Onionskin jeans are transparent, cost a fortune, and send your fuckability rating off the charts. They are but one of the creepy features of the dystopia Gary Shteyngart depicts in Super Sad True Love Story (Random House), the Leningrad-born American author's third novel and first New York Times bestseller. I called a tuckered Shteyngart at home in New York after he'd toured the West Coast.
I heard you onFresh Air. You sounded very worried.
You can't be as funny as on other shows.
You've been doing a lot of radio stuff lately.
I'm an NPR fixture now. I have to.
This novel has a moral urgency that's absent from your other work. It felt so much more pressing.
It's about America. I think people here can perceive it as being much closer to home. The first two novels are novels of identity. This one goes beyond that — it takes on our society as a whole.
When and how did you become interested in the pornographication of American culture?
Living in New York and walking around. There's a kind of desperate sexuality that I feel is now part of our lives. I think there's nothing wrong with pornography as such, but when it becomes one of the prevalent modes of communication, we have some problems.
Is there a correlative of onionskin jeans in real life?
I can't wait for those to come out. It's one of the few things [in the novel] I actually hope will come true.
Your book is dystopic — is there a utopian vision that goes along with it?
When you write dystopia, you don't really write about the future — you write about right now. In some ways, this book required me to act more like a journalist and to figure out what's happening. For that, my intern really did help me figure out how the Internet works and what social networking is. For me, it was a huge journey into the electronic world. It's a journey I haven't completely recovered from — it just sucked me in. I've become more of a digital person.
What was your relationship with technology before you started your research?
Very small. I still have a Yahoo! account, if that gives you an idea of how backward I am. This was like diving head first into cold water. I have a Facebook page now — you can find it on the Internet! Like a heroin addiction, it's hard to get rid of.
But were there any immediate effects from submerging yourself in digital media?
It was like being an immigrant, a little bit. It's like being on a completely different planet. You have to get to know how everything works. Part of you is missing the homeland, and the homeland is literature.
What would you say to people who think that you're being fogeyish or that the book is unnecessarily alarmist?
Well, it is. It's not a gung-ho novel. Progress is fine. Technology is fine. What I don't like is when people think technology is going to somehow solve all our problems, especially problems that are very human in nature. Parents and ancestry — these are not easy things that can be quipped away, and this is what culture and literature deal with. It's not really something technology can deal with — or can't deal with it yet.