Our Country Friends

Random. Nov. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9781984855121. $28. F
This latest from Shteyngart (Lake Success) isn’t the first work of fiction to touch on COVID-19, but it is the most explicit pandemic novel yet. Kicking off during the virus’s uncertain early days, the book concerns a group of family, friends, and lovers who gather at a sprawling bungalow colony to idle away lockdown with food and booze and contend with the inevitable discord that arises as their stay stretches on. After 18 months of inuring ourselves to new normals, Shteyngart’s journey back to the beginning is dizzying, all action bathed in early-pandemic surreality. He details guesswork safety protocols with a light comic absurdity, and his always-bold prose is as strong as ever: In his world, glasses of wine are poured with the “prophylactic aid of an oven mitt.” But as vividly as this novel recalls a dreamlike near-past, it’s reductive to think of it only as pandemic portraiture. The pandemic is more like set dressing for Shteyngart’s usual humanism; his concerns widen to encompass the menace of technology and the ill feeling so often rooted in enduring relationships, romantic or platonic. COVID-19’s most essential role here is as symbol: of division, of isolation, of fear, of living in modern America, but also of overcoming, persisting, surviving.
VERDICT Both the definitive COVID-19 novel and not, this work captures an uncertain modernity and speaks to the existential peril of contemporary life.
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