Gary Shteyn­gart,

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

fol­lows a 325-pound Rus­sian Jewish im­mi­grant with a botched cir­cum­ci­sion and a pen­chant for wear­ing out­landish track suits as he tra­verses post-Com­mu­nist East­ern Europe mix­ing it up with gang­sters, dic­ta­tors, and de­fense contractors while woo­ing a nonon­sense Dominican-Amer­i­can girl­friend back in the States.

Shteyn­gart has a gift for writ­ing about Amer­i­can im­mi­grant cul­tures, par­tic­u­larly the way in which chil­dren of im­mi­grants from wildly dif­fer­ent cul­tures seek one an­other out as friends and lovers, bonded by their shared sense of dis­lo­ca­tion. “So many of my friends in New York are first-and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grants,” he said. “I would say in most of these cities, we’ve taken over the arts and ev­ery­thing. We rep­re­sent half of the pop­u­la­tion any­way. When you’re an im­mi­grant and you’re be­tween two cul­tures, it cre­ates a very easy ap­proach to nar­ra­tive be­cause you’re able to con­trast things.”

At the core of his lat­est novel is a first-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grant cou­ple fall­ing in and out of love while Amer­ica burns. Lenny and Eunice’s re­la­tion­ship — that of an older man and younger woman — is a para­ble of a United States that clings to its youth and its be­lief in its “ex­cep­tion­al­ism.” As Lenny an­nounces in the novel’s first sen­tence, “To­day I’ve made a ma­jor de­ci­sion. I’m never go­ing to die.” In that sense, surly, prac­ti­cal Eunice (who in col­lege dou­ble-ma­jored in im­ages and as­sertive­ness) is far more than Lenny’s paramour; she is the em­bod­i­ment of his de­sire to not age. Lenny is con­stantly be­rated by his younger co-work­ers for in­dulging in all the fleshly plea­sures that make life worth liv­ing. Dur­ing an ill-fated trip to Italy to find clients, Lenny strug­gles with how he has in­ter­nal­ized a world­view that re­volves around stress, harm, and vice re­duc­tion. “With each sec­ond I had spent in Rome ... rap­tur­ously [hav­ing sex with] Fabrizia, drink­ing and eat­ing enough daily glu­cose to kill a Cuban sug­ar­cane farmer, I had paved the toll road to my own demise.”

By con­trast­ing the lovers’ ages, Shteyn­gart ex­pertly cap­tures the world of lit­er­ate hu­man­ism and how it has re­ceded from a globe tarted up in mov­ing im­ages and er­satz porno swag­ger. As part of the sex­u­al­ized cul­ture, Eunice and her young girl­friends af­fec­tion­ately tease one an­other with so­bri­quets like “slut,” “ass hoo-kah,” and “betch” and wear nip­ple­less bras from a com­pany named To­tal Sur­ren­der while es­sen­tially re­main­ing chaste, timid sub­ur­ban girls at heart. Where Lenny talks in arch, com­plex sen­tences that speak to a pre-in­ter­net print cul­ture, Eunice’s blank and bawdy email-speak is the per­fect lan­guage with which to sur­ren­der to this new dystopian state where all per­sonal in­for­ma­tion is cap­tured and dis­sem­i­nated. Peo­ple no longer read or talk. In­stead they scan texts and “ver­bal” to one an­other when they tire of tex­ting on their äp­päräti.

The novel’s premise is ab­surd but never far-fetched. For ex­am­ple, New York Uni­ver­sity has al­ready of­fered a sem­i­nar to in­com­ing fresh­men on how to com­mu­ni­cate in per­son with­out the aid of smart­phones or so­cial net­work­ing. Shteyn­gart said his novel has struck a nerve with Amer­i­can read­ers in ways that his two pre­vi­ous nov­els — set in Rus­sian and fic­tion­al­ized East­ern Euro­pean places — never have. “ Ab­sur­dis­tan went to some dark places, but it was kind of ab­stract be­cause most of the read­ers don’t live in an Ab­sur­dis­tan­type coun­try,” he said. “It’s in­ter­est­ing, mak­ing that shift from writ­ing about Rus­sia. It’s darker ma­te­rial, and it’s more rel­e­vant.”

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