Gary Shteyngart is a bestselling novelist and memoirist. He was born in Leningrad in 1972 and came to the United States when he was seven years old. Shteyngart’s works are characterized by their humorous, often satiric take on life. His most recent book was the memoir Little Failure, a national bestseller, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and chosen by the New York Times as a Notable of the Year. His novels include Super Sad True Love Story, Absurdistan, and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. His books have been translated into twenty-nine languages in thirty countries.
If you were from a distant galaxy and read contemporary fiction, you might be forgiven for thinking that human beings don’t have jobs. There might be some mention of an “office” between the meat of the action, the adulteries and the divorces, the mediations on mortality and the vicissitudes of parenthood, but few contemporary literary novels tackles the forty plus hours most of us devote to keeping our cupboards stuffed and the kids clothed. Me, I love work. My first novel began in an office, and my latest book is equally engrossed with office ritual. As a writer, I spend most of my day in bed, typing on a laptop perched atop my stomach, but what I wouldn’t give for a little human interaction, a touch of office gossip, a secret meeting by the coffee machine, a well‑earned paper cut to remind me I am still alive. The funny thing is that when I did have real jobs, I was terribly incompetent at all of them. My first ever attempt to join the American work force took place in high school. I was supposed to sell piano lessons on commission in Manhattan’s Union Square Park. What this meant was that I would stand in the middle of the park wearing a giant sandwich board shaped like a piano while handing out leaflets advertising piano lessons. I was maybe fifteen, new to Manhattan from the farthest reaches of Queens, and perhaps did not fully understand the nature of the busy commerce of Union Square Park circa 1987. “Smoke, smoke, trip, trip.” “Horse! I got horse!” “Get your blow here. Uncut blow. Yessir, I got blow.” “Would you like maybe a piano lesson?” Needless to say, my commission for the day was zero dollars, although the fact that I am very short probably didn’t help, as I was all but swallowed whole by the piano‑shaped sandwich board. The other salespeople of the park did a brisk business and I wish them well in their current pursuits.