Behind Front Lines: Gary Shteyngart at The Tenement Museum

Posted by Nick Curley

From the cattle call line outside we watch Gary Shteyngart queueing up his press release video. Either he or the Tenement Museum is still using Windows XP. At the moment of truth they decide it’s easier to play the thing off Youtube and abandon the rewinding of the hard copy.

We cattle are a neurotic bunch. We stand single or at most double file, too close together, riding each other’s heels, to vanquish anyone’s temptation for cutting ahead in line. In front of me stands a woman holding a Bijou puppy that sporadically yelps. She is attempting to hide it in a shopping bag. Her husband scolds her for bringing the dog to a book reading. She shushes him.

The cattle queue, lined around the block last night down Orchard St. to Delancey waits craving a seat for this event that all told will just over twenty-one minutes, intros included. Had I known I’d have gone for civil valiance and given mine up to an old-timer. Seats are a hot commodity: most of them are reserved for pre-ordered book buyers being handed fresh copies to later have signed by Shteyngart, who, to his credit, offers to sign anything (a liberated approach not shared by Rage Against the Machine in my mid-Nineties encounter with them at a signing in Boston’s most socialist record store chain).

Those of us without these guarantees bumble around the room for a few minutes. The older the spectator, the more panicked and noodle-armed their search. One such matron, sickened by the thought of not sitting with her crinkly colleagues, tore the reservation number off of a chair, only to be accosted by Museum staff who politely banish her to the corner of the room like some grade school dunce. The reservation’s claimer is a pot-bellied Santa lookalike, sporting a four-pronged cane, severe limp, and awesome navy suspenders donned with golden Stars of David. He has been waiting with me out on the Tenement’s red bench since quarter to six, our heads in books. I love this man. He and his wife, a graying but still beautiful woman with hair a mix of silver and dyed neon plum, take what’s rightfully theirs. The standing room in back fills fast while we wait for the Reserved to stroll in late.

On, I misread the event listing, which made me think this was being billed as a co-reading between Shteyngart and his prized pupil James Franco, he of Freaks and Geeks, Milk, the forthcoming Howl, and ten million daydreamed stoner girl romance fantasies worldwide. Franco never showed and was never accounted for, but before knowing this I panned the room and was surprised to not see the younger crowd of teenyboppers (or at least, like, twentyboppers?) which I’d expected would lie in wait for him. Rather, this was a dirt old crowd of retirees and professor types, who loudly lament the L.A. Times decision to start printing teacher performance ratings (“What about banker performance ratings, that’s I’d like to see!”) and nod along with the day’s New York Times, featuring the hard-hitting headline “Where Guacamole Does a Star Turn”.

A Tenement employee, who like all of them is decked out in a fine sun dress despite overcast conditions, clicks on Super Sad True Love Story’s trailer. What follows is an amusing realization that old people don’t know about Internet memes and aren’t respectful of the Youtubes. They don’t know that jokes about Mount Holyoke co-eds and Star Trek are a thing to hush over, clap for, or revere. They can’t even hear the damn thing. The sun-dresser lets loose a mildly condescending introduction made to make us feel like the proper, well-off socialites that some us are and some of us are fighting off with a vengeance.

When he takes the floor, Shteyngart is a small man peering up to the mic, cracking wise about his height. Yet his stature suggests command of the room, and as he begins to read it’s quickly we the cosmopolitans who are looking up at him. He reads with a cadence not unlike Woody Allen’s stand-up act: neuroses less his gimmick than Woody’s; more assured that these jokes will work, yet never immodest. It is a voice denoting consistent surprise and wonder at life’s idiocies and folly. In reading his work Shteyngart voice is genial, with the presentational mirth of someone who liked giving presentations in front of his class, or was the go-to MC of family functions. He’s gratified by the opportunity to share one-liners, in which he or his veiled protagonist is almost uniformly the subject of ridicule. In stark contrast to many authors I’ve recently heard read, Shteyngart has new tones and voices for each character, vivaciously hamming it up when depicting his dystopian everyman Lenny Abramov’s immigrant parents.

After reading a passage outlining the romantic leads’ visit to Lenny’s childhood home, Shteyngart takes questions, or as he puts it, “Any problems, concerns?”. Yes, he read Russian satire. Almost everything in Russia is a joke, he notes, and needs to be, for it’s otherwise too sad. “I’m beginning to feel that way when I’m here,” he adds of America. He is reminded of a Russian translation he had as a boy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, sporting an introduction by Joseph Stalin. Yes, he recalls inspirational science fiction of his youth. Brave New World, “which I recall as a novel of brilliant ideas,” and 1984, “which I recall as a love story, between Winston and Julia.” Yes, he was interested in satire from a young age: Lenin was his childhood hero, and at age eleven he wrote a parody of the Torah called the Gonorreah, wherein Exodus became Sexodus and so on. His rabbinical teachers hated such work and were otherwise strict, telling Shteyngart and friends who snuck bites of kielbasa in the bathroom that Jews like them were the reason the Holocaust happened.

Yes, he misses New York when he’s not here, and misses the Lower East Side (especially his old watering hole Clandestino), having recently moved to Union Square. It was a decision made in order to add a second bathroom: Shteyngart explains that much of his best thinking is done in the shower. He bemoans some of New York’s changes (“I didn’t expect this many Duane Reades and Chase Manhattans”), but notes that it’s always been changing, which he finds a welcome switch from Italy, where he’s spent much of his adult life in “beautiful but boring” unchanging cities like Umbria, Rome and Tuscany. He wrote much of the New York nostalgia found in his new novel there. Yes, he marvels at youth’s modifications of our language: while he doesn’t love all of them, he does enjoy sitting in the courtyards of his employer Columbia University and listening to new slangs and acronyms, particularly JBFY (“Just Butt Fucking You”) and ROFWARP (“Rolling on the Floor Watching Actual Rodent Pornography”). The only acronym he’s heard of late that disappointed him was when in a bar a stranger explained that he was a “VC”. “Viet Cong?” asked Shteyngart. “Venture Capitalist,” said the man.

Yes, he is baffled by technology’s invasions of privacy, as discussed at length in the novel’s depiction of “Apparats”, neck-worn objects ranking users’ credit ratings and sexiness in relation to those around them. He dubs Foursquare “an app too far”, but wishes he could be more in touch with his Facebook: “I can only be Liked. I want to have Friends, but right now I can only be Liked.” Yes, he reads poetry, and is particularly partial to Whitman, “whose depictions of New York and Brooklyn make me shiver”, as well as Pushkin and Yugoslavian minimalist Charles Simic. Yes, he and his new book are products of revision, favorable and unfavorable. He loves his editor at Random House, but mentions that in mainland China, the government makes their own cuts: “My last novel was about eight pages there.” He laughs about a little old lady translator he had for the Russian edition of his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. At each mention of genitalia, she would put the first letter of the word down, then fill the rest in with an ellipsis. Yes, reception to his work in Russia is mixed: some days he’s regarded as a counter-culture hepcat, while on others he awakes to read newspaper headlines like “Balding Traitor Disgraces Motherland”. And yes, he answers each question to the last still beaming a semi-constant grin, like some rarely found Cheshire cat worthy of our trust, still bouncing on the balls of his feet. Still the comedian, still echoing Yes, Yes, Yes.