Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart

Gary Shteyngart’s sardonic work has always been a dark, lovely, and fun experience for me. I follow his work closely, and appreciate the sharp teeth of his honest candor that can both sting and tickle when it rears up bites mid-sentence. After all, who else can write about one’s experience with a botched later-in-life circumcision that draws near universal acclaim for a combination of sharp, intriguing, funny, and tragic energy (besides Jonathan Cameron Mitchell, of course)?  His newest venture is an absolute wonder to behold: a pandemic novel, set and released during the pandemic – a feat that would seem so ridiculously stupid had he not executed it with the undeniable brilliance, heart, humor, and perfection we’ve seen in everything he has let loose on this world.  

The story covers the lives of a group of friends and acquaintances as they descend upon a small country backdrop where they are stuck (unbeknownst to them) for the first six months of the pandemic. The group includes an app developer, a Hollywood screenwriter, an actor, a child, and some have known one another for decades while others are just happening upon a scene they aren’t aware is about to unfold. There are dalliances and whispers of divorce, while everyone navigates their interpersonal struggles through the invisible cloud of COVID when they emerge from their separate bungalows on the property. 

Shteyngart presents some truly remarkable moments in this piece. First, we enter the novel with the strict awareness (through the simple use of a Dramatis Personae list) that we are entering a play of sorts. Our stage is less a place where we sit and observe while the fourth wall is removed and we passively understand that they can move on and off stage while the action continues, and more an enclosed ape den at the zoo – we know they can’t leave, and they know they can’t either. So, what happens as we observe? A beautifully Chekhovian dream that is less 19th century Russian stage work and more a 21st century Wes Anderson slant of what our American hearts truly do when driven to the despairs of isolation. In Shteyngart’s hands, it masterfully executed – and he assures us he knows exactly what he is doing as he tips his wool fedora to his audience more than once in referencing (and embodying) Chekhov’s work in the very format he is working in. Of course, you don’t need to be familiar with Chekhov’s work to get any of this, but English majors like me are guaranteed to swoon in the final act. Finally, the topical contents of the novel cover everything from the pandemic itself, to the economy, to race and identity in America, the nature and structure of romantic, sexual, and platonic relationships, and more – a smattering of the core humanity we all struggled with over the last two years presented with a kind wit and tenderness.   

This book was amazing, and I would be happy to never read another pandemic novel as I am sure it would be a depressing letdown after this beautiful experience. Shteyngart is a master of his art, and I can say with authority that it is best exercised in this new novel among all of his others. I think it is time I take a jog back through his catalogue – always a pleasure and unmatched among his peers writing in the satiric dramedy style he is known for. Shteyngart delivered a beautiful book for a complicated time, and I wouldn’t have wanted to rehash it with anyone else. 

Our Country Friends will be birthed with joyous fanfare and great aplomb tomorrow, November 2, 2021 from Penguin Random House. 

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Image licensed under Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 – Bungalows in Roundfield by Sandy B

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