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When members of the creative class (the ones who could afford it, at least) fled from their customary urban habitats to the safety of rural retreats last year, the literary reference that seemed to come to nearly everyone’s mind was Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a collection of tales traded by characters waiting out the Black Death in a Tuscan villa. But the novelist Gary Shteyngart, born in St. Petersburg, Russia, found a much richer vein to mine: the plays of Anton Chekhov, particularly Uncle Vanya, the apparent inspiration for his fifth novel, Our Country Friends. A handful of characters cooped up together in a rundown country estate, complaining about cold samovars and unfulfilled dreams, falling in love and drinking too much and confronting one another over ancient betrayals: This was Chekhov’s dramatic element, but who knew it could also be Shteyngart’s? His novels have always leaned more toward mobile, antic satire, sharp but often broad, and typically at the expense of a Shteyngartian protagonist, a striving schlemiel pelted by setbacks in pursuit of some variation on the American dream, even if he has to go overseas to get it. The low-key, reflective, intimate fiction that was Chekhov’s forte? Not so much.
Chekhov famously considered his four dramatic masterpieces—The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, all written around the turn of the 19th century—to be comedies, or at least comic, even though they were almost immediately presented as tragedies by directors. His characters cling to old ways of life, or to pathetic romantic fantasies, and can be sent into spirals of despair by a poorly chosen gift. They are aristocrats forced to sell off the assets of their once-grand properties and members of the bourgeoisie pining for sophistication and significance that they can never quite grasp. Their timid lives have slipped through their fingers, frittered away on routine, obligation, and misplaced desire. (What’s so funny about that is often difficult for a 21st-century reader unfamiliar with the manners of fin de siècle Russia to detect.) Our Country Friends implies a parallel between Chekhov’s thwarted souls and Shteyngart’s multiracial ensemble of educated artsy types holed up together during the pandemic. That raises a provocative question: Are Shteyngart’s characters and their kind as doomed to irrelevance and futility as Chekhov’s are?
They gather at the upstate New York “estate” of Sasha Senderovsky, a novelist in his 50s whose career is fading. Once, Sasha wrote comic novels that sound a lot like Shteyngart’s own. He was even offered a professorship in New York City, but he turned it down to live full time at the House on the Hill, to which he has added a collection of bungalows. In Sasha’s fantasy, his friends will come up from the city to stay in the bungalows, re-creating the atmosphere of the Catskill resorts where he and his parents, Russian Jewish immigrants, spent their summers. Sasha’s situation hews pretty closely to Shteyngart’s, to judge by a New York Times article about the author’s country house in Dutchess County, also called the House on the Hill, down to the beloved espresso machine and the chestnut window frames—although Shteyngart only has one guesthouse.
The guests include two of Sasha’s oldest friends, Karen, a Korean American software designer who has just made a fortune selling an app, and Vinod, an Indian immigrant forced to work in a relative’s restaurant after losing his adjunct professor gig. Ed, a rootless bon vivant of Korean ancestry with passports from the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Canada, has known all three of them almost as long. A former student of Sasha’s, Dee, supplies the novelty of youth, and a character known only as “the Actor” provides a dollop of fame. The Actor and Sasha are collaborating on the script for a TV series based on Sasha’s first novel, but it isn’t going well, and this has Sasha, who is depending on TV money to keep his ruinously expensive estate in repair, worried. Sasha’s wife, Masha, is a psychiatrist—Dee recalls her teacher’s advice to his writing students to “marry a professional”—and as “the moral conscience” of the family, she works for what Ed describes as “a nonprofit for old Russians with mental problems.” This ill-paying gig would be more personally rewarding if Masha’s patients weren’t prone to paranoid and paradoxically antisemitic—given that they’re Jewish themselves—conspiracy theories about George Soros and the virus. Further out, surrounding the House on the Hill, are sheep farms, abandoned summer camps, and the unfathomable locals, with their black-and-blue flags, All Lives Matter signs, and ominous tattoos.
