While stumbling through the covid pandemic for nearly 2 years, I have relied upon friends, family, health care providers, politicians, strangers who have done their own research, angry people with their own agendas, and Uncle Brad (who is all of the above and thinks I’m an idiot).
This has produced mixed results, so I decided to give Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends a try. After reading Lake Success (and loving it), I thought he might have the answers. He doesn’t but he is funny. And Our Country Friends is a clear lens through which we can see all the absurd, violent, selfish, selfless, and loving ways we have responded to the pandemic.
The book opens at the pandemic’s beginning, when no one knew how long it would last or the toll it would take. Sasha Senderovsky, a “writer and a landowner”, brings together 4 friends and an Actor (Senderovsky is trying to produce a TV show and he needs the Actor’s help) to ride out the pandemic at his country estate with his psychiatrist wife and his 8 year old daughter (who pre-covid attended a “very expensive city school for sensitive and complicated children”).
The estate (a house on a hill with several nearby bungalows) is in the gorgeous Hudson River Valley. “A pebbled path ran between the bungalows, in a way that Senderovsky [a Russian Jew] had hoped would create the feel of a tidy European village, the kind that would have never welcomed his ancestors.” The House on the Hill, which later becomes the Dacha of Doom, evokes the Shining City on a Hill – initially. However, dead trees litter the property with their “dead white rot”, evoking living White rot. There is also a metaphorical valley separating the ordinary and the privileged.
Before long, this “country menagerie” breaks apart, as friends and acquaintances become lovers – or partners in strange (but hygienic) sex acts. The Actor pairs off with a young writer (one of Senderovsky’s former students), and social media names them the “First Couple of the Quarantine”. But this brings more scrutiny to essays she wrote years before when her style was intentionally provocative. “She had been found out, exposed. But for what? All of this had been allowed just weeks before. Everything she had written came with just the right amount of nuance. It had been lab tested and publicist approved.” So what. Now the internet does not approve, and she is condemned.
The outside world intervenes in more violent ways too. George Floyd is killed. From their hilltop commune, which is disintegrating, they watch as society seemingly collapses. “They were watching a double disaster through glasses pressed to binoculars pressed in turn to a telescope.”
Mr. Shteyngart perfectly captures the Zeitgeist (whatever that means) of covid. The paranoia and panic are here. People are afraid that computer chips will be lodged in their naval cavities. They are struggling and lost. But they are also genuinely concerned about the health and welfare of the people they love and the people they grow to love. The story is funny at times but never mean-spirited.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor