Gary Shteyngart’s contribution to the burgeoning genre of the lockdown novel is very, very Russian – in the best possible way. The premise is that a group of old friends are to spend a month in the country (well, several months) riding out New York’s pandemic in a little ad hoc colony in the Hudson valley. The cast is a collection of privileged, mournful “lishnii cheloveks” (as the “superfluous men” of 19th-century Russian literature were known) in late middle age, pottering and squabbling in rural exile, wondering what the world is coming to and regretting the past.
The host at what comes to be called the “Dacha of Doom” is Sasha Senderovsky, a dishevelled Russian-Jewish-American author who, like Shteyngart, has had considerable success with a series of comic novels about the Russian-Jewish-American experience. Now, though, his career is on the slide and if he can’t get a troubled TV script across the line he faces losing the country estate (well, house with a few bungalows attached) that is his pride and joy. He doesn’t have an actual cherry orchard, but the reader very much gets the drift. Here’s something of a departure – or at least a mellowing – for Shteyngart; the antic international satire of Absurdistan or the science-fictional Super Sad True Love Story is muted, while on his stylistic mixing board the slider marked melancholy has been notched up to 11.
Sasha and his wife Masha and adopted daughter Nat (“Sasha, Masha, Natasha. They didn’t even try, these Russians”) are joined by his college friends Karen, Ed and Vinod. The former are distant cousins of Korean descent, the latter is a down-on-his-luck Gujarati American billed in the dramatis personae as a “former adjunct professor and short-order cook” recovering from lung cancer. Ed is from family wealth, single and – as an extraordinarily detailed and delicious-sounding recipe for veal tonnato indicates – a very good cook. Vinod nurtures a shy, unrequited, lifelong love for Karen. Karen is a wealthy tech-sis, over from the west coast, where she made a fortune with an app called Tröö Emotions that, supposedly, causes people to fall in love.
The two wild cards in the group are Dee and a film star known only as The Actor (though, weirdly, we discover very late on that he’s called Joel). Dee is a former writing student of Sasha who has had a hit with a pugnacious essay collection about her poor white upbringing called The Grand Book of Self-Compromise and Surrender. She reveres Joan Didion, uses “y’all” judiciously, and likes to wear cowboy boots and a peasant blouse that “bring out a host of Pavlovian reactions in a wide cross-section of educated East Coast men”. The heroically vain and pretentious Actor – there ostensibly to work on that TV script with Sasha – exerts a power of his own: “Like a small damaged atomic reactor he could generate his own array of ‘feelings’, which he released into the air as background gamma. Everyone at the table except Senderovsky, everyone on the planet, in fact, wanted a dose.”
At night, ‘in accordance with the rules of Russian novels, each thought about another’
On the first night we find them all on the porch, socially distanced, “seated in their jackets and sweaters at a healthy remove from one another, as if they were organised criminals or dignitaries at the League of Nations”. The effect of the pandemic on writers is drily acknowledged: “Stranded social novelists up and down the river dutifully photographed hard-to-identify flowers and took notes on the appearance of gathering storm fronts and menacing thunderheads. More than one could be found looking up at a slumbering owl or a sunburned meadow beseeching their higher power to help me make something out of all this stillness.” Meanwhile, the dismaying forces of Trumpian America seem to be circling just off stage – white supremacist stickers are posted at the train station, and there are menacing drivebys from pick-up trucks.
Soon, Ed and the Actor are both in love with Dee; Masha and Karen are fantasising about the Actor; and K-pop-fan little Nat – who is bright and obsessive – is being semi-adopted by childless Karen. At night, “in accordance with the rules of Russian novels, each thought about another”. One MacGuffin is the manuscript of Vinod’s first novel, which Sasha doesn’t want to admit he’s still hiding in a shoebox in his attic; another is Karen’s app, which is blamed for the Actor chasing Dee. Chekhov’s gun? That would be, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say, a man with one lung in a Covid epidemic. (The main fault of the book is Vinod’s overlong and slightly repetitious dream/hallucination scenes.)
The story is framed by a series of references to Russian literature (near the end, the inhabitants of the colony even stage a production of Uncle Vanya). But this is, being Shteyngart, very far from a solemn tribute to his literary ancestors. Among other things, there’s a pop-cultural parallel as the group become addicted to a Big Brother-style Japanese reality TV show. The real Chekhovianism is the way that Shteyngart’s comic style – the book crackles with good one-liners – is so consistently and to such effect shot through with plangency.
Here’s Karen on a country walk: “She stole a great big lungful of a budding forsythia, and then another, a city girl suddenly grateful. Easter would be coming soon, but her mother was still dead.” Or Karen in her bedroom: “There was a piece of paper resting on her side of the bed, the excerpt of a lesson Karen had been teaching Nat, spelling out in Hangul and English the most important of Korean phrases: ‘My head hurts, eyes hurt, mouth hurts, legs hurt, there is too little, there is too much, I don’t like it.’” A deftly equivocal note of sadness towards the end of the book seems to me to capture the tone particularly well: “They sat there between the ferns and the busy bike lane, passing around plates of food, surrounded by faces that looked like their own.” These characters, with their variously thwarted ambitions for love and fame, are wrangling with the realisation that they are ordinary, mortal, vulnerable, just like everyone else. We are all lishnii cheloveks.
• Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart is published by Allen & Unwin (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.