Gary Shteyngart Gets Serious
His Super Sad True Love Story truly is sad.
What gives this novel its unusual richness is that undercurrent of sorrow: Lenny's, and Shteyngart's, irreducibly human, marrow-deep sense that nothing and nobody lasts forever. And neither people nor nations ever get any younger, either, no matter how hard they try. It's no small thing for a writer as funny as Shteyngart to refrain from making jokes, as he largely does in the near-apocalyptic final third of Super Sad Love Story. Being funny is a great blessing for an artist, but it can also be a weird kind of burden, because an audience denied the laughter it expects can turn kind of sullen. Cormac McCarthy—from whom the expectation of humor is, let's say, on the low end of the scale—didn't have this problem when he wrote The Road. But for Shteyngart, being serious has to be considered an act of some bravery.
He's wise enough not to go the Woody Allen Interiors route: He doesn't turn his sensibility inside-out and pretend to be someone else. He amuses himself, for example, by inventing godawful brand names for the goods and services of the shameless future: The most popular clothing retailers boast the labels TotalSurrender, AssDoctor, and JuicyPussy. Another, somewhat less provocatively titled, company, Onionskin, markets skintight, transparent jeans designed to be worn without underwear. And he indulges himself, too, in airing a few entirely trivial pet peeves, of the kind all New Yorkers carry around in quantity, right next to their cellphones and their wallets. In this grim future, New Yorkers' search for ever-hipper neighborhoods has finally reached the outer limit of absurdity: The hottest bars in town are now on Staten Island. (Lenny and his friends frequent one called the Cervix.) But in Super Sad True Love Story, the jokes, offhanded as they seem, accumulate a certain weight—the volume and suffocating mass of an oppressive, inhospitable culture. Who wants to live—even for a normal, "human," span—inside a joke?
And, more to the point, how do you live in a culture like that? The beauty of this novel is that its hero and its heroine, in their hugely different ways, really do attempt to negotiate this trashed and trashy world with some tiny measure of dignity. Lenny, the romantic schlemiel, keeps reading—Chekhov, Tolstoy, Kundera—and keeps believing, against the best evidence, in love. Eunice, confused and scattered though she is, keeps trying to give her inchoate life some recognizable form, and to fix, or at least come to terms with, her terrible family. They're fighting a losing battle, one whose outcome is as inevitable as Staatling-Wapachung's war on mortality, but their persistence is genuinely touching.
Shteyngart is rigorous about the improbability of this culture's changing course: The ship has sailed, and it's the Titanic. And even literature, for all its human comforts, can't save anybody from the wreck. At one point, defensive as always about his fondness for books, Lenny reflects that his äppärät knows every last stinking detail about the world, "whereas my books only know the minds of their authors." In Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart tries to cram in as much as he knows about the world. But in the end all he knows is his own—very sharp, fully human—mind.
Terrence Rafferty writes frequently about books and movies for the New York Times.