Their neighbors make the Senderovskys nervous, as does the sound of gunfire from the woods and the black pickup truck spotted lingering near the premises. Like any sensible Jew, Sasha “always topped off his gas tank for a run across the border, but the border was closed.” The only member of the party who can communicate comfortably with the locals is tall, blond Dee, whose career as an up-and-coming essayist is founded on her roots in white, rural poverty and her “tough-love observations about the social class that had recently welcomed her into their messy brownstones.” Like Sasha, Dee, a marvelous creation, has turned the articulation of her identity into a livelihood, but while his Russian Jewishness has become a passé theme, Dee knows how to work the professional class’s unslakable appetite for being scolded.
Making Dee an essayist rather than a novelist is a shrewd choice on Shteyngart’s part. Why bother with the novelist’s old-fashioned preoccupation with art, when straightforward, combative self-assertion is so much more engaging? The only person who matters is the first person. Dee arrives at the House on the Hill having already ranked the other guests according to their social status and concerned that “even before the virus, there had not been enough attacks on her book.” Dee isn’t a caricature, however: She wept in her hotel room after a reading in which a Laotian American audience member, “a student at an expensive local liberal arts college,” rebuked her for asking, “Where are you from?” This leaves Dee feeling “shamed by her ignorance, by the way she represented herself and her kind.” But the problem with speaking for your kind is that they are usually fully capable of speaking for themselves, and like Masha’s patients, they may express sentiments you deplore. Then how do you disavow the very people you claim to represent, especially when representing them is your beat?
Karen has her own moral dilemmas: The app she created, initially as a lark, causes people to fall in love, like the potion Puck uses to mess with the affections of the young mortals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It has made her rich but also ruined lives. The most Chekhovian figure in the bunch is Vinod, too noble to be anything but doomed, who has loved Karen for decades, unrequited, and who once wrote a novel not because he wanted to be a writer but because “I thought I had just one book in me that could mean something to someone.” He showed it to Sasha, who told him it would be a mistake to try to publish it, and so the manuscript sat in a shoebox for two decades, its brilliance obscured by Sasha’s envy. Vinod’s novel, his attempt to imagine the youth of his parents, who treated him badly, is “that rare impossible thing: a young man’s novel about a subject not himself.” Its imaginative generosity stands as a reproach to Sasha’s autobiographical fiction but also to Dee’s essays about herself and her kind, and to the narcissism of the Actor. Even Karen’s app works by tricking users into projecting a lost part of themselves onto another person and calling that “love.”
Our Country Friends is, like Chekhov’s plays, very much of its particular moment. Sasha spends the opening pages of the novel dashing around town, buying pricey cuts of meat from “his butchers, two former catalog models from the city” and a “strange single malt from the Tyrol” from a liquor store in a former church. He and Masha are part of a new wave of gentrification, accelerated by the pandemic, of middle-class bohemians moving from increasingly unaffordable cities to the countryside, drawing boutique organic farmers and artisan cheesemakers and coffee roasters in their wake. Even as they are edging out the former inhabitants of tiny Catskills towns, they are feeling themselves edged out. Dee suspects that the role of the artist—to stand “in the vicinity of history processing its raw nature through her own blemished experiences and typing the resulting observations”—“had suddenly become irrelevant,” pointless yammering to no effect. What if this, she wonders, “not cultural tone deafness, was the real specter that haunted the bungalow colony, haunted her and Senderovsky and the Actor as well.” For his part, Sasha broods over his withering career and assures himself that “he would renounce all his privileges. He would not write another novel so that others could be heard.”
This is funny, because the reader knows that Sasha’s contrition is feigned. He’s not worried that his book might overshadow someone else’s. He’s worried that no one will care about it at all. In truth, the very thought of writing a novel repulses him, “cribbing the best lines from his past, regurgitating his youth, now that the future was but the slow dull tick of a metronome.” (This is possibly the most Chekhovian line in the book.) He doesn’t consider the possibility that he could do something different, about himself but also about others, a novel shaped by a long, compassionate, deep consideration of their lives, their flaws, their loneliness and disappointments and hopes—a novel, for that matter, very much like Our Country Friends. That would, indeed, be unfashionable. But it would be a book very much worth reading.