Cover image of "Our Country Friends," which strives to be the Great American Pandemic Novel

Here we have a great example of what happens when a brilliant comic writer decides to get “serious.” I’ve read four, and reviewed three, of Gary Shteyngart’s previous books. I loved the novels Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story and his memoir, Little Failure. I tolerated his later novel, Lake Success. But the man went too far with his newest novel, Our Country Friends.

The story is funny enough at times (although too few times), and the author’s style is uniquely his. Shteyngart writes as well as anyone in the trade today. The problem appears to be that he decided to become America’s Anton Chekhov and write the Great American Pandemic Novel. There are heavy-handed references to the 19th-century master’s most famous plays (Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard), and Shteyngart’s characters appear to be yanked off the Russian stage. His alter ego, Sasha Senderovsky, a writer, is identified as “the landowner.” One of his friends, scion of a Korean chaebol family, is “a gentleman.” And a pivotal character is known to us only as “The Actor.” It’s really quite tedious.

Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart (2021) 337 pages ★★★★☆

Image of the entrance to a New York artists' colony like the one in this would-be Great American Pandemic Novel
Entrance to an upstate New York artists’ colony that may be like Sasha Senderovsky’s as depicted in this novel. Image: Brownstoner

Waiting out the pandemic, in isolation

Our Country Friends is set in the upstate New York artists’ colony that Senderovsky has built to host his friends. The action takes place in 2020. It reflects from afar the events that captured our attention in that fateful year: the COVID-19 pandemic and the insane final months of the Trump Administration.

Sasha, “the landowner,” lives in the main house at the colony with his wife, Masha Levin-Senderovsky, a psychiatrist and a Russian immigrant like him, and their adopted eight-year-old Korean-American daughter, Natasha (Nat). He has invited his two closest friends from high school. Vinod Mehta is an Indian-American who is “a former adjunct professor and short-order cook,” and Korean-American computer scientist Karen Cho is the now-wealthy inventor of a phone-dating app that has gone viral. Also in the party are Dee Cameron, “a writer and former student of Senderovsky’s”; Ed Kim, that “gentleman”; and the world-famous Actor who has promised to star in the television series he and Sasha are developing together. As a group, they’re identified as “colonists.” They’ve gathered together to wait out the pandemic in isolation.

Naturally, as the weeks drag by through the summer of 2020, these privileged and self-involved people become embroiled in one affair after another. Each one of them is cruelly challenged by the actions of others. Everyone is in awe of the Actor, and he (of course) turns out to be agent of the tragedy that threatens to tear the community apart. None of this is entirely predictable. But of course it all had to happen. The Great American Pandemic Novel it’s not.

About the author

Image of Gary Shteyngart, author of this would-be Great American Pandemic Novel
Gary Shteyngart. Image: Wikipedia

Gary Shteyngart was born in 1972 in the Soviet Union in the city now called St. Petersburg. He emigrated with his parents to the United States at the age of seven and was raised in Queens, New York. Shteyngart holds a bachelor’s degree in politics from Oberlin College and an MFA from Hunter College of the City University of New York. He currently teaches writing at Columbia University. In addition to his memoir, he is the author of five novels published beginning in 2002.

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