Gary Shteyngart’s first two books, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan (my review), showcase the talent of a brilliant satirist whose execution may not always be equal to his promise. I was on the fence on whether or not I’d pick up the author’s latest, Super Sad True Love Story, but was swayed in the end by the excellent book trailer. To get my copy, I had to almost climb entirely into the window display of Asheville’s Malaprops bookstore to pluck out their last remaining copy. It was well worth it. Super Sad True Love Story is brilliant.
Where Russian Debutante and Absurdistan viewed Americans abroad in the former Soviet sphere, this time out Shteyngart, a Russian immigrant, shines the full spotlight of his satire on Americans at home. Super Sad takes place in dystopian near-future (the dust jacket says “oh, let’s say next Tuesday”) Manhattan. Shteyngart’s vision of our collective future is one in which our own worst impulses are taken to their logical extremes.
The titular “love story” is between Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park. Lenny works for Post Human Services a company that specializes in reversing the aging process through advanced dietary and biochemical means. Eunice is a student spending a year abroad in Rome when their paths cross. Both are first generation Americans, Lenny the son of Russian Jews and Eunice the daughter of Korean Evangelicals. The narrative jumps back and forth from Lenny’s hand written diary entries and Eunice’s texts to friends and family. Between the two accounts, the reader gets a clearer account of the relationship than the actual participants.
The couple seems doomed from the start, as the title would suggest. Lenny is a hopeless schlub. Eunice is insecure and much younger and hipper than Lenny. In the best of circumstances, their relationship would be a challenge. But their relationship does not take place under the best of circumstances. Xenophobia is on the rise, and the pair each stand out in their own way. And then there is the slow demise of the country around them.
In Shteyngart’s future, Fox News has morphed into an even more absurd incarnation, “FoxLiberty-Ultra.” The government has become a single-party authoritarian regime ironically titled the “Bipartisan Party.” Youth culture, created on a foundation of mainstream porn and electronic media, is completely out of control. Our electronic/on-line privacy is a distant memory. Everyone carries an iPhone like device called an äpärät that displays their credit history, real time “attractiveness” ratings (although referred to in a more blunt manner), and detailed personal history to anyone that wants to take a look. And everyone does.
Texting and other electronic communication has become so ubiquitous that it is no longer referred to by a special name; rather when you want to actually talk to someone, you let them know that they should “verbal” you. Official government signs routinely contain spelling and grammatical errors. (Oops. That one has started already.) Maybe saddest of all for we readers is the relegation of the printed word to oblivion as Eunice makes all to clear in this exchange:
Anyway, what kind of freaked me out was that I saw Len reading a book. (No it didn’t SMELL. He uses Pine-Sol on them.) And I don’t meaning scanning a text like we did in Euro Classics…I mean seriously READING…I just stood there and watched him red for like HALF AN HOUR…I thought that Ben was really brain-smart because I saw him streaming Chronicles of Narnia in that cafe in Rome, but this Tolstoy was a thousand pages long BOOK…
Ouch. Shteyngart’s near future dystopia is at turns completely hilarious and utterly heartbreaking, because it all seems so plausible. Much of the recent talk about a certain recent blockbuster “serious” novel of ideas “shows us how we live now.” I think that what Shteyngart does with this novel achieves that same end and cuts us much more to the quick. Yet as much as Super Sad is brilliant satire, it also anchored at its heart by an emotional love story that is completely real, if not actually “true.” Super Sad is the satiric near-future dystopian star-crossed love story for people who don’t like satiric near-future dystopian star-crossed love stories. This is Shteyngart’s best novel yet, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
If you’re on the fence, listen to Shteyngart’s conversation with the always brilliant Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm: