When I started Super Sad True Love Story a few weeks ago, I knew just a few things about Gary Shteyngart:
- His last name is borderline impossible to spell. I’ve had to Google it every time I write it.
- He’s funny on Twitter.
- (actually 2b) Thanks to Jennifer Weiner, he occassionally watches and even more occassionally live-tweets The Bachelor. I mention this both because it is so fabulously out of character for a literary-minded person, and because it makes me feel about 48% better about my own Bachelor addiction.
- He was one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 last year, which is how I first read an excerpt of Super Sad True Love Story (SSTLS from here on out).
As it turns out, with the exception of No. 1, these few things are completely appropriate factoids to have when going into SSTLS. The juxtaposition of Shteyngart’s amazing writing and almost unreal ability to both document and parody our current social/political/technological environment is bizarre, awesome and more than a little disconcerting. That this novel could feel both prescient, ludicrous and accurate all within the same page is a testament to how freaking interesting it is to read.
SSTLS is set in the “near future,” when America is in a financial crisis and China is on the brink of foreclosing on us, by which I mean pretty much the entire country. We’ve become more or less a mockery in the world—for our politics, our finances and our supreme lack of intelligence—and our own government has grown paranoid and increasingly totalitarian as they try to encourage people to spend money, take on debt and keep from mixing with the riff-raff (read: poor people.)
The novel’s protagonist, Lenny Abramov, works at a major conglomerate, in the “Post Human Services” department, which is to say that his life’s work is convincing fabulously wealthy people to undergo medical treatments that will make them look younger, live longer and potentially become immortal. Despite his profession’s obsession with youth, Lenny is a traditional kind of guy—he’s dorky, old(er), not the best with technology, and really loves “printed, bound media artifacts” (i.e. books) which the rest of the population detest for their smell and the length of time it takes to read them.
While traveling overseas, Lenny meets a Korean-American woman name Eunice, 18 years his junior, and falls in love with her. The novel, told through Lenny’s diaries and Eunice’s electronic correspondence (something called “teen”ing) with her family and best friend, is an, ahem, super sad true story of attraction between people who would most assuredly be considered opposites.
SSTLS, like any dystopian future-type novel (1984, Brave New World, Infinite Jest) is fun in that you kind of inherently compare it with how things are now. Is this New York City in 10 years? 20 years? ….5 years? It’s like that first time you watched Wall-E and wondered “what the fuck happened that shit got this bad” and “…precisely how long did it take?”
What I like about this book is that, although there are some patently ridiculous parodies, it honestly doesn’t seem that far off from the present. And I don’t only mean because we’re already going broke and afraid of China. There are some broad concepts that Shteyngart just really seems to get:
- Use of devices: In SSTLS, everyone wears their “apparat”s all the time, using them to shop, communicate, assess data and post personal information from anywhere. It’s not uncommon for people to livestream the most mundane of conversations, or to spend half their night in the bar looking up information on fellow patrons, including things like their “fuckability.”
- The return of a rather unspoken sexism, in which women generally go into “retail” and men into “credit.” (also, media is just “Media” and is used as both noun and adjective, as in “that’s so media.” Which I love.) On the fashion front, women have become enamored of things like nippeless bras, crotchless underwear and see-through jeans, which means I need to lose like 60 pounds before this particular dystopia sets in.
- The government is a mess, has tried a dozen different “solutions” to the financial crisis in as many months, and more or less openly caters to the rich. There’s also a passing reference to using an electromagnetic pulse as a weapon against the public, which is kind of amazing considering this book was written before Newt Gingrich said that out loud (and not as a joke.)
- The wealth gap is a huge issue in SSTLS, in that poor people are undesirables that the government leaves to camp out in parks and public spaces before eventually cracking down on them with violence. It’s hard to describe how surreal it is to read these passages knowing that Shteyngart was writing in the pre-Occupy Wall Street days.
Anyway, I realize I’ve given a lot away here, but SSTLS is nothing if not detail-heavy. By taking our world and really just tweaking it slightly, making it just a little more absurd, Shteyngart manages to create an entire other world that seems both foreign and familiar at the same time. Lenny and Eunice are great characters, well-developed and products of the environment in which they live, but for me at least, it was the place that Shteyngart described that was the most fascinating. In fact, it’s almost because people themselves aren’t that different (or won’t improve) that such a crazy society could very well be in our future.
In the course of reading this book, I’ve had one person say they hated in, one say they were indifferent and two say it’s the best thing they read last year. I have to say I fall decidedly in the third camp. SSTLS is a truly unique and awesome read, and if you don’t think we’re almost scarily close to the world Shteyngart describes, then you probably haven’t been paying attention.
TITLE: Super Sad True Love Story
AUTHOR: Gary Shteyngart
PAGES: 331 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan
SORTA LIKE: Infinite Jest meets World War Z (no zombies though)
FIRST LINE: “Dearest Diary, Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die.”