How are writers handling the pandemic? For many of us, sheltering in place has been more than a physical imperative. In March 2020, as COVID swept the globe, we found ourselves frozen as projects — including book tours — were canceled and creativity itself stopped cold by the uncertainty and the fear.
For Gary Shteyngart, however, the pandemic provided an opportunity to write what he apparently has been longing to tackle for years: a Russian house party-style comedy of manners. It is his characters who are stuck, stranded away from their homes and careers and ultimately out of time.
His setup, in “Our Country Friends,” evokes Chekhov, if not Boccaccio. The Russian-born novelist Sasha Senderovsky and his psychiatrist wife, Masha, have invited their urban friends to their country compound to wait out the plague. Their guest list includes two of Sasha’s old high school buddies — the app developer Karen, and Vinod, a failed writer — as well as the wealthy and cultured Ed and Dee, the latter one of Sasha’s former students and a newly minted literary celebrity. To top off the country escape, which also includes the Senderovskys’ apparently neuroatypical 8-year-old daughter Nat, they have also invited the Actor, a Hollywood golden boy with whom Sasha has been collaborating on a screenplay.
The multiethnic group — Vinod’s family came from India, Ed and Karen are Korean American, and Nat is adopted from the Russian-Chinese city Harbin, while Dee is very conscious of her American Southern roots — are all dealing with their own existential dilemmas and intersecting relationships. Despite his generosity, Sasha is teetering on the brink of financial failure. The project with the Actor is his last best bid for solvency. Karen, meanwhile, is unnerved by her sudden success, the result of an app that makes people fall in love, which is not a problem for Vinod, whose unrequited love for the tech whiz is common knowledge. Add in the emotional baggage of these first- and second-generation immigrants and the wild cards — Dee and the Actor, who is nameless until the final pages — and the stage is set for the kind of satire the Russian-born Shteyngart usually excels at.
Except that nothing much happens. For long periods of the book, which spans the first six months of the pandemic (touching on later months at the very end), “Our Country Friends” evokes the pandemic in tone as well as time. People wander around the Senderovsky compound, eating and drinking and waiting for relief from the constant low-level fear and growing boredom. One of the group’s interminable, if amusing, conversations shifts the balance slightly when the Actor tries out Karen’s app, falling hard for Dee. Because the app essentially “makes” people fall in love by mirroring their own emptiness back at them, it functions as a trigger for all their insecurities, notably pulling the Actor off balance.
However, this catalyst, when it comes, feels as artificial as that romance, as if Shteyngart were desperate to break through his own pandemic ennui. It’s not as if Shteyngart hasn’t been having fun with his characters. In fact, much of the timely humor comes in his mixing of their external and internal realities, as a casual bird watcher notices “a party of starlings sheltering in place within a dead elm.” But it is flip and wearying.
The book comes most alive when it delves deeper, touching on the fear beneath the laughs. While COVID is foremost in everyone’s minds, the virus wakes other, older concerns as well. Senderovsky is acutely aware of the nativism of his rural area, and sightings of a black pickup truck make the Russian Jew fear a contemporary pogrom, while Vinod, Karen, and Dee find themselves confronting their feelings about their own success — or lack thereof — as the days drag on. Only Nat seems content, her adoration of the K-pop band BTS finding an outlet in Korean lessons with Karen, but this attachment inevitably induces jealousy from Masha. Life is imperfect, or, as one character notes: “He had to think like a character in a Chekhov play, forever taunted by desires but trapped in a life much too small to accommodate the entirety of a human being.”
While Shteyngart openly evokes Chekhov throughout — he also has the Actor stage a production of “Uncle Vanya” — he ultimately shifts the book into “Decameron” territory. The virus creeps in, and while COVID is not Boccaccio’s Black Death, it introduces the reality of mortality even in this beautiful, secluded world. On the brink of disaster, the author finally lets his snark slide for vividly depicted fever dreams and observations of this beauty: a “mysterious” bird, “singing … not a love song, exactly, but a rendering of his life and worth, as a beast of this earth, as a parent, as a lover, as a migrant, as a bird.” As one character notes: “No play could compete with the sight of a lone gray squirrel sitting on a high branch delivering an anxious monologue to no one in particular.” The paralysis is broken, as are we all, by death. While that makes life more precious in retrospect, it also shows up the hollowness of so much of that earlier humor, as witty as it may have been.
Clea Simon is the author, most recently, of “Hold Me Down.” She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.
Our Country Friends
Random House, 336 pages, $28