Gary Shteyngart’s third novel, the awkwardly if endearingly titled Super Sad True Love Story, is a dystopian vision of America’s future. But the dystopia in question is not the one of Brave New World or 1984 or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?–it is too recognizable our own world to really be science fiction, though I suppose that’s the realm in which its genre hovers. It is set in the not-at-all-distant future, just far enough out so that Shteyngart can stretch out the flaws of our age like silly putty–just far enough for the world to be easily mockable yet pathetic, and, in its way, far more chilling than anything Orwell and Huxley dreamed up, simply because we can see its decay and desperation all around us.
Its closest literary analogues are Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins and Don DeLillo’s White Noise, though Shteyngart’s milieu is more futuristic and funnier than DeLillo’s and lacks the urgent Catholicism that always pulses beneath the surface of Percy’s. The nearest thing I can think to compare it to is Mike Judge’s 2006 film Idiocracy, though the book is far more serious than the movie. In any case, we’re given a future in which America’s star has been eclipsed and the country has begun a slow, technology-fueled slide into the intellectual Stone Age.
It is a sad and banal world of casual vulgarity. All Americans carry an iPad-esque device that broadcasts their rating for a word that begins with F- and ends with -ability; women wear clothes made of onionskin that display their breasts and genitals to anyone who cares to take a look; and futuristic podcasters are on the air 24/7, talking shamelessly about the abuse they suffered as children and the explicit details of their meaningless sexual encounters. Orwellian doublespeak runs rampant, though it is not imposed on the citizenry by an all-powerful government. Instead, it spreads like a disease on the streets. In one scene, for example, our protagonist, Lenny Abramov, believes his friend Vishnu Cohen has suggested that they commit a lewd act in a Staten Island bar:
“Jeez, cool it, Nee-gro,” I said, already slurring my words. You’ve got a little cutie at home” . . .
“It’s F-A-C,” Vishnu explained. “I said, ‘Let’s F-A-C.'”
“What does that mean?”
“He sounds like my granny in Aventura!” Noah was bellowing. “‘FAC? What’s that? Who am I? Where’s my diaper?'”
“It means, ‘Form A Community,'” Vishnu said. “It’s like, a way to judge people. And let them judge you.”
The social commentary would be hamfisted were it not so horrifyingly true to our own time. One can hear conversations very close to this–sarcasm under the guise of friendship–in hipster bars from Greenpoint to Silver Lake.
Indeed, Shytengart has a particular ear and eye for the speech and lives of hipsters–and in the world he describes in this novel, if you’re not elderly and dying or a soldier and killing, odds are you’re a hipster. There may never be a takedown of the overeducated, oversexed, overironized “creative class” as bitterly accurate as the following, which comes after Lenny’s friends learn about a National Guard attack on the homeless:
Meanwhile, at the Cervix [an impossibly cool Staten Island bar], the stunned silence had already been replaced by a general mood of frivolity mixed with practiced outrage, people throwing around their near-worthless unpegged dollars and crowning themselves with Belgian ales.
Those readers who have stumbled too close to a party thrown by a certain type of humanities graduate student will smell the real world in descriptions like this one: Political activism is knee-jerk and related to sexual conquest, and intellectual self-congratulation mixes with the basest hedonism into a thick, bilious stew.
Lenny skirts close to this attitude, but for the most part he is outside of his circle of insufferable friends. He is saved by a certain cultural conservatism, which is to say that he more readily identifies with the generation before our own, as do many of us. In our day, this conservatism manifests itself as a conscious striving toward a vanished literary culture. Lenny’s protest is at once simpler and more radical than our own: In a world absolutely obsessed with electronic youth, he clings stubbornly to the low-tech past, in the form of books. His peers, and especially people a few years younger than him, cannot read in any meaningful way–even the best liberal-arts colleges teach only “skimming.” Books themselves are malodorous doorstops, and the younger generation can only look at them quizzically, wondering when the interactive animation will start up. Teachers of literature will recognize that this attitude is only barely satire on Shteyngart’s part.
