Gary Shteyngart lampoons bougie pandemic habits in ‘Our Country Friends’
“How many of us have to die for your personal reenactment of The Big Chill?” landowner Alexander Borisovich Senderovsky’s long suffering wife, Masha, snaps after their guests have finally stumbled off to their respective beds after what the first of many boozy, communal dinners in Gary Shteyngart’s wildly entertaining novel, Our Country Friends.
Masha, it would seem, is the only one of the seven adult characters to be taking COVID-19 protocols seriously. (This story takes place in the 21st century, but the author’s admiration for 19th-century Russian literature permeates the proceedings in the most delicious ways.)
Senderovsky–“known as Sasha to his friends”–has little room for the pandemic, preoccupied with having offered the guest he’s sheltering over his wife’s objections: three old friends, one of his former graduate students, and a famous actor with whom he’s struggling to collaborate on a film script.
Shteyngart bides his time setting the scene. We learn about the guests through the contents of their suitcases and their critical evaluations of their recently erected individual bungalows, each decorated according to a theme–St. Petersburg, Hawaii, childhood lullabyes.
The long lists of expensive supplies Senderovsky takes to the market and liquor store in anxious anticipation of his pod’s arrival also speaks volumes.
The pandemic has been showing up in short fiction and zines for well over a year now, but how gratifying that the first pandemic novel comes from a writer with Chekhov’s keen powers of observation, and the wit to match. This comedy of manners pairs nicely with the echos of resentment that those who didn’t decamp for summer and weekend homes in the spring of 2020 may harbor toward those who did.
Senderovsky’s “liberal estate” is an indolent, non-ancestral Cherry Orchard with spotty wifi and a multicultural 21st-century cast whose citified ways are at odds with those of the local, potentially Trump-voting workmen.
Shteyngart makes a meal of his main characters’ self-involvement, interpersonal assessments and inability to do without accustomed luxuries, while also infusing the story with enough autobiographical elements to give the reader pause.
There’s a lot of privilege being mined here, but Our Country Friends’ dramatis personae confounds easy categorization by being far from universally white. For much of the novel, identity is more of a main dish than the pandemic, and its flavors are complex. “I have almost no white friends,” Senderovsky, like Shteyngart, a Russian-born Jew raised in Queens, announces to his newly formed pod at their inaugural dinner. (“And, he wanted to proudly add, my daughter is probably gender fluid.”)
His 8-year-old, Natasha (“She goes by Nat now,”) a Chinese-born adoptee and the group’s only child, is primarily invested in any identity that will bring her closer to her idols in the K-Pop megagroup BTS.
Enter her father’s high school friend, Karen, a successful, childless Korean-American app developer, who quickly learns the names and favorite foods of the boy band’s seven members, transforming her assigned bungalow into a cozy secret hideout where she and Nat can study Korean together, surrounded by BTS posters and a scratchy BTS bedding set she stows away after the child departs for the main house every night.
Another guest, Ed Kim, pegged in the Chekhovian introduction as “a gentleman”, is also Korean, but “not formally”. He went to college in D.C., and though his mother’s dreams of him becoming a diplomat didn’t take, he maintains Swiss, British and Canadian citizenship.
Ed offers this information up on a stroll with Dee, his friend’s former student, an arresting beauty not quite half his age, who has garnered positive–soon to become negative–attention for a Hillbilly Elegy-like memoir, and who is mortified to hear herself casually asking Ed where he’s from:
“The question could connote that he wasn’t American, despite his perfect accent. This had happened to her at a reading in Minneapolis with a Laotian audience member. (Laotian-American she had to remind herself, or maybe Hmong American), and she had felt shamed by her ignorance, by the way she represented herself and her kind. She had cried in her hotel room afterward over an expense-paid meal of craft beer and chicken tenders, the guilty tears and the expense account both a first for her. But also the Laotian American woman, a student at an expensive local liberal arts college, could have been nicer to her, could have corrected instead of reprimanded…”
Shteyngart sets his characters up to contain multitudes, all the better to delight in their skewering.
There’s some skewering of his readers, too, or should be, if we’re being honest with and about ourselves. I admit that I am perhaps a bit too proud of the knowing pleasure I took in a scene late in the book, where Ed and Dee leave the compound for some sweet potato curry, black pepper wings in Vientamese fish sauce, a “Romanesco larb studded with little gem lettuces and pickled chilies” and “a refreshing bucket of mezcal and grapefruit liqueur” in the outdoor seating are of “a restaurant known for its hand sanitizer in a charming and progressive nearby town.”
The restaurant also boasts “charming signs about mask wearing and social distancing” which, the author drily interjects, “we don’t need to reproduce here:”
“A towheaded and poorly masked five-year-old boy wearing an I AM A FEMINIST T-shirt had wandered very close to their table and was soon accompanied by his likewise-dressed twin. “Kent! Lorimer!” a freckled mama yelled from a nearby table. “Don’t come close!””
Those sentences struck me so funny, I eagerly read them aloud to my husband, eager to see if he would “get it”.
He didn’t. “Kent?” I hinted. “Lorimer?”
He still didn’t even though we spent years dwelling in the characters’ demographic.
Were I a character in his novel, Shteyngart would surely have me add that we didn’t own a Brooklyn brownstone, but rather rented the top floor of one, and our kids went to public school!
Chekhov aside, it’s a very specific moment in time being Shytengart is capturing here, and a very specific (re)location, one that has everything and nothing to do with a global pandemic raging in an escaped-from New York.