd’s murder, perceive astir the protests and enactment Blue Lives Matter signs popping up among the locals. Sasha admits to himself that helium is complicit, that each these years helium “saw, but helium besides did not see, oregon pretended not to see. (Or refused to see.) … He distanced his regard from the state helium inhabited.” As an immigrant, helium began arsenic an outsider but past did what helium could to marque his way. “By which point, you were conscionable a scab sent successful to reenforce the established order. … All of america are utile and expendable successful turn.” A mysterious achromatic pickup motortruck seems to menace them for being outsiders oregon nonwhite people. The locals — the peasants, to travel this Russian taxable — are hired by Sasha and paid lone sometimes. Some are racist Trump supporters, immoderate person cryptic achromatic supremacist tattoos and bumper stickers. Others are possibly benign. But this isn’t their story, aft all.

Despite the estate’s isolation, the microorganism does so marque its mode there. There are nary existent bubbles, not forever. First societal media virality hits, arsenic 1 quality gets a well-deserved callout that cascades into a relentless pile-on. Then the coronavirus slips in, invisible, searching retired the vulnerable, culminating successful a harrowing depiction of Covid delirium and tribulation.

In this dense, ambitious novel, immoderate elements autumn flat. The speculative tech of the Tröö Emotions app seems to beryllium successful a antithetic publication (although those umlauts are funny), and the much the characters tried to explicate it, the little consciousness it made to me. And I didn’t request Sasha’s ongoing betrayal of 1 of his closest friends. I admit that Shteyngart wants to beryllium unflinching astir Sasha’s failings, but it struck maine arsenic excessively cruel for his character.

The novel’s strengths abound. It upends clichés, pieties and commonplaces portion besides noticing salient details of the lockdown. One quality can’t assistance obsessing implicit intubation, feeling for the conduit successful his pharynx and imagining the dependable ventilators make. And however galore writers could propulsion disconnected a enactment country that climaxes with a petition to enactment connected a surgical disguise for the transgressive kink of it, and besides picture with exquisite precision however unusual the quality of the earthy satellite felt during that hellscape outpouring and summer?

Two romanticist connections, and different unconventional maternal one, marque an statement for emotion being a consolation: of the lockdown, yes, but of humanity, always. It works due to the fact that the writer is alert of his characters’ hypocrisies and vanities. Shteyngart doesn’t fto them disconnected the hook, but helium does let them (and us) immoderate respite.

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