gAry 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 to spend a month in the country (well, several months) battling the New York pandemic in a small ad hoc settlement in the Hudson Valley. The cast is a collection of privileged and mournful “lishnii cheloveks” (as the “superfluous men” of 19th-century Russian literature were called) in late middle age, quarreling and bickering in rural exile, wondering what the world will become and regretting the past.
The host of what will be called the “Dacha of Doom” is Sasha Senderovsky, a disheveled Russian-Jewish-American author who, like Shteyngart, has had considerable success with a series of comic novels about the Russian-Jewish experience. -American. Now, however, his career is in freefall, and if he can’t get a troubled TV script, he risks losing the country estate (well, the house with a few attached bungalows) that is his pride and joy. It has no real cherry orchard, but the reader understands the drift very well. Here’s something of a departure – or at least a softening – for Shteyngart; the ancient international satire of Absurdistan or the super sad sci-fi True Love Story is muted, while on its stylistic mixer the slider marked melancholy has been notched up to 11.
Sasha and his wife Masha and adopted daughter Nat (“Sasha, Masha, Natasha. They didn’t even try, those Russians”) are joined by college friends Karen, Ed, and Vinod. The former are distant cousins of Korean descent, the latter is an unlucky Gujarati American introduced in the dramatis personae as a “former adjunct teacher and short-lived cook” recovering from lung cancer. Ed is of family wealth, single and – as an extraordinarily detailed and delicious recipe for veal tonnato indicates – a very good cook. Vinod harbors a shy, unrequited, long-standing love for Karen. Karen is a wealthy techie from the West Coast, where she made her fortune with an app called Tröö Emotions that supposedly makes people fall in love.
The two jokers in the group are Dee and a movie star known only as The Actor (although, oddly, we find out very late that his name is Joel). Dee is a former writing student of Sasha’s who had a hit with a pugnacious collection of essays about her poor white upbringing called The Big Book of Self-Compromise and Abandonment. She worships Joan Didion, uses “you all” wisely, and likes to wear cowboy boots and a peasant blouse that “brings out a host of Pavlovian reactions in a wide range of educated East Coast men.” The heroically conceited and pretentious actor – there ostensibly to work on that TV script with Sasha – wields his own power: “Like a damaged little atomic reactor, he could generate his own range of ‘feelings’, which he released into the ‘air like background gamma. Everyone at the table except Senderovsky, everyone on the planet, in fact, wanted a dose.
On the first evening, we find them all on the porch, socially distanced, “sitting in their jackets and sweaters at a safe 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: “Social novelists stranded along the river dutifully photographed hard-to-identify flowers and took notes of the appearance of storm fronts and threatening thunders. More than one could be found gazing at a sleeping owl or a sun-scorched meadow imploring their higher power to help me make something out of all this stillness. Meanwhile, the appalling forces of Trumpian America appear to be circling just off the stage – white supremacist stickers are displayed at the station, and there are menacing pickup trucks passing by.
Soon Ed and the actor are both in love with Dee; Masha and Karen fantasize about the actor; and little K-pop fan Nat – who is bright and obsessive – is being semi-adopted by childless Karen. At night, “according to the rules of Russian novels, each thought of the other”. One MacGuffin is the manuscript for 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 suing Dee. Chekhov’s weapon? It would be, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say, a man with a lung in a Covid outbreak. (The book’s main flaw 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 inhabitants of the colony even stage a production of Uncle Vanya). But it is, being Shteyngart, very far from a solemn tribute to his literary ancestors. Among other things, there is a pop-cultural parallel as the group becomes addicted to a Big Brother-style Japanese reality show. The real Chekhovianism is the way Shteyngart’s comic style — the book crackles with good one-liners — is so cohesive and to such effect traversed with foresight.
Here’s Karen out for a walk in the countryside: “She stole a big whiff of a budding forsythia, 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 lying on her side of the bed, an excerpt from a lesson Karen had taught Nat, spelling out in Hangul and English the most important Korean phrase: ‘J I have a headache, sore eyes, sore mouth, sore legs, there are too few, there are too many, I don’t like it. A deftly equivocal note of sadness near the end of the book seems to me to capture the tone particularly well: “They sat between the ferns and the busy bike path, passing around plates of food, surrounded by faces that looked like their own. ” These characters, with their ambitions for love and fame variously thwarted, struggle with the realization that they are ordinary, mortal, vulnerable, like everyone else. We are all lishnii cheloveks.