The major plot of the novel involves Lenny’s interaction and romantic entanglement with Eunice Park, a Korean-American fifteen years his junior. Because of the terrible cultural shift, this decade and a half may as well be a lifetime: In Eunice’s eyes, Lenny is ancient and rotting and impossibly square. A child of an ange in which one either looks like a movie star or is regarded as Sasquatch, she is disgusted by Lenny’s physical appearance (average by any fair standard). And yet she is drawn to him for reasons she cannot really understand but which clearly revolve around his being “like what Prof Margaux in Assertiveness Class used to call ‘a real human being.'” Lenny’s attraction to her is his kicking against the grave–he is obsessed with death from the first sentence of the novel–and a product of his needing to be her savior, to rescue her from things she’s not aware she needs to be rescued from.
Their relationship rings true to the sad ambivalence of so many real-life relationships: We’re not sure if Lenny and Eunice love each other, but it’s clear that they need each other in a not-particularly-healthy way. We are inclined to root for them, even as we know that their relationship’s inevitable end will be the best thing for both of them. We know they are doomed (from the title, if nothing else), and we are glad, in a way, even if it breaks our heart.
Meanwhile, America is essentially coming apart at the seams all around them. A privatized National Guard has set up checkpoints all over the city, protecting nothing in particular; the country is at war with Venezuela; and China, sick of propping up another nation’s dying economy, very reasonably demands their money back. Everything coalesces into a catastrophe no less terrifying than DeLillo’s “airborne toxic event,” and it’s a testament to Shyteyngart’s deft handling of the interpersonal aspects of the novel that the reader cares far more about the relationship between Lenny and Eunice than about the firestorm swirling around them. The catastrophe exerts a strange effect on their relationship, and like everything else connected to them, it feels terribly and devastatingly real.
This is the plot–though I have left out a great many lovely and nasty surprises–and it would have been enough to make Super Sad True Love Story interesting. It is made great, or at least very good, by Shteyngart’s amazing powers of description, manifested in particular in two ways. The first is the majestic depictions of New York City. Lenny notes as he takes the Staten Island Ferry back to Manhattan that “Every returning New Yorker asks the question: Is this still my city?” His answer: “It is. And if it’s not, I will love it all the more. I will love it to the point where it becomes mine again.” He suggests a sort of geographic salvation, and he finds it with descriptions like this one:
Noah told me that there’s a day during the summer when the sun hits the broad avenues at such an angle that you experience the sensation of the whole city being flooded by a melancholy twentieth-century light, even the most prosaic, unloved buildings appearing bright and nuclear at the edge of your vision, and that when this happens you want to both cry for something lost and run out there and welcome the decline of the day.
This sentence is an emblem of the entire novel: Beautifully sad, lonely but searching for connection, finding the unlikely moment of grace, however fleeting, in the declining fortunes of a once-great empire. The city redeems Lenny with its soft, hazy light, and Lenny redeems the city with his willingness to comb its tired streets for moments like this one. Parts of the novel read like a love letter to Shteyngart’s adopted hometown, and they underscore the degree to which he belongs to the tradition of Jewish New York humor, which, from Dorothy Parker to Woody Allen to Larry David has always been as sad as it is funny.
It’s no surprise, then, that Shteyngart’s other great skill is finding the supreme and existential sadness coiled around the heart of his supremely funny satire. Most of the novel’s characters are too plugged-in and media-savvy to betray their fundamental loneliness–but it’s obvious that in their rare moments of self-reflection they must feel as empty as does Lenny, whose experience writing in his diary qualifies him to discover other people’s terrible secrets. He notes of his elderly Russian-immigrant father: “Sometimes when he spoke I surmised that, at least in his own mind, he had already ceased to exist, that he thought of himself as just an empty spot cruising through a ridiculous world.” In Shteyngart’s fading empire, everyone who gives it fifteen seconds of thought–a small category, to be sure–must feel this way. Knowing this, we understand why people live their lives through electronic devices and anonymous sex: It’s a way of forgetting, of never remembering in the first place.
In the Heideggerian nightmare of Super Sad True Love Story–a world ruled by technology, a world of sein without the da, a world where death is on the verge of being eliminated, at least for the very rich–Lenny Abramov is the most important sort of rebel. He is willing to look deep into his own being and to be honest about what he finds there. And in a world of electronic ephemera, he writes it down so that future generations can return to it again and again. Shyteyngart, it goes without saying, has done the same.