Our Country Friends, by Gary Shteyngart*****

Gary Shteyngart is a funny guy. In Our Country Friends, he tells a story in which Sasha, a former literary luminary, up to his eyeballs in debt, invites five friends to join him and his little family at their country estate to weather the pandemic. The results are not at all what he anticipated.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is available now.

Shteyngart does us the favor of listing the cast of characters (“Dramatis Personae,”) at the book’s opening, and I relied on it heavily. Because all of the characters are introduced at the outset, I took a ridiculously long time getting them straight, but it was worth it. The group’s dynamic would be fairly stable but for the introduction of “The Actor,” someone he knew back in the day but who is an A-lister now. But frankly, some, if not all, of the other guests would probably not have come but for the mention of The Famous One as a possible addition. When he comes, the women practically swoon in his presence, and then nothing is the same for the rest of the story.

The first third of the book seems relatively formless, but I suspect the author (should I say, “The Author?”) is warming us up, letting us get to know the characters before a lot of other action takes place. The promotional blurb tells us that this story encompasses six months and four romances, and that it’s about love, friendship, and betrayal, and that sums it up.

Generally speaking, I don’t enjoy novels about rich people, but because Shteyngart is setting them up for satirical misery and angst, I dive in, and I emerge shortly afterward, laughing. This sly humor is unmissable.

Because nearly all of the characters are over forty, I highly recommend this story to readers of a literary bent—if you know Chekhov, it’s even funnier—who are forty or over.

Native Speaker, by Chang-Rae Lee *****

native speakerNative Speaker has been praised by the most prestigious periodicals, from New York to London to Los Angeles, and yet, though it has won a number of awards, I had not heard of it until I found it in a special award-winners area of Powell’s City of Books, when I made my annual pilgrimage to my old hometown and my old bookstore this summer. Perhaps I first found him there because he teaches at the U of Oregon; or perhaps it is because Powell’s is the only brick-and-mortar bookstore I frequent anymore. At any rate, this book was a real find.
Our protagonist is Henry Park, who works as a spy of sorts for a private firm:
“Our clients were multinational corporations, bureaus of foreign governments, individuals of resource and connection.”
Henry is having problems with his work. He is supposed to insinuate himself into the lives of individuals who may be working against the interests of one client or another, find out all he can about them, develop a psychological profile. To do this, he has to pretend to become emotionally attached to them, and in some cases make them dependent upon him; then he files his final report on them and disappears from their lives.
His most recent subject was a psychologist named Luzan. He saw Luzan regularly, began telling him things he had never told anyone. What with his problematic relationship with his father, now deceased, and the accidental death of his beloved son, his only child, and his marital problems…the man actually needs a psychologist, and in the end the firm has to muscle their way into the shrink’s office and physically remove Henry from his subject in order to break the connection.
Now they have thrown him a really easy job to get him back into shape. He is supposed to cover and report on a politician, John Kwang. There is the Korean connection, which makes him a shoo-in; he begins by posing as a freelance journalist, but becomes more and more involved as a member of the campaign staff. His reports become scantier and fewer as he adopts Kwang as the father he never really had.
Beautifully interwoven throughout Lee’s narrative are the cultural understandings between those of Korean ancestry; the conflicts that arise between first and second generations in the US; the racist assumptions, stereotypes, and miscommunications between Koreans and Caucasians, whom he pointedly refers to as “Americans”. Black people are just Black, but white folks are “Americans”. Park is still in love with his “American” wife, but she recently figured out what he does for a living, and she isn’t sure she can live with it. His plan is to finish this assignment, he tells her, and then he’ll get out, go do something else.
There is such grace and care in Lee’s story-telling, both in what is said, and in what is not. I’ve never read anything like it. And one thing I really appreciate is that without overtly saying so, he lets us know that there is no such thing as an Asian-American. A certain skin tone, a fold at the outside of the eyelid, these are superficial things that don’t speak to culture, to language, to expectations. I also really appreciated the way he dealt with the hostility between Korean small shop owners and their African-American neighbors and customers, and the historical reality to which he deftly traces back, without ever stepping away from the central storyline.
Native Speaker is unlike anything else I have ever read. It doesn’t even have a genre, unless we drop it into the “Asian studies” category that his story demonstrates is artificial in any case. It’s a thoughtful, deep story, yet it is not hyperliterate or particularly lengthy. It’s there for anyone who will take the time to read it. A worthy and thought-provoking journey.