Last night, a crowd of 300-odd New Yorkers assembled at the BAM Harvey Theater to watch the novelist Gary Shteyngart subjecting himself to a Friar's Club-style roast by his literary peers.
It was a strange experiment in the realm of literary promotion, one that could only have come from the madcap mind of 40-year-old, Russian-born Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story. It was also a big disappointment.
The roast started well, with a funny slideshow set to the tune of Strauss's "Thus Spake Zarasthura" and narrated by host John Wesley Harding, illustrating the history of Russian literature up until Shteyngart. After the four roasters - novelists Kurt Andersen and Edmund White, humor writer Sloane Crosley and Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of the New Yorker - came out on stage and sat in normal chairs, Shteyngart followed and was forced to squat on a tiny toddler sized chair to their far right, prompting some genuine laughter. There followed a funny segment about Shteyngart's affinity for writing blurbs for other writer's novels, including several by those on stages. It turns out he's written 123 of them.
But it all went downhill from there. Everyone in the audience quickly learned why this kind of funny-mean treatment in public is usually reserved for comics and actors, not novelists. Comics and actors generally have highly charismatic friends, who can easily regale audience members with hilarious stories of their exploits. Novelists do not. (The one great hope of this event, Jay McInerney, canceled at the last minute.) The super sad truth is that the Gary Shteyngart roast was neither funny nor entertaining. The fact that it lasted just 50 minutes - rather than the 90 organizers had predicted - was an unexpected blessing.
It wasn't even a true roast. Instead of speeches, the four roasters spent most of the evening responding unenthusiastically to leading questions by Harding about Shteyngart, mostly softballs about Shteyngart's hirstuteness or his love of blurbs. For example: "Sloane, you've met a lot of male novelists. Just how furry and poorly-groomed is Gary, compared to other male novelists?" The answers were neither cutting nor funny. White read his off a sheet of paper.
The low point of the night came toward the end, when Harding asked the four roasters, 40 minutes into the event, whether they had anything else to say before the end of the night. He asked again five minutes later. "Perhaps something in your notes that you haven't gotten to," he suggested. None of them bit, so Harding moved on to a concluding clip-reel of footage cut from Shteyngart's book trailer.
Even if the roast was a failure as an event, it was a brilliant demonstration of Gary Shteyngart's success at creating an ersatz comic persona for himself. Everyone who's ever watched the celebrity-studded trailer for Super Sad True Love Story, read an interview with him, or even just seen his author photo, in which he's dressed up in strange furry Russian folk garb and leading a small black bear on a leash, knows the outlines of that character: the unattractive, hapless Russian immigrant who's clueless in the literary world in which he's ineffably found himself ensconced.
That's great for marketing books. It's also a funny persona, and Shteyngart commits to it with surprising gusto, even for much of last night. Indeed, it's a testament to the popularity of this persona that BAM and its partner for the night, Greenlight Bookstore, were able to convince several hundred people to pay $20 to listen to writers make fun of him.
The problem, at least for for roasting purposes, is that the persona is already such a mockery of Shteyngart that it's hard to score the kinds of painful direct hits that are necessary for a good roast. Treisman encapsulated the central challenge of the roast when she mused, "How do you roast someone who roasts himself every day?"
The only answer that the four panelists could come up with last night? Ineffectually.
A few days before the event, The Huffington Post spoke by phone to Shteyngart about his roast. He was as witty and entertaining as his hilarious books would lead you to believe. But it was impossible to take anything he said at face value; throughout the interview he stuck mostly to the script dictated by his persona. He joked that he's never read any of the books he's blurbed, that he never gets out of bed, the whole nine yards.
When asked how he felt about the prospect of the roast, he said he was scared out of his mind, that it was "going to be terrible." He speculated that his enemies in the Tea Party were likely responsible for the idea, and that he planned take lots of Ativan and Xanax the night of the event.
Spoken in jest, but isn't it conceivable that Shteyngart's expression of fear is the one honest thing he ever expresses to journalists?
A decent roast might have helped answer that question. The author is currently working on a memoir. Perhaps, when it's published, we'll finally learn something about the real Gary Shteyngart. All we discovered at this event is that he isn't a great subject for comedy not of his own making, a lesson that many in the audience could have done without paying $20 to learn.
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