I begin my 87-day reading tour of the US, UK and Canada on a BA flight that will take me to Edinburgh for the book festival. I catch up on my Ab Fab and Peppa Pig and eat some back bacon. I land around 10 p.m. and take a walk through the city. I love Scotland! The young people seem so ebullient: ‘Feck this. Feck that. Feck you.’ I stumble around the old town and new town taking in the endless adverts for all the plays. Should this much art exist in any one city? I guess so. I mean, why not? Probably it’s OK.
I wake up with a twofold mission in mind. Haggis and whisky. Look, I love haggis. It’s Scottish, but there’s something desperately Eastern European about it, something sultry, sickly and taboo. All I want to do is have a delicious haggis and follow it up with coffee and whisky for breakfast. Is that so wrong? Apparently. The server at the Arcade Haggis and Whisky House in the old town tells me she can’t serve me alcohol before 12.30 p.m. I look at her with shock. What part of ‘Scotland’ does she not understand? I’m about to bring up Irvine Welsh’s Wiki page to show her what I mean, when she returns: ‘I’m sorry. Whisky for breakfast is a lovely idea, I just can’t serve it to you.’ We look into each other’s eyes, centuries of Russo-Scottish understanding between us. The haggis, blood pudding and beans are terrific, even without alcohol. I should have brought my own flask.
Later, I meet up with some writers, editors and agents at Fishers in the City, where I eat some spectacular Orkney scallops and drink the better part of a bottle of Sancerre. Now I’m ready for my first reading, which takes place in one of the sweetest bookshops I’ve ever seen, the Golden Hare. Barry Cohen, the hedge fund bro who is the hero of my new novel, Lake Success, has a strange hobby. He’s a watch collector. And full disclosure: so am I. Look, I’m middle-aged, life is almost over and there’s not much to hope for. So I collect watches. Want to do something about it? Anyway, an Edinburgh collector shows up at the signing and we geek out about his mid-1960s Zenith and my Rollie GMT 1675. Now it’s time to drink a lot of whisky, which I do and have a lobster at the Kilted Lobster with my editor.
I do a 10 a.m. reading from Lake Success, possibly the earliest I’ve ever read. Also, possibly the earliest I’ve ever got up in the morning (I’m a writer). The audience is lovely and people seem to get my stupid jokes. No watches at the signing, though. I spend the day chugging whisky, eating various interpretations of scallops and sea bass, and just seeing where my feet will take me. For some reason, I end up at the docks in front of the royal yacht Britannia. My evening reading at the festival goes very well. Seventy-eight per cent of jokes are well-received, including the one about the haggis.
London! Since Brexit, this town feels a little different, not as intimidating as before, no longer the capital of the universe. At breakfast at my nice hotel, a Russian is screaming to his business partner back home: ‘Well, they got this fucking democracy here. It’s hard to do business.’ I tweet that dialogue out and am told to watch my tea and sushi consumption. Tonight’s reading is at the London Review Bookshop with the writer Adam Thirlwell, who happens to be my OBF, or oldest British friend. At the book signing, a watch geek brings me a watch strap to sign. Also, a young man tells me I’ve won a prize. It’s a series of yellow envelopes stuffed with information, including something called ‘Gary Shteyngart’s early retirement worksheet’. A quick scan of the materials includes a dense meditation on my tweets, Jews, cricket, the number 666 and Ben Stiller. He bought two books over the course of two readings (the next day he showed up in some kind of cricket
get-up), so this bloke is OK with me.
I love walking around London because I don’t get to my native Russia much, and it’s fun to hear Russian as the primary language on the streets. This is my last day here, and it’s a suitably grey one. The reading is at King’s Hall or some such place and the audience is lively and terrific. London’s watch cognoscenti are out in force tonight and pretty soon I’m ass-deep in Omegas, Rollies and some truly funky old Seikos. I get back to my hotel and have a dream of turning into an Orkney scallop. I wake up feeling at peace for the first time in my life.
Well, time to head back for the American portion of my tour. Economists and social scientists agree that the UK has a super-interesting future ahead of it, and I’m glad to have seen it in its moment of transition. I will miss it terribly and I hope to return soon — if they let me.
Gary Shteyngart is the author of several novels including Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story.