Gary Shteyngart’s pandemic novel is his best yet

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It is impossible to read Chekhov without adopting his verbs. After an afternoon with “The Chekhov Laptop” (which, at 640 pages, is not portable unless you have Manute Bol’s hands), I was suddenly “shopping” and ” working ”at my job and“ heaving a sigh ”at the sight of a clogged shower drain that I subsequently“ found ”to unclog.

Chekhov’s stories “have an atmosphere as distinct as a smell,” as translator Avrahm Yarmolinsky put it, and so does the work of Gary Shteyngart, an equally remarkable writer for demonstrating absurdity and generate pathos. In the case of Shteyngart, I would characterize the characteristic odor as pungent, brackish, and instantly appetizing. His books should come with a free bag of salt and vinegar chips.

“Our Country Friends”, the author’s fifth novel, is his best. It begins at the onset of the pandemic, with seven friends and one foe gathered in an area of ​​the Hudson Valley to await what they are sure to be a quick hit in their practical and prosperous lives. The estate is bordered by meadows and a sheepfold and a forest invaded by galloping animals. Forsythia perfumes the air. The tree frogs are humming.

Sasha Senderovsky is the owner of the property. He is a writer after his prime who fights groundhogs and other rural villains while panicking by the decline in his career and his funds. His wife is Masha, a psychiatrist who functions like the Spanx of the family: a soft but unyielding frame holding them all together. Their 8-year-old is Nat, who revere Korean boy band BTS and is going through an identity crisis. Visiting friends include a tech CEO, a sexy young essayist, a sickly high school pal, and a globetrotting foodie. The Nemesis is a celebrity known only as an actor, who came to work with Sasha on a screenplay.

[ Read our profile of Gary Shteyngart. ]

The country house has been furnished in keeping with one of Sasha’s fondest childhood memories, when he vacationed in a bungalow settlement welcoming Russian immigrants like himself. In its own domain, pebble paths link simple cottages in the style of a “tidy European village, the kind that would never have welcomed its ancestors”. These cottages are set next to a main house with a cedar porch where guests feast on “airship-shaped Greek olives” and cheeses aromatic enough to inspire “memories that never arrived”.

At the beginning of the story, Sasha’s visitors are seated “at a good distance from each other, as if they were organized criminals or dignitaries of the League of Nations”. But the distance quickly narrows and then vanishes as moments of guest coitus and hand-to-hand combat override abstract principles of pathogen avoidance.

Credit…Tony Cenicola / The New York Times

Sasha’s CEO friend Karen was recently enriched by her invention of an app that makes people fall in love spontaneously. The algorithm works a little too well; She is currently fighting a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of spouses whose partners have used the app to fall in love with other people – a risk that falls squarely into the category of “intended consequences.” But it’s something Karen’s assistant can worry about. On the first night of Sasha’s reunion, the app is tested by the actor and young essayist, whose name is Dee Cameron – as in Boccace’s “The Decameron”, get it? Word game on the plague! – with drastic results.

The actor is one of Shteyngart’s best creations. It’s a whirlwind of charisma, recreational cruelty, and, as someone in Masha’s profession might say, lacking in insight. One day, he comes out of his cubicle naked after accidentally applying conditioner at a drugstore, convinced that the eyebrow substance will blind him, and yells, “I can’t live like this.” He prides himself on having once played the orchard in an avant-garde production of “The Cherry Orchard”. He identifies strongly with Ulysses.

But the actor is not just a buffoon. It’s a stray bullet ricocheting in the park. A black van lurks around the grounds – is it a mad fan or a xenophobic local intending to threaten the group of imported townspeople? How come the actor makes suggestive remarks about Sasha’s wife? Why are people in the neighborhood shooting guns when it’s not hunting season yet? Embarrassments abound, mysteries multiply, betrayals proliferate. The grass is smoked. Sex is had. Death lurks around every corner.

“Our Country Friends” is great about so many things: the humiliations of parenting and parenting; the sadism of chronic disease; the glory of friendship. It’s also the first novel I’ve read that deals with ‘culture cancellation’ in a way that hasn’t made me want to cut my head off, set it on fire and to project it into space. (I’m not saying that other bestselling novels in this vein don’t exist, just that I haven’t read them.) I will not reveal the character (s) who undergo this particular rite of contemporary high-profile experience.

Like Chekhov, whose ghost floats pleasantly through these pages, Shteyngart is a master of verbs. Sasha’s hand “slaloms” through a signature on a credit card slip; a man’s eyes are “provided” with 500 eyelashes; a woman’s dimples are “activated” when she smiles. Enabled! Could verbs be the new adjectives?

Reading this novel is counting the superlatives of a high school yearbook for Shteyngart: funniest, loudest, sweetest, most entertaining. To these I will add a few superlatives that weren’t celebrated in my own high school: the most melancholy, the most questioning, the most adept at making the deepest strings of the anthropoid heart vibrate.

“Our Country Friends” is a perfect novel for these times and for all times, the only textual artifact from the pandemic era that I would place in a time capsule as a representation of all that is good, true, and beautiful in literature. I hope the aliens who dig it up will agree.

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