“The American writer in the middle of the 20th century,” wrote Philip Roth, “has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
Sixty years later, American writers face a similar problem. Factual descriptions of recent life in the United States sound unbelievable: a reality-show host presides over a pandemic that leads to mass graves in New York and food lines around the country; educated liberals convince themselves that the government is secretly controlled by the Kremlin, while conservative crowds await the resurrection of a former president’s son who is supposed to take down the cabal of satanic pedophiles that run the world; JPEGs of cartoon apes sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. How does a writer represent a reality that seems so unreal?
In a Plague Year
This is a question that hangs over Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Our Country Friends, one of the first major works of pandemic fiction by an American writer. Our Country Friends begins in March 2020. Sasha Senderovsky, a Russian American writer of comic novels much like Shteyngart’s own, quarantines at his country house in upstate New York along with his wife and adopted daughter. They are soon joined by guests who Senderovsky has invited to shelter with them on the Hudson: three friends from his youth, a former student who has become a buzzed-about essayist, and a celebrity referred to as the Actor, with whom Senderovksy is trying to write a pilot. Over the next six months, the characters eat, drink, argue, have sex, fall in and out of love, uncover various secrets, and worry about the locals who fly thin blue line flags and resent their new richer, more diverse neighbors.
Our Country Friends offers a compelling vision of American reality, though not in the way that a reader of Shteyngart’s previous novels would expect. Shteyngart seems to be the ideal novelist to represent the US in the age of COVID: he specializes in satires that are, in both senses of the word, hysterical — wildly overwrought and very funny. Writing in Jacobin last year, Alex Doherty called Shteyngart’s 2010 dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story “perfect reading for the pandemic” because of its prescient treatment of inequality, technological control, and American decline.
The near future of Super Sad True Love Story is an amplified version of the post-2008 United States: the country is ruled by the authoritarian, incompetent Bipartisan Party and stratified between “high-net-worth individuals,” who can afford access to life-extending technology, and “low-net-worth individuals,” who cannot; most communication takes place on a social media site called GlobalTeens; and smartphone-like devices called äppäräts display the personality and “fuckability” scores of everyone in the area. As Doherty put it, “Every facet of neoliberal governmentality and the dire social consequences of extending market logic into all spheres of life — including our most intimate relationships — is ramped up to the nth degree.” Like the Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint, Shteyngart understands that exaggeration is often the only way to depict the grotesqueries of American reality.
Our Country Friends works in a similar vein at times. One plot thread, for instance, concerns an app called Tröö Emotions, which causes its users to fall in love with the person that they’re photographed with — a triumph of algorithm over agency. Much of the novel, however, aims for a different register. Near the end of Our Country Friends, Senderovsky reflects on his Shteyngartian comic novels and wishes he had written something more serious. “You spoke the truth without being clever about it,” he says to another writer. “All I had was cleverness.” Senderovsky’s remorse signals, at least in part, his creator’s ambition in this book.
Our Country Friends moves slowly, taking time to dwell in the inner worlds of each of its eight main characters. Karen Cho, the creator of Tröö Emotions, befriends Senderovsky’s daughter and discovers a satisfaction her failed marriage and professional life couldn’t provide; Vinod Mehta, a high school friend of Senderovsky, confronts his failed literary ambitions and long-thwarted love for Karen. Throughout the novel, the characters read and discuss Anton Chekhov and even stage a production of Uncle Vanya, and like a Chekhov play, Our Country Friends is a tragicomic ensemble, more muted and melancholy than Shteyngart’s previous work.
The change in tone is not entirely successful. In some of its attempts at profundity, the novel strains. While Senderovsky declares himself “the sworn enemies of clichés,” Shteyngart occasionally slips into stale MFA-program prose (“They heard the crunch of gravel down the driveway”). This tendency is most distracting in the novel’s sex scenes, which are full of the unsexy clichés of literary sex: “the willowy blond triangle above her sex,” “Ed was trying to extricate his hand from within her warmth.” Likewise, the final part of the novel is weighed down by several long hallucination scenes, the fever dreams of a character dying of COVID. Apparently based on the aftermath of Shteyngart’s botched circumcision, these nightmares try to be visionary, but the effect is the same as listening to someone tell you about their dream: tedious.
These are flaws, but not fatal ones. Shteyngart remains very funny, even without the hyperboles of the comic novel. Our Country Friends observes its characters with wry omniscience: Senderovsky’s daughter attends a “very expensive city school for sensitive and complicated children”; Senderovsky’s author photo features him “posed in the most serious hand-on-chin Russian-novelist way possible . . . like he was about to rescind serfdom with his next sentence.”
