Our Country Friends
By Gary Shteyngart
317 pp. Random House. $28.
This one almost did it … almost destroyed me. And to think, when I saw this — brand spanking new — at a Seattle bookshop for 60% off back in February, I was overjoyed! I’d been eagerly wanting to read this after seeing the raveA reviews in The New York Time Book Review, so I bumped it right to the top of my TBR list …
Did I mention that this almost destroyed me? By me, I mean my love of books. And the world, possibly, because Putin decided to invade Ukraine while I was just over a week, and 100 pages, in … Coincidence? The writer’s Russian too, though no heir to Dostoevsky, let me tell you. Oh no …
This was supposed to be light reading. Fun reading. Of course, the subject matter of a book has no bearing on one’s ability to get through it, this book is ample proof of that … You could read “War and Peace” in less time than it took me to get through this one, and have a far better time.
So yes, a war is going on in real-time, you’d think a book with such poorly collected fluff for plot would be a pleasant diversion from that but no, I’d read about the bombing of Kharkiv — a city I spent five years living in — and then turn to this in the evening and somehow feel even worse afterward.
Shteyngart’s schtick, I presume — this being the only book of his I’ve ever read and ever will read — is to make something of current events, so he’s spun this painful yarn about a cast of thoroughly dislikeable “friends” all thrown together in lockdown in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The first fictional account set during Covid-19,” they’d said. “How interesting!” I’d thought after hearing the author interviewed on a podcast last year.
It’s not, it’s really not.
Now I shall strive to avoid any work of fiction set during the pandemic like, well, a plague.
It wasn’t the incoherent masking policies that did it for me, nor the Trump-loving morons with their vaccine conspiracy nonsense … no, it was Shteyngart. Shteyngart has made me, once and for all, disgustingly fed up with the pandemic.
Why did I keep reading? Because this is that worst of books — the sort that doesn’t emit its foul odor right away but only reveals the extent of its rot when you’re already neck-deep in it. Think of that whole, “frog in boiling water” thing, but with puss and other putrid fluids in place of the water.
Does someone die in the end? Perhaps … and I can only say it made me think more fondly of the virus as a result. If only it had killed everyone who appeared in this story then the booksellers would have been obligated to move this from the “newly released fiction” to the “inspirational fiction” section.
So there it is, let us be done with it. After six godawful weeks, full of needless suffering at the hands of a cruel tyrant, the time has come to turn to other things. But enough about the experience of reading this.