In their latest novels, Claire Stanford and Gary Shteyngart confront the ways in which technology interferes with moment-to-moment living. Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends takes place in a house in upstate New York, where several friends hole up while the pandemic rages on. In Stanford’s Happy for You, protagonist Evelyn Kominsky Kumamoto finds herself in Silicon Valley, working on a happiness-increasing app for a company with dubious ethics. Despite the grimness underlying both circumstances, Stanford insists that “life is still full of surprises and strangeness and change.” This conversation — which examines technological advancement, race and (mis)categorization, the solace of nature, and the lure of writing science fiction — bears testament to that fullness.
Stephanie Butnick: We’re going to talk about happiness in the world of technology. This won’t be at all dystopian. If our conversation gets too dark, the machine I’m wearing on my hand will beep to tell me to get more positive.
To start off, Gary, there’s a line in your book about Karen, the Tröö Emotions app developer: “Recently, she had sworn to stop uploading photographs to the very social media that made her rich, to enjoy moments instead of imprisoning them.” Let’s dive into that.
Gary Shteyngart: I was recently on an eating tour of Mexico City, and I realized I was running around on my phone. I would take a picture of something and think: Okay, done. I don’t have to experience it anymore. Back when you had to load film in your camera, you really had to take your time. When I’m talking about imprisoning the moment instead of enjoying and interacting with it, I’m talking about creating a screen around it and moving on to the next thing. Now I have proof and the proof is going to be on Instagram. The proof of my being there is more important than my actually being there.
SB: Claire, in your novel, there are moments when Evelyn is trying to take a picture of something and then realizes it’s so beautiful that she can’t capture it on film. Can you talk about that?
Claire Stanford: I’m really interested in the idea of what we choose to capture. In one scene in my book, a man on the bus is taking a photo of the security footage video on the bus. Evelyn is watching this and thinking, What is happening? Why would anyone take a photo of that?
I love the phrase “imprisoning the moment.” Both Evelyn and I grapple with technology and how it gets in the way of being happy. Many of us have a compulsion to package our lives in a way that can go on social media. If marriage, motherhood, and buying a house are the things that we have decided are going to get the most “likes,” what kind of pressures does that put on our choices — whether we’re conscious of it or not?
My book also asks what we need to do to be more in the moment, in the flow of life — whether that’s distancing ourselves from technology or finding other ways to be more centered in the body and experience the natural world.
GS: You know, Our Country Friends happened because I was stuck upstate. I did have the Internet, but you can’t be online twenty hours a day. So I began to walk around outside. Recently I was interviewed by a friend of mine, and he said, “There are so many more sounds in this book than in your others. There are so many sights and smells.” I hadn’t noticed that. That’s what being in nature did. Plus, I don’t understand technology. It’s a new ecosystem. Some are good at it; others aren’t — myself included.
CS: I did enjoy following your Instagram posts from Mexico.
GS: Oh, thank you! I should follow you back.
SB: Claire, in your book, animals seem to serve as a kind of antidote to Evelyn’s technology-focused life. Do you see that as an alternate way of living?
CS: That’s exactly how I was thinking of it. Evelyn becomes entranced by Misfits!, a nature TV show that profiles not lions and peacocks, but animals like the big-headed African mole-rat, and the kakapo, which just lies very still because it doesn’t know how to defend itself. She’s interested in the show as a way of seeing how other beings can coexist, especially as she becomes immersed in the tech world. Things are becoming more and more standardized online, but life is still full of surprises and strangeness and change.
SB: Gary, you wrote Super Sad True Love Story in 2010, which also presaged a new era of technology. What is it like to dream up advances in wearable technology and then see them in real life?
GS: I didn’t think anything I wrote about would happen for decades, but it took only twelve years for tiny details in the book to become reality. It is hard to separate technology from any human experience that we have today. So much of what we do — from Amazon deliveries to romantic encounters — happens through the small screens of our phones.
If marriage, motherhood, and buying a house are the things that we have decided are going to get the most “likes,” what kind of pressures does that put on our choices — whether we’re conscious of it or not?
SB: I first listened to your book on Audible. It wasn’t until I started preparing for this interview that I got my print copy. I had no idea that Tröö Emotions is spelled the way it’s spelled. I had no idea the character of the Actor is capitalized. I thought, What if I’m missing other things? This book was intended to be read in print.
