Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart — inside a pandemic bubble

Here is a pandemic of privilege. As Gary Shteyngart’s fifth novel opens, the scene is set, as in a play. At Sasha Senderovsky’s estate in upstate New York, workmen toil — dewinterising plumbing, repairing windows — to make the House on the Hill and its scatter of adjacent cottages ready for the guests who will soon be arriving, an eccentric group who have in common, at least, what we all had in common last year: terror of a mysterious virus, a ruthless desire to escape from its effects.

And as in a play — the ghost of Chekhov haunts this novel — Shteyngart provides us on the opening page with a list of his characters, each briefly described. Sasha is a writer, not as successful as he had hoped to be, but just about still able to play host to a bubble of the select few. Masha, his wife, keeps the money coming in with a psychiatric practice that tends, now via videolink, mostly to the woes of Russian immigrants such as themselves.

Their daughter Nat is eight, adopted, precocious in the way that children in novels often are. Karen Cho and Vinod Mehta are old friends of Sasha’s from high school, fellow immigrants made good and not-so-good: Karen is the developer of a dating app, Tröö Emotions, which fosters instant adoration between those who use it; Vinod is another writer — an unsuccessful one and plagued by ill-health.

Meanwhile, Dee Cameron (say her name quickly: Shteyngart can’t resist this nod to Boccaccio) is a former student of Sasha’s, a combative essayist from a poor, white rural background: her pieces “were the equivalent of a new prisoner coming up to the toughest inmate in the can and slugging them right in the face”. Ed Kim, described as “a gentleman” in the dramatis personae, is a wealthy drifter. And finally there is the Actor — otherwise unnamed — a figure of mercurial, fabulous glamour who is, in theory, working with Sasha on an adaptation of one of his books.

Shteyngart, born in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and raised in New York, has, from the outset of his career, been an hilariously astute and often prescient observer and satirist of his adopted country; this enjoyable novel is no exception. In Our Country Friends, however, there is a more measured quality to Shteyngart’s writing: he has left behind the sometimes madcap forms of earlier novels including Absurdistan (2006) and Super Sad True Love Story (2010) for an omniscient narrative style that suits the eerie, quiescent nature of his tale.

“Stranded social novelists up and down the river dutifully photographed hard-to-identify flowers and took notes on the appearance of gathering storm fronts and menacing thunderheads. More than one could be found looking up at a slumbering owl or a sunburned meadow beseeching their higher power to help me make something out of all this stillness,” he writes.

Sasha’s goal is to keep both the past and the future at bay. Shteyngart is well aware of how fortunate his group of “colonists” — the word is used repeatedly — is. In welcoming his guests, Sasha announces that while they are in “a scary time”, it is also “a fun time”, with wilful italicised emphasis. But their shared history intrudes as Sasha and Vinod’s literary rivalry is — literally — uncovered, in the form of a long-buried manuscript; as the characters’ romantic and sexual frustrations lead to pairing and breaking.

There is an airless quality to these encounters, surely by design: the warmest relationship in the novel is between Nat, who is obsessed with a Korean boy-band, BTS, and Karen, who is able to reconnect with her own Korean roots thanks to Nat’s obsession. Fierce Masha observes her daughter’s bond with Karen wistfully: “Karen was close to fifty but, in Masha’s estimation, stunted in all the right places.”

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What Shteyngart has made is a comedy of manners that is always a pleasure to read even if it feels, at times, a little strained. But of course it’s strained, one might argue, we’re all strained, everything is strained. Dee drives out of New York towards Sasha’s estate: “The virus was just starting to make a dead zone of her section of Brooklyn, leaving nothing but ambulance wails and possibly suicidal trips to the bodega.” At first, Sasha’s guests attempt to maintain correct social distancing; but as they carom off each other like billiard balls, correct behaviour crumbles — as it must, for the engine of the story to motor on.

There are some flaws here: the reader never really gets a handle on how Tröö Emotions works or what it really does; I was not quite convinced by the emotional dynamic (no spoilers here) behind the story of Vinod’s rediscovered, unpublished book. But this is a warm, empathetic novel, written with a tenderness and close observation of this enclosed society that pulls the reader into the novel’s present and allows her to forget for a little while — as Shteyngart’s cast is attempting to do — the catastrophe unfolding in the world beyond.

Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart, Allen & Unwin £14.99/Random House $28, 336 pages

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