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Super Sad True semi-repatriation to gotham reading Shteyngart

On the plane from FCO to JFK i read Super Sad True Love StorySuper sad by Gary Shteyngart. I grabbed the book somewhat randomly before leaving, wanting something lite that i could leave behind, not thinking it would be relevant to our travel plans ... but ends up the book takes place between the eternal city & the city that never sleeps.

I guess the Rome connection shouldn't be surprising considering i heard about Shteyngart thru Chiara Barzini, as he blurbed her book, so likely he did some time there.

Maybe i'd heard of Shteyngart before that, but i think i thought he was part of some elaborate hoax... that the book wasn't real. He, or his publisher, got all these big names like James Franco, Mary Gaitskill, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jay McIerney & Paul Giamatti to sarcastically vouch for him (tongue in cheek) in some promotional videos & a book trailer. Based on these stunts, you'd think Shteyngart might be like the Borat of the literary world, but the thing is his writing is fairly mainstream & ordinary. He's not a complete idiot, but he's not super smart, sadly falling somewhere in between.

Super Sad True Love Story starts on his last night in Rome, before he moves back to NYC, when he falls in love with a Korean-American girl, complicating his move back. So it's all multi-cultural like that, in a new yorkey way (Shteyngart himself unabashedly cashing in on his Russian/Jewish pedigree).

Gary Shteyngart

I can't say i was super crazy about the book, but i had nothing else to read for the 9-hour flight & the in-flight movies truly sucked. It beat staring at the back of the seat. And in light of our repatriation from Rome to NYC, the perspective was somewhat interesting.

Not that that we are repatriating quite yet, but since j quit her job we had to give up our italian ministerio cards & return stateside, so we can return to europe anew on tourist visas. Fortunately, we had planned to come anyway, as j has some classes to teach (at the same place Shteyngart teaches) & i took the opportunity to print & send myself some copies of the book where the birds are the words, so i could actually touch & smell it for myself (which is really the only reason i even made this book). (If you are interested in checking it out, let me know in the next few days (before sept 1) & i'll send you a copy.)

Shteyngart's take on contemporary Romans is pretty insightful & accurate, though he's probably a bit more forgiving then i would be. For example, he finds something endearing in the lack of ambition in today's Roman youth:

«On my last night at Fabrizia's, the expected bunch of forty-year olds showed up, the rich children of Cinecittà film directors who are now occasional screenwriters for the failing Rai (once Italy's main television concern), but mostly indulgers of their parents fading fortunes. That's what I admire about youngish Italians, the slow diminution of ambition, the recognition that the best is far behind them. (An Italian Whitney Houston might have sung, "I believe the parents are our future.") We Americans can learn a lot from their graceful decline.»

It's a graceful decline, i'd agree with that. Romans manage to always show only their good side (like any savvy celebrity)—to mask their fossilized resignation in flashy clothes & designer sunglasses. At first (coming from America, with open mind) i thought there might be something to learn from this. Or at least that such ashes might provide fertile soil to plant new seeds. But now i'm not so sure.

And i'm not Gary Shteyngart. Someone like Shteyngart might get a lot more out of Rome, and give a lot more back. He's funny & hip (despite his shtick of being a total nerd). I'm sure the Italians loved him. The experience is different for an introvert like me, that is just a casual observer. That doesn't want to participate in or change any systems. Gotham is a better fit for such personalities. The Roman lack of competition, innovation & basic infrastructure to get shit done started to wear on me after a while & get me down. I'm sure i'll have more to say about this as we continue the slow transition back, once we've extracted ourselves & are able to think objectively about it. But for now, back to his story.

The story is mostly believable & contemporary, perhaps even auto-biographical, with occasional surreal satirical flourishes. Like he says there's a law saying if you spend more than 250 consecutive days abroad, you need to register for something called «Welcome Back, Pa'dner, the official United States Citizens Re-Entry Program», otherwise you can get busted for sedition. (If it wasn't for the «Pa'dner», i might have actually googled it to see if this was true).

I was reading his description of the Fiumicino waiting lounge & how there are no seats for passengers, while i was waiting at Fiumicino, sitting on the floor, so i can vouch for the authenticity of this description... though no gun-toting police with body-scanners.

And funny was the part where he's being interrogated by some automated gizmo & it asks him who he'd been spending time with in Rome, and he says «Some Italians» but the voice recognition thing thinks he says Somalians, and thus he is flagged in their system, which subsequently causes him some strife when he gets to JFK.

The book had its funny moments for sure & few people can pull off being so simultaneously freaky & geeky (albeit with Shteyngart it's conscious & not seeming so genuine—a contrived gimmick). But i guess there's the educational angle to consider—sometimes i feel compelled to read such books to try to understand why they are hip & popular. But mostly it just made me feel more alienated from the rest of humanity, from my «contemporaries», in my inability to relate or even laugh at it all. Maybe i take myself too seriously, or expect too much of others, i don't know.

Anyway, so here we are, in reality. On 77th & Broadway for now, though in a few days we'll shift to 116th & Morningside. It's nice to eat things besides the same 9 pasta dishes on every menu in Rome. It's nice to be mobile, to be able to easily & cheaply get to any corner of the city at any time (without a car or motorino).

Never underestimate the power of mobility & diversity & competition. These are the forces that got us to where we are at & are the three forces that make gotham great.

 >> continued (reading Bruno Schulz)

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