I must admit that for the first few chapters of this novel I did wonder whether I’d be able to bear to spend more than three hundred pages in the company of a group of such apparently neurotic, narcissistic and over-privileged people! For quite some time the only character I felt any investment in was the delightfully funny and intensely serious Nat, whose obsessions with BTS, a Korean boy band, and watching Japanese reality shows on TV, furthered my education in two ways – by introducing me to K-pop as well as opening my eyes to the differences in tone between Japanese and Western reality-TV shows! However, the author’s ability to combine acutely satirical observations about his characters’ behaviour, with gradual revelations which offered insights into the roots of it, enabled me to feel enough empathy to begin to feel more engaged with them. I don’t want to introduce spoilers by going into any detail about their personal histories or the changing nature of the interactions between them, suffice it to say that during the course of the six months they spend together in self-imposed isolation there are numerous examples of long-held secrets being exposed, old resentments surfacing, old scores being settled, new alliances being formed and new sexual relationships being started – and finished!
Although we don’t get to know much in detail about the local community, through his numerous references to a black pickup, driven by a mysterious man who appears to be intent on observing what’s going on in the ‘colony’, to pro-Trump slogans on car bumpers, to some locals sporting white supremacist tattoos and, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, a proliferation of ‘Blue Lives Matter’ banners, the author very powerfully portrayed how the omnipresent fear of the virus wasn’t the only thing which felt threatening to this group of ‘escapees’ from the city.
Explorations of racism, the experiences faced not only immigrants but by anyone who, for whatever reason, feels displaced or different, as well as reflections on marriage, family, parenting, friendship, love, loss, betrayal and the often-insidious nature of social media, are just some of the themes which made this such a thought-provoking and, at times, disturbing story. However, although it was sometimes uncomfortable to be reminded just how scary and unpredictable those early months of the pandemic were, those moments were leavened by the author’s dark humour and his use of satire to poke (mostly!) gentle fun at the self-obsessed, frequently foolish and irrational aspects of the behaviour of some of his characters.
Threaded through the story are numerous allusions to Russian literature, particularly Chekov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ and for anyone familiar with that play, noticing the parallels between its plot and this contemporary drama is unavoidable! In many ways the scene is set from the outset because the novel opens with a ‘Dramatis Personae’ to introduce the eight main characters and ‘Various American Villagers’. Then, rather than Chapter 1, the cast list is followed by ‘Act One’ (just like the play, the novel is divided into four ‘Acts’), immediately suggesting that the story will draw the reader into a theatrically unfolding drama. As Chekov’s play is a firm favourite of mine, I really enjoyed the author’s metaphorical use of it throughout his storytelling and when, towards the end, his characters put on a performance of it and I found that entirely syntonic, I realised just how successfully he had evoked the various parallels!
Another literary allusion I enjoyed was that he named one of his characters Dee Cameron, immediately bringing to mind Boccaccio’s The Decameron, written in the fourteenth century and featuring a group of ten young aristocrats who flee to the countryside from Florence in an attempt to escape the Black Death … although their stay was just ten days rather than the six months endured by the characters in Shteyngart’s story!
Considering the wide range of themes it embraces, the world of social, cultural, racial and political division it depicts, as well as the author’s particular writing-style, I think this novel would be an interesting choice for book clubs … I’m sure it would generate some very interesting, possibly even heated, discussions!