GS: At some point, you’ll probably be able to take a capsule and the words of a book will float through your brain. If you want to stop it, you’ll press on your ear and that will pause it. Our Country Friends: The Pill.
SB: I feel like that’s something Evelyn’s company would be making next, Claire.
CS: They’re probably already making it! When I started writing Happy for You, measuring happiness on an app was a speculative concept. Now there are all sorts of apps purporting to help you improve it.
I’ve talked with other writers about how hard it is to write realist fiction right now. Reality is changing so rapidly, especially since the beginning of the pandemic. In some ways it’s easier to write speculative fiction, because at least you get to make up some of the rules. The world you’ve created can stay stable, unlike our constantly shifting one.
GS: I agree. When I was younger, I wrote more satirical and dystopian science fiction because my present was stable. I wanted to project which parts of the iceberg were going to float off first. Now that we’re all on the ice floe, I want to focus on the personal lives within each individual ice floe. Should I go for a wide-angle lens or zoom in? That’s the kind of question that I think a lot of writers are going to be grappling with as our world continues to move in deeply unpredictable ways.
SB: Claire, your protagonist is half Jewish, half Japanese. The idea of her “halfness” comes up repeatedly throughout the novel. Why was that something you wanted to explore, and how did you go about doing it?
CS: Evelyn is a character I haven’t seen much in fiction. Having an Asian American Jewish protagonist is meaningful to me. I think it is also really important to the whole structure of the novel. Evelyn is someone whose whole life has defied simplified categorization, and now she works in the technology sphere, where everybody is hyper-categorized. For example, you can only choose one race on the app’s dropdown menu. This used to be a very common experience.
SB: That brings us to a great question from the audience. In Happy for You, characters are often given summary descriptions like “Asian man” and “white woman.” Do you want us to examine how quickly we categorize people, and how social media pushes us to that split-second perception (or misperception)?
CS: That is such a good reading. Evelyn is someone who is quick to categorize. It’s a bit of a defense mechanism — she knows that other people are attempting to categorize her. She realizes over the course of the novel that some of her categories and assumptions are wrong. She’s not so much better than the tech company. While her thinking is more complex, she’s still complicit in some of their ideas. Is categorizing people an innate tribal need?
I also see this as part of a growing movement toward not assuming default whiteness in characters. If I’m going to recognize what certain people’s racial backgrounds are, then I should recognize everyone’s. That’s another reason that characters are sometimes tagged as white or blue-eyed or something else that will give their whiteness away.
SB: “Jewish” functions in an interesting way here — it isn’t often on the dropdown menus you mentioned earlier. Gary, how do you see “Jewish” working as a label in the US versus the Soviet Union?
GS: I was born in the Soviet Union, where the nationality section of the passport included Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian, and Jewish. It was not marked as a religion but rather as a race or a people. When I came to America, I went to a Jewish day school. There I was considered “other” because I was Soviet. I had a big fur hat. It was almost as if I wasn’t Jewish there. I was in a separate category. It wasn’t until I ended up in a place where everybody was from somewhere else that I felt the most at home.
SB: Circling back to the beginning of our conversation, how do you break away from technology and be present in the moment?
CS: For me, reading books on an iPad is a recipe for straying over toward social media. So I mainly read physical copies of books. I live in LA, so I also go to the beach a lot. The beach becomes a no-Internet zone.
GS: I swim for about an hour a day. There’s no way to be on the Internet underwater. And my favorite thing to do, especially in New York, is to walk around and eavesdrop on people’s conversations. You get a whole different view of the world without earbuds in your ears. Any little thing you can do to integrate yourself with the physical world is a wonderful thing.
SB: But you’re still going to follow Claire on Instagram after this.
GS: Just did!
This interview is an edited and condensed transcript of a live Unpacking the Book event copresented by Jewish Book Council, The Jewish Museum, and Tablet Magazine.
Stephanie Butnick is the deputy editor of Tablet and has written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She has a bachelor’s degree in religion from Duke and a master’s in religious studies from NYU. She lives in New York with her husband and their cat, Cat Stevens.