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New Yorker Festival: Saunders/Shteyngart Reading

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Martin Schneider writes:

I have a friend who generally misses out on the first rush of New Yorker Festival ticket-buying and then finds himself disinclined to purchase tickets to the more readily available Friday author events because "why pay when you can see them at Barnes and Noble for free?" A fair point, for which there are sound responses, the main one being that not everyone who attends the Festival lives in New York (even if he does, and I do). But beyond that, the author events are not usually "just" readings, there's often a conversation or a moderator livening things up.

But on some level I grant the premise. However you cut it, the Saturday and Sunday events are much more "value-packed" than the Friday author evenings, which the Festival recognizes by charging more for them. And truth be told, I would prefer an interview/conversation to a reading. And with two such great talkers as George Saunders and Gary Shteyngart—it's quite possible that they would break my brain, or I would topple over in laughter, or something.

As I say, I was expecting talk, so when it became plain that Shteyngart and Saunders would be reading rather than talking, I was a bit crestfallen.

But not for long. It turns out that both men read just as well as they talk, and they talked afterward anyway.

Shteyngart read from his recently completed novel—if the name was mentioned, I didn't catch it. It sounds like a humdinger, though, and I have a hunch it'll be superior to his second novel Absurdistan, which I liked, and his first novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook, which I haven't gotten to but everyone else seemed to like. (Quick note: Shteyngart, who conforms to the archetypal "card" figure, can't resist messing with the names of his books when he talks or writes about them. Anyone who's read Absurdistan knows that he likes to refer to his first book as "The Russian Debutante's Handjob," or some such variation, and tonight I learned that he calls his second book "A-blurb-istan.")

Anyway. The new book is set a year or eight into the future and features heightened and nightmarish versions of our contemporary life, a bit like Infinite Jest, perhaps. As Cressida Leyshon explained in her introduction, in the new book (paraphrasing) "America has defaulted on its debt to China, every citizen is defined by their credit rating, and nobody reads anymore." As I say, this is a most promising brew. Shteyngart's excerpt involved the protagonist bringing his new girlfriend to meet his Russian-immigrant folks out in Long Island, and it was very funny.

Afterward Shteyngart related that he had been fiddling with his initial plot elements in 2006 or so, among which were such outlandish possibilities as the collapse of the financial system as well as the Big 3 automakers—as well all know, events rendered that particular vision trite, so he had to find ways to make it all even worse....

Saunders read, as I was hoping, from his most recent New Yorker story "Victory Lap," which, as Jonathan Taylor noted, is one of those stories that really sticks with you. I heartily agree! Saunders said it was the first time he had ever read it to an audience. (Nice!) The story is a mite confusing on the page, to be frank, but no less affecting for that. To hear Saunders channel a teenage girl, a teenage boy, a malevolent fellow, two sets of parents, and a baby deer was quite breathtaking and did much to clarify the precise course of events as well. So far as I could tell, the audience was rapt.

The discussion portion was full of quick wit and insight. My favorite bit came when Shteyngart explained the backstory of a scene from one of his novels, an event from his own life in which the brandishing of an American Express card was enough to stave off a pack of Czech skinheads. Instantly, Saunders: "Now that's a commercial!"


I’d love to hear what you found confusing in the Saunders story. It was almost as perfect as a short story can be, I thought!

That’s a tough thing to ask someone in public, Emily…. Not wishing to impugn the story in the slightest, but as an example, the voices of Kyle’s parents are not differentiated clearly enough on the page IMO, the use of “Beloved Only” and so forth didn’t succeed in making Kyle’s mother as vivid as the dad— in Saunders’s reading it was crystal clear and quite dramatic. There are a couple of changes in voice that are a little confusing. I don’t really know what those French refrains are doing there, and when Saunders read them, he gave them as little rhetorical weight as possible, he rushed past them, as if he were sheepish about reading French to people.

I didn’t really find the action of the story confusing, just the interplay of voices (which is different).

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