Book Review | The First Covid Comedy

By | Nov 15, 2021
Picture of the book "Our Country Friends"

Our Country Friends
By Gary Shteyngart
Random House, 336 pp., $28

Three snippets of dialogue from an autumn novel:

So Masha told me to tell everyone, no smoking in the car. In fact, no smoking on the property either. She says it can make the virus worse if you get it….Also, she told me that no one should sit in the front seat. For distancing purposes.
“Oh, the hell with that,” said Ed, opening the front passenger door. “People are really going overboard with this thing.”…

He followed his crying wife into the bedroom. “Mashen’ka,” he said.
“Don’t touch me. You might give it to me.”
“But we sleep in the same bed,” he said, in Russian.
“I’m not even sure that’s a good idea,” she answered, in English…

“So,” she said, “how many of us have to die for your personal reenactment of The Big Chill?”

Final Jeopardy question: How do they talk in the first big-budget pandemic novel, courtesy of Gary Shteyngart?

Someone had to do it. As Jonathan Safran Foer pioneered the 9/11 novel, so Shteyngart does for COVID. Our Country Friends arrives as the author’s most adulatory nod yet to Chekhov, who pops up regularly in Shteyngart’s books. Both overtly and allusively tied to Uncle Vanya, with the spirit of Boccaccio’s Decameron piped in, it’s the densely plotted tale of an extended pandemic sleepover at the country estate of one successful city-based culture star—Alexander (Sasha) Borisovich Senderovsky (see Chekhov’s Alexander Vladimirovich Serebrakoff)—a get-together likely to cause problems for everyone as the plague of 2020 evolves.

Senderovsky, the novelist protagonist of Our Country Friends, invites his best friends to escape “the infected city” and stay for a spell at bungalows on his estate. Karen Cho, a divorced pal since their days at an elite New York City high school, struck it rich by inventing a dating app that triggers love when participants look into each other’s eyes. Vinod Mehta, a health-impaired high school friend of both of theirs, has been more of a ne’er-do-well, gravitating between adjunct-professoring and stints as a short-order cook. Ed Kim, Korean American like Karen and scion of a South Korean conglomerate, met Sasha when they were in their 20s. Rounding out the main cast are a
world-famous “Actor” (identified only as such) who’s working with Sasha on a TV script; Dee Cameron, an alumna of Sasha’s “drunken car wreck of a writing workshop,” who’s published a successful first book of caustic essays, and Masha, Senderovsky’s psychiatrist wife.

Like each of Shteyngart’s earlier four novels, Our Country Friends draws partly on the author’s own life. Senderovsky owns a Hudson Valley country house. Like Shteyngart, he’s a drinker and super foodie. Like Shteyngart, he’s married with a young child. But there’s also what MFA-land might call “fiction distancing.” Masha is a Russian-American Jew, unlike Shteyngart’s Korean-American wife. Masha and Sasha’s daughter is adopted from China and crazy about the South Korean boy band BTS. Sasha’s property is much larger than Shteyngart’s. (Hey, what’s the fun of being a novelist if you can’t upscale yourself as you water down your semi-roman à clef?)

Read simply as a stab at the Great American Pandemic Novel, Our Country Friends takes the gold (at least so far, until more writers enter the contest).

Our Country Friends teems with familiar Shteyngart virtues: wry dialogue, self-deprecation, sharp notice of up-to-the-minute American concerns and show-offy words and phrases.

It teems with familiar Shteyngart virtues: wry dialogue, self-deprecation, sharp notice of up-to-the-minute American concerns (brain fog, quarantining, intubation),
show-offy words and phrases in Russian, Hebrew, Danish and, especially, Korean. Lots of romantic entanglements and sexual subplots follow at the “House on the Hill.” (You’ll have to buy the book to enjoy them.)

But here’s where things get intriguing for Shteyngart’s status as the anointed successor to Philip Roth as Jewish-American literature’s bigfoot male comic. Short version: He’s inching away from burlesque scenarios and toward the wry realism of Saul Bellow, and even the quiet moralism of Bernard Malamud. He’s still funny when it befits a pandemic novel, but not slapstick funny. More than any previous Shteyngart novel, Our Country Friends eliminates caricatures and offers real characters who resist simplification.

In his first three novels—The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), Absurdistan (2006) and Super Sad True Love Story (2010)—Shteyngart compartmentalized his resentments. He made space to insult Russia, the country he left at age 7. He took time to wail about the tough times faced by immigrants to the United States. And he made time for the Jews, lacerating the Orthodox and mocking Soviet émigrés clueless about their own religion. Then Shteyngart confessed to his parents that he’d be working on what became Little Failure (2014), an evocative memoir. “Just don’t write like a self-hating Jew,” his father warned him.

That book detailed the Shteyngart family’s emigration from Leningrad to Queens in 1979, followed by 7-year-old Igor Semonovich’s struggle to fathom a triangulated Russian-American-Jewish life. An asthmatic immigrant kid bullied by fellow students at his Jewish day school, “Gary” Shteyngart moved on to prestigious Stuyvesant High, a druggy undergraduate stint at Oberlin, literary aspiration in Manhattan in his 20s and then the big breakthrough when The Russian Debutante’s Handbook took off.

Shteyngart did heed his father’s wishes—the sarcastic attitude toward religious Judaism in the novels grew less fierce in Little Failure. The star of his fourth novel, Lake Success (2018), hedge-fund manager Barry Cohen, became Shteyngart’s first protagonist not to be a Russian Jew.

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Now, in Our Country Friends, Shteyngart largely leaves Jewish matters alone. The story, thanks to Karen, Ed and Vinod, features Korean and Indian culture more prominently. Yes, Masha says Lehadlik ner shel Shabbat over her Friday night candles, the conservative Soviet Jews of his parents’ generation still live among “the usual schmear of menorahs and provincial lacquer boxes,” and Shteyngart can’t resist describing a New York City night “passing the rows of Hasidic station wagons, their occupants being pleasured by transgender goddesses.” But that’s about it, at a house with “the contradictory smells of bacon in the mornings and Sabbath candles on Friday night.”

Perhaps the clue to Our Country Friends’ new Jewish-lite style, to Shteyngart feeling more self-erasing than self-hating these days, is the bitter piece he published in The New Yorker just weeks before Our Country Friends appeared, titled “A Botched Circumcision and Its Aftermath.” It chronicled in blunt detail his procedure at the very late age of 7, one demanded of his newly arrived immigrant father by Lubavitcher rabbis. The article, in solemn un-Shteyngart-like prose, described the extreme pain and horrible complications it recently caused him in middle age: 12 doctors, failed corrective procedures and more. But while some authors foreshadow an oncoming book with an op-ed, Our Country Friends ignores the trauma Shteyngart suffered while writing the book, aside from one inside joke—Masha notes that the TV script worked on by the Actor and Sasha involves “an oligarch’s son with a bad circumcision” and cracks, “Who on earth would watch that?”

In the New Yorker article, Shteyngart refers to “the faith in which I was brought up,” as if it were a neighborhood. His wife tells him that for the first time in the 15 years she’s known him, “your humor is gone.” Shteyngart informs the reader, “I doubt I will ever be completely right again.” Life chastens novelists as it does everyone else.

Shteyngart at 49 is neither self-hating nor completely self-erasing. Rather, he’s elegiac. Much like Bellow when he wrote The Adventures of Augie March, Shteyngart appears to be announcing in Our Country Friends that he’s now, inevitable tinctures of Russianness aside, an American novelist more than a writer of Jewish-American fiction. That’s no joke.

Carlin Romano, Moment’s critic-at-large, teaches media theory and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.

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