And in its best moments, the novel reaches the profundity it aims at. By the summer of 2020, the characters have matured, reconciled, coupled; their arcs seem complete. As they share a joyous meal of homemade Korean food on Senderovsky’s porch, the novel pulls back and reflects on their fates in a passage that, in its stateliness and rigor, is worthy of Middlemarch:
Of course, by the logic of fiction, we are at a high point now. This respite, this happy family, these four new lovers, this child slowly losing her shyness, all of this must be slated for destruction, no? Because if we were to simply leave them feasting and ecstatic, even as the less fortunate of the world fell deeper into despair, even as hundreds of thousands perished for lack of luck, lack of sympathy, lack of rupees, would we be just in our distribution of happiness?
That the novel asks these questions, and in such language, is an achievement.
Chekhov in America
The nineteenth-century writer that Our Country Friends keeps returning to, however, is not George Eliot but Chekhov. Why does Shteyngart distance himself from the hysterical style for his pandemic novel, where it would seem to be so fitting? Why Chehkov now? Shteyngart himself links the change in style to the political situation, telling the New York Times, “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.”
This may seem counterintuitive: Chekhov, after all, is the patron saint of what Mark McGurl has called “program fiction” — the understated stories churned out by creative writing programs across the country, narrowly focused on small moments of personal growth. But by the end of Our Country Friends, Shteyngart turns this deliberate Chekhovian “minorness” into a penetrating critique of the United States after COVID.
Early in the novel, Senderovsky’s friend Vinod reads The Cherry Orchard and contemplates the fate of Chekhov’s characters, “forever taunted by desires but trapped in a life much too small to accommodate the entirety of a human being.” “That,” he thinks,
was why Chekhov was eternally beloved. There were no dashing personages in his works galloping toward an end point like the Actor’s renown or Karen’s algorithm, only vanishing horizons, only overgrown meadows from which one could look above and try to discern misted landscapes.
Chekhov’s vision, in other words, is one of disappointment and stasis — two qualities familiar to a COVID-era world. Uncle Vanya, staged by the characters in Our Country Friends, threatens to upend the lives of its characters, but by the conclusion of the play, everything has returned to the intolerable status quo. “Life must go on,” one character says, despairingly. In the same way, the pandemic has exacerbated the old inequalities and injustices of American life; what seemed for a few weeks like an apocalyptic break quickly turned into more of the same. As French novelist Michel Houellebecq predicted early in the pandemic, “We will not wake up, after confinement, in a new world; it will be the same, but a little worse.”
Super Sad True Love Story ends with “the Rupture” — a final collapse of the US state and a takeover by China. The characters greet it with uneasy joy: “We were all shouting at one another now,” Shteyngart’s narrator says. “Shouting and grabbing on to one another, the excitement of what we always suspected would happen tinged with the reality that we were actually, finally, in the middle of the movie, unable to leave the cineplex for the safety of our vehicles.” The Rupture brings fear, but also relief.
Our Country Friends gives no such comfort. Eventually, the virus penetrates Senderovksy’s retreat, infecting many of the characters. Most recover easily; only one, who has been weakened by years of poverty and illness, dies. This is the novel’s answer to its Eliotic question about the just distribution of happiness: as in real life, the pandemic heightens already existing inequality. (Senderovsky, who has coughed ominously throughout the novel, is mysteriously cured after his friend’s death — a literalization of the fact that upper-middle-class prosperity depends on the suffering of others.)
The surviving characters return to New York City and, in the final pages, gather at an outdoor restaurant in Manhattan to remember their friend and reflect on their time in quarantine: two characters have fallen in love with each other, two have rekindled their marriage, and two have discovered an almost maternal bond. They laugh and drink, but the celebration rings hollow. As the characters dance in the bike lane to Sly’s “Everyday People,” Shteyngart notes the “ambulance lights wail[ing] uptown” and the “electrified deliverymen speeding at twenty miles an hour.”
The personal growth of our upper-middle-class characters is dwarfed by the misery of actual “everyday people” dying of the virus and slaving away for Grubhub and Uber Eats. Senderovksy and his friends resume their bourgeois lives, while everyone else continues to struggle and die. Life, as Chekhov put it, must go on. In the novel’s final lines, Senderovsky’s wife, Masha, looks to the future. “A small apartment with low white ceilings awaited them,” Shteyngart writes, “but it was entirely theirs, bought through their labors, paid off slowly in the American way. At long last, it was time to go home.”
The smothered desperation of these lines echoes the end of Uncle Vanya, in which a defeated Sonya insists, against all reason, that “we shall find peace.” In Shteyngart’s Chekhovian vision, there is no peace — only vanishing horizons and overgrown meadows. Super Sad True Love Story provided the catharsis of a rupture, but Our Country Friends offers a vision of American reality that is sadder and truer: a collapse that is merely more of the same.