Gary Shteyngart Gets Serious
His Super Sad True Love Story truly is sad.
Gary Shteyngart might be too funny for his own good. His new novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is a spectacularly clever near-future dystopian satire, but it may actually disappoint admirers of his first two, more consistently hilarious, novels, The Russian Debutante's Handbook and Absurdistan. At first, the book seems like Shteyngart business-as-usual as we delve into the diary of one Lenny Abramov, a pure exemplar of this writer's favorite species of comic protagonist: a self-deprecating Russian-American Jewish male, self-conscious about his appearance, uselessly well-educated, wry, passionate, neither old nor young, and helplessly prone to error.
The first, and biggest, of Lenny's mistakes is embodied in the diary's opening sentence: "Today I've made a major decision: I am never going to die." This decision, though obviously—in the great Russian literary tradition—insane, is not entirely implausible in Lenny's world. He is in fact the employee of a New York firm that promises to extend its clients' lives more or less indefinitely. To be precise, he is the "Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) of the Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation," headed by a septuagenarian who, thanks to his own company's services, looks a good deal younger than 39-year-old Lenny. It's a nice setup for a science-fiction comedy, particularly since the hero, prior to his momentous bad decision, has been pretty determinedly a pre-post-human kind of guy. Unlike everyone else in this nightmarishly youth-obsessed America, he doesn't monitor his blood pressure and ACTH levels constantly, and (his crowning eccentricity) he likes to read books. He's practically the last man in New York who does.
But Lenny Abramov has, as the novel opens, resolved that, after all, he really would like to live forever, because he has—this is the ur-mistake—fallen hopelessly in love with a woman 15 years his junior. She is Eunice Park, the slender, attractive, moody daughter of an abusive Korean-American podiatrist from Fort Lee, N.J. Eunice is, unlike Lenny, very much a child of her time: an avid online consumer, a believer in images and sensations, a lifelong mistruster of words, written or spoken. (In Shteyngart's electronic future, people communicate primarily by means of powerful little devices called äppäräti, which supply torrential streams of information to their rapt users.)
She's basically a sweet kid, though, and, for a while, at least, just desperate and needy enough to respond to Lenny's nerdy ardor. In between longish stretches of Lenny's anxious prose, Shteyngart provides briefer bursts of Eunice's voice, in the form of her correspondence on a social network called GlobalTeens: chatty, casually obscene in the manner of the times, and very, very guarded emotionally. Everybody in this hyperconnected world knows everything about everybody else—their medical histories, their credit ratings, their political affiliations—but almost no one seems to know, or want to know, too much about himself.
Consumerism; youth-worship; subliteracy; and developed societies' obsessions with money, class, health, and entertainment—the most prestigious occupations in this society are Media and Credit, followed at a discreet distance by Retail—are easy sport for a wit as gifted as Gary Shteyngart. He takes aim and the targets go down, unerringly. For the first half of Super Sad True Love Story, quick, bitter little jokes pop on every page, one after the other, like rifle fire on opening day of hunting season. Like every good satirist, he's observant and annoyed, nursing innumerable beefs, both major and minor, with the state of the world.
He is also, as it happens, plenty ticked off about American military adventurism (there's recently been a war with Venezuela), repressive "national security" measures (the citizenry is under the boot of a heavily armed government entity called the American Restoration Authority), and the country's fiscal dependence on the kindness of Far Eastern strangers. (The only U.S. money that's worth anything is pegged to China's currency.) It's not just that the culture is shallow and crummy; the real problem is that the shallowness and crumminess contribute to enabling a toxic, even a lethal, political environment, and as the novel goes along, the seriousness of Shteyngart's purpose becomes more and more apparent, and the tone grows melancholy. Near the end, after a visit to his parents on Long Island, Lenny muses on living "at the end of the busted rainbow, at the end of the day, at the end of the empire." Shteyngart's first two books were unrepentantly gleeful about the demise of the Soviet empire; the end of America makes him a lot sadder.
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.