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Staff Picks: Our Country Friends

I don’t think it is a moral slip to feel fatigued by the pandemic after two-plus years of masks and distancing. So why would it be enjoyable to read an off-duty book about this strange time? Is fiction not supposed to give us a break from reality?

The quirky style of Our Country Friends makes the act of reading an exercise in stepping away from today’s problems, even though the plot is centered around those same problems. Shteyngart’s artful character development is a reminder that human beings are profoundly strange and entertaining. The novel tells the story of old friends quarantining out of the city in the early pandemic era.  Through a novel that engages most of the diverse and controversial issues of 2020, we can think about these problems in a low-stakes context. I’m still trying to decide if this is cathartic or traumatic. Shteyngart brings in the elements of modern discourse in a way that is self-reflexive, questioning its own performativity. The reboot of Sex and the City has been criticized for a superficial treatment of these same concepts. However, it’s hard to see a future in which new works of culture don’t bring these factors into play. These projects are working it out in real time. And yes, the book details a cancel-culture debacle involving one of the more hilarious plot lines.

Does anyone else feel disoriented watching shows or films that don’t show masks or regard distancing protocols? The stuff of this modern life is awkward, but hard to unsee. Shteyngart makes a point to excavate the many layers of meaning within and between people regarding a clumsy understanding of the virus. The author shows humanity through absurdity. The compound landowner’s haphazard appearance aligns with the ‘new uniform’ for work/leisure wear. An element of comfort emerges when reading about such a character after existing in pajamas for the last two years.

It is not a huge surprise that things go very wrong. Although not all plot lines are inherently funny, irony and comedy keep things relatively positive. A quick search for 2020 memes proves that humor is necessary for survival, an exercise in mental fitness. However, the pandemic-era blunders have not been discontinued. Did you hear about the thousands of cookbooks that fell overboard? Speaking of cookbooks, the wineglass featured on the cover led me to believe that this novel would indulge my foodie side. The book does not disappoint. Lively food and drink descriptions waft through these pages. And while we’re still (still) living in this pandemic era, the inspiration to cook a nice meal or mix a strong cocktail hits home.  

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