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Our Country Friends

November 12, 2021

Our Country Friends, by Gary Shteyngart, is a pandemic novel, and it focuses on a group of friends from the part of the U.S. first hit by the virus, New York City. This group of friends is invited to what their host, Sasha Senderovsky, calls “the House on the Hill” and its group of adjacent bungalows to escape the city during the first spring and summer of the pandemic.

They are privileged people, this group of friends. Sasha is a novelist, his wife Masha is a psychiatrist, and they are parents to an eight-year-old, Nat. Their friends are Vinod, a writer, Karen, an app developer, Ed, a wealthy traveler with culinary skills, Dee, an essayist, and the Actor, who is a movie star.

We see that their idea of what is “safe” might not be similar to our own, as very soon after we are introduced to Sasha we see him in a parking lot, in the middle of running errands in his car, drinking out of a broken bottle of whiskey, “his tongue screening out little bits of glass.” During their first two weeks together, Masha makes some feeble attempts to enforce social distancing, especially around her daughter, and some even more feeble recommendations for masking, but the friends mostly call attention to this by observing when they are breaking the distancing rules. During their first week, Masha observes one of them, “a man with one lung smoking a joint that had just touched another’s lips.”

Allusions to plays and novels and references to obscure and foreign words with no definition abound. When one person is late to dinner, Ed asks “what will our Magnificent Amberson eat when he gets here,” referring, I found out when I looked it up, to a 1918 novel adopted for film in the 1940s by H. G. Wells. Similarly, when Karen says that “Ed is the scion of a chaebol family” and Dee points out that “when using a foreign word it might be cool to explain what it is,” all the reader finds out is that the “the definition of ‘chaebol’ was patiently explained to Dee.” I guess this is to reinforce the idea that this group of friends is smart and sophisticated and cool and multicultural and so worth saving in the middle of a global pandemic.

A conversation between Ed and Dee reveals their sophistication:
“last night you said you’re Korean, right?”
“Not formally,” Ed said. “I have Swiss, UK, and Canadian citizenship. I guess I have to nab me something in the EU after Brexit. Lots of folk become Maltese.” So petrol princes and sunbaked Russian orangutans were now just folk. What was wrong with him?
“But you spend time here? In the city, I mean?”
“Sure. Plenty. Home away from home.”
“And you never felt like becoming an American?” She didn’t know why she was pressing him on this one point.
“That’s for people without options,” Ed said. “Sorry, I mean…” He trailed off.
“No, I get it. Nation in free fall.”

Even the setting is described in terms of literary allusion: “When he glanced up, the great cedar porch, the stucco main house…the stationary satellites of the bungalows, all this reared itself up before him as if it had just appeared out of nowhere, summoned by a madman out of Gogol or Cervantes.” The extended metaphor of the novel, however, is to Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya.

Senderovsky is a fictionalized version of Shteyngart himself, lightly and inconsistently satirized. The narrative includes occasional odd moments that don’t work together, like when Senderovsky is talking to the Actor and says “I see,” and the Actor replies “Do you, though? Because—” and then we’re informed that “the em dash above may make the reader think there was a break in the Actor’s speech, but it was only a break in Senderovsky’s consciousness.”

Dee, the essayist, thinks that “the artist…stood in the vicinity of history processing its raw nature through her own blemished experiences and typing the resulting observations into the Notes application of her phone. That was the job description. But what if this particular job had suddenly become irrelevant? And what if irrelevancy, not cultural tone deafness, was the real specter that haunted the bungalow colony, haunted her and Senderovsky and the Actor as well? The hour for chronicling the situation had passed; it was time to seize the telegraph station and detain the provisional government.” This is to say, what good is a satiric novel when the world itself has become so exaggerated that merely representing the kinds of things that are happening sounds satiric? Ed even thinks, at one point, that “as soon as one acquired a liberal education, huge parts of life became an elaborate joke.”

The friends’ Decameron-like idyll comes to an end with a eulogy by the narrator, who points out that
“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 fall 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?”

And so the pandemic claims its victims even among the smart and sophisticated and we are left at the end of the novel with only Senderovsky’s desire that “the summer of 2020, that year of imperfect vision, would hold them together forever.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. lemming permalink
    November 12, 2021 2:34 pm

    Maybe in ten years. Right now I think I’d be even more annoyed by reading fiction about people like this than I am by reading news stories about the people who fled to the wilderness (mountain/ desert/ etc.) thinking it would be short term, and are now struggling to cope with the consequences of their actions.

    • November 13, 2021 7:46 am

      The post-satiric world, the possible irrelevancy of novel-writing, and the “nation in free fall” parts were what made this interesting to me.

  2. November 12, 2021 6:57 pm

    Earlier this year, you reviewed a book of nature essays that was too… much. (You saved me time and treasure on that one; thank you.) Late Migrations might better suit your interests and inclinations. It is so beautifully rendered that I utterly forgot I was in a waiting room.

    https://milkweed.org/book/late-migrations

    • November 13, 2021 7:53 am

      It’s funny that you put this here because I thought about commenting on the city peoples’ reactions to nature but then didn’t because in the end the nature descriptions weren’t anything we haven’t heard before–they have a “pandemic pet” (a groundhog) and they notice the seasons more.
      Late Migrations does sound like it would suit my tastes; I’ll read it and report back! Thanks.

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