Apocalypse Now-ish (Cocktails, Anyone?)

Are we ready for a pandemic novel? Gary Shteyngart, the author of “Our Country Friends,” thinks so.

By Alexandra Alter

“The dystopia is now,” Gary Shteyngart said in an urgent tone, a few decibels shy of a yelp.

We were sitting in Union Square on an unseasonably warm October morning, as people around us walked dogs, pushed strollers and scrolled through their phones in the post-apocalyptic sunlight. Everything looked and felt weirdly normal.

Not long ago, a man ranting in a public square about global collapse might have seemed like a messianic crank. But given the state of things — as we linger in the nebulous middle-of-the-end or end-of-the-middle of the pandemic — who could disagree? The dystopia is now.

Shteyngart has often conjured up blistering satirical visions of the world, in novels like “Absurdistan,” about an obese, lovesick Russian oligarch who becomes a minister in a post-Soviet republic called Absurdsvanϊ, and “Super Sad True Love Story,” a black comedy set in a futuristic America where everyone carries digital devices and livestreams their thoughts, hotness ratings and credit scores.

But now, dystopia has caught up to him, and he’s had to recalibrate. Last year, he was 240 pages into a new dystopian comedy — about a futuristic Manhattan where New York University has seized control of half the city — when the first wave of coronavirus infections hit New York. Compared with his arch sendup of academia, “I thought, this might be worse,” he said.

Like many other New Yorkers, Shteyngart fled, winding up at his country house in Dutchess County. He dropped the book he was writing and started a new novel, about a group of old friends who decamp for the country to escape Covid. They quarantine at a bungalow colony owned by their friend Sasha Senderovsky, an insecure middle-aged novelist whose career has stalled. Like the aristocrats in Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” who head to the Italian countryside to escape the Black Death, Sasha and his friends hope to ride out the pandemic in the Hudson Valley, where they bicker, fall in love, nurse old grudges and try and fail to keep the virus from infiltrating their bubble.

“Our Country Friends,” which Random House will release next week, is being lauded as “the great American pandemic novel” and has drawn comparisons to Chekhov, who hovers over the novel like a patron saint. At turns bitingly funny and unbearably sad, it’s among the first major works of literary fiction to wrestle with the psychological, sociological and cultural impact of the pandemic, and marks a new, more reflective register for Shteyngart.

“This is the darkest of his books,” said the writer Suketu Mehta, a friend of Shteyngart’s who read an early draft of the novel and acts as his “official Indian fact checker.” “It’s the first piece of fiction that I’ve read that got at what the entire planet went through last year.”

For Shteyngart, the pandemic was not so much a shock as a culmination of his lifelong belief that we’re living on the edge of disaster. “The constant state where terrible things are happening to every single member of society, where you can’t escape, that’s going to be the new normal, so we have to change the way we write,” he said.

“It’s a moment where we don’t have the political, social, societal will to avert catastrophe,” he added. “How do you not write about that if you’re a writer?”

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    One weekend in October, I went to visit Shteyngart at his home in the Hudson Valley, a 1930s Craftsman on seven acres where he spent the worst months of the pandemic and wrote “Our Country Friends.”

    He had planned a casual dinner party to celebrate the coming release of his novel, and invited some of his closest friends from the city to mingle with his country friends — “the local gentry,” he calls them. As two friends, Doug Choi and James Baluyut, started grilling, he showed me spots that he drew on for the novel, including a nearby sheep farm, a creepy abandoned children’s arts camp, and a hole in the ground, whose occupant, a groundhog named Steve, plays a small but significant role in the novel.

    As we walked past sheep grazing in a pasture, Shteyngart described how his hereditary paranoia kicked in when the pandemic started. “My first thought was, this is not going to end in a year,” he said.

    He has spent most of his life bracing for catastrophe, a stance he attributes partly to his Soviet and Jewish heritage. Born Igor Shteyngart in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg (“My name was changed to Gary in America so that I would suffer one or two fewer beatings,” he wrote in his 2014 memoir, “Little Failure”), his family immigrated to Little Neck, Queens, when he was 7, and his parents trained him to expect the worst. “You think apocalyptically,” he said.

    Cocooned in his country house, Shteyngart — who suffers from asthma and was at risk of severe illness — felt both relief and guilt about being far from New York City. He threw himself into writing, and with little to distract him, he finished a draft in six months. When he wasn’t writing, he read Chekhov, played games with his son and took long walks in the countryside, pecking out lines of dialogue on his iPhone.

    In August 2020, Shteyngart was working on the final act of the novel when his health and sanity fell apart. As a boy, he’d suffered an infection resulting from a botched circumcision, and the injury flared up, an ordeal he wrote about in an article published earlier this month in The New Yorker. In agony and at times hallucinating because of an anticonvulsant one of his doctors prescribed, his shattered state infiltrated his prose and shaped the final tragic act of the novel, when one of the guests contracts Covid and has nightmarish visions.

    “The idea of dying, for the first time in my life, was not abhorrent,” he said.

    Shteyngart has largely recovered, and while we walked back toward his home and friends, he seemed cheerful, almost giddy, as he described the outpouring of support following the article’s publication and his sense of victory after winning a Twitter battle with a mohel who attacked it. “They’re not sending their best mohels,” he said.

    As dusk fell, more guests arrived — the novelist Paul La Farge and his wife Sarah Stern, the co-artistic director of the Vineyard Theater, the novelists Rebecca Godfrey and Dinaw Mengestu and their spouses, Herb Wilson and Anne-Emmanuelle Mengestu. Mehta, who also showed up, produced a fragrant 14-month-old Parmesan he had smuggled in from Bologna and a potato salad with mustard seeds, cumin and curry leaves. Shteyngart darted around happily, refilling wine glasses.

    Dinner was served on a screened-in porch, and platters of food arrived in seemingly endless waves. First came grilled green beans smothered in tonnato prepared by Baluyut, one of several dishes that night that also appears in “Our Country Friends.” A platter of grilled sardines with lemon and rosemary arrived next, followed by sausages, lamb chops, grilled salmon and cheeseburgers, then apple cider doughnuts, homemade apple pie and spiked apple cider.

    La Farge, who often came over for outdoor meals during the pandemic, said that Shteyngart wasn’t much help at the grill but that he did manage to accurately describe the dinner preparation scenes in his novel: “He was observing and taking notes so that he could write about other people grilling,” he said.

    Conversation turned to upstate politics, a feud between two local chefs, the labor and lumber shortages that are complicating home renovations, a viral disease spreading through the deer population, and the risk that the Hudson Valley was becoming too much like the Hamptons, with its rich inhabitants and their infinity pools. (“Our pool is finite,” Shteyngart said proudly.)

    Later in the evening, Shteyngart reappeared in a red and black smoking jacket that he used to wear semi-ironically at parties he threw in Brooklyn. Examining its pockets, he found a pipe, a small bag of a recently legalized substance, a business card for an art manager and a typed invitation to a party, which was dated 2002 and addressed to Professor Shteyngart. He couldn’t recall if he went but noted wistfully that one could attend a party with students back then.

    As the onslaught of food slowed, Shteyngart brandished a bottle of Pinot Noir from a local vineyard that his publisher had sent him, which had a label designed to look like the cover of “Our Country Friends.” He poured a glass and made a toast: “To my friends, who saw me through the worst year ever,” he said.

    “But now it’s over,” he added with exaggerated nervous laughter. Everyone winced and drank, and the wine was deemed not at all bad, “for the Hudson Valley.”

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