Review of Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart: A contemporary literary hoot
How soon is too soon? How long must the gestation period be before fiction can wrap its mitts around major world events in a way that produces good art and satisfies the reader?
When it comes to the Covid pandemic, one would think: a little longer than that. Even now, two decades later, there have arguably been few 9/11 novels that match the global impact of the event. And real-time books risk bouncing off the indisputable, flat facts of everyday reality. Compelling perspective in fiction usually requires some degree of temporal distance.
Russian-American comedian Gary Shteyngart broke all the rules. Not only did he publish a book set in the midst of a pandemic that still dictates much of our existence, but he also broke it.
The debates of our time are entertainingly parodied.
Our friends in the country is a lot of things on many levels. It’s a hoot, as anyone who’s enjoyed Shteyngart’s previous works will expect – the humor deftly shuttles between the naïve slapstick of Wodehouse or Nabokov Pine to a softer but no less seductive sitcom vibe. It also cleverly explores human experiences and the consequences of lockdown, and has its empathic heart in the right place. On a literary level, he winks – sometimes explicitly – at Chekhov and Shakespeare.
There are so many things to enjoy. A privileged group of friends choose to cocoon themselves in the upstate New York country stack of Sasha Senderovsky, a Russian-born novelist, and his psychiatrist wife Masha, who, attempting to impose rules of social distancing among his guests, sees himself as something between “a Heathrow immigration officer” and “Stalin in an apron”. a horrible Hollywood A-lister, two very different writers – one sickly and defeatist, one young and combative – and the adopted daughter of Sasha and Masha, Korean boyband-obsessed Nat.’s relationships – romantic, tangled, strained, sexual, rivalry , secrets – and their elaboration constitute the richness of the book.
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The debates of our time are entertainingly parodied. Dee, the young writer, finds herself at the center of an online storm over her perceived racism. Sasha, who hasn’t written anything worthwhile for years, pompously decides “that he would give up all his privileges. He wouldn’t write another novel so others could be heard. It’s hipsterville – Sasha buys her meat from local butchers, “two old catalog models in town”.