Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story is one of the most talked-about novels of the year — but it's also a genuinely impressive piece of dystopian satire. Anyone who wants to see clever near-future worldbuilding should check it out.
Spoilers ahead — although no major plot twists are given away.
Honestly, after reading the reviews of this book I was worried it would turn out to be a slightly gimmicky affair, in which an aging Jewish intellectual obsesses about a hot Asian woman half his age for 350 pages against an Idiocracy-style backdrop of cheap shots against the young people and their obsession with Twitter, Facebook and HotorNot, and the fact that nobody reads books any more. (The perennial lament of New York intellectuals, probably since the days of radio.)
But Super Sad True Love Story is way better than a lot of the early reviews and publicity made it sound — it's a true apocalyptic story about the collapse of America, and it gives a really strong feel for what it would be like, for an ordinary shmoe, to live through the end of the United States. The story of Lenny Abramov's doomed love for Eunice Park is interwoven with the story of America's descent into fascism and economic ruin. The neurotic flow of Lenny's obsessions and his accounts of his work troubles and somewhat pathetic social life add texture and realism to the portrait of a society that's falling apart.
In SSTLS, Lenny Abramov is a mid-level drone for a massive multinational corporation, working in a division that promises to help the super-rich live forever, thanks to nanotechnology, super-antioxidants and various other over-hyped technologies. He falls in love with a beautiful young Korean woman, Eunice, who comes to live with him. But like everyone else these days, she's obsessed with consumerism and a shallow, oversharing, electronic media culture in which everyone's personality and "fuckability" is rated via their äppäräts, basically like iphones that hang around your neck. Everyone is divided into High Net Work Individuals (HNWIs) and Low Net Worth Individuals (LNWIs) to disguise the fact that we're all, collectively, completely screwed because America is bankrupt and up to our asses in hock to the Chinese.
Shteyngart obviously owes a huge debt to both Brave New World and 1984 — there's a great running gag where the National Guard stops people at checkpoints and they are forced to "Deny and Imply" — deny that this conversation ever took place, and imply their consent for an invasive search — or they'll just be disappeared. (An American Restoration Authority sign early on reads: "IT IS FORBIDDEN TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE EXISTENCE OF THIS CHECKPOINT ('THE OBJECT'). BY READING THIS SIGN YOU HAVE DENIED EXISTENCE OF THE OBJECT AND IMPLIED CONSENT.") Like I said, his dark, fucked-up world also will remind you of Idiocracy, and the combination of porno-decadence and fascism also reminded me of Martin Martin's On The Other Side. But it's also a weirdly corporate dystopia, with large corporations clearly ruling what's left of America, even as the governing Bipartisan Party flounders.
Here's a snippet from a comic by Hal Clement for the National Post which explains Shteyngart's worldbuilding really well:
Like I said, this thing could easily be a watered-down satire in which a bitter intellectual takes cheap shots at the young people with their iphones and their bad porn and their reality TV. Etc. etc. etc. But even though this book looks like it's going to go in that direction at first, it actually veers away pretty quickly and gets a lot deeper. For one thing, Eunice isn't nearly as shallow as she looks at first, and she's actually a lot deeper than Lenny in some ways. For another, Shteyngart does a really great job of making their relationship feel believable and real, capturing the actual weirdness of having intimacy with another human being. It does become the chronicle of a love story rather than just the snarky retelling of a hopeless infatuation.
Shteyngart's writing is awfully glib and tap-dancy at first, but then it grows on you and becomes actually quite beautiful. Like this passage, where Lenny and Eunice are visiting the zoo and she compares his big Jewish nose to an elephant's trunk:
"You're so sensitive, Lenny," she said, laughing. "I heart your nose so much. I wish I had a nose." And she started kissing my comma of a snout in full view of the pachyderm, going gently up and down the endless thing with her tough little lips. As she did so, I locked eyes with the elephant, and I watched myself being kissed in the prism of the elephant's eye, the giant hazel apparatus surrounded with flecks of coarse gray eyebrow.
See? It's too florid, but then it actually turns really lovely. A lot of the writing is like that. There are some really nice moments later in the book, where Shteyngart manages to surprise you with a turn of phrase or capture the feeling of being grateful to be alive in New York.
Lenny and Eunice never quite manage to become more than just broad types — neurotic Jewish overthinker and petulant Asian girl — but you still get attached to them as the novel goes on. Partly it's because you meet their families, and discover quite how connected they both are to immigrant communities that fled Russia and Korea hoping for a better life in America. Eunice and Lenny are both connected to the brutality of history through their families — but it's also easy to relate to how fucked up their families both are. You start out thinking both sets of parents are monsters, but as with all of the characters in this book, they wind up surprising you.
The other gratifying thing about Super Sad True Love Story is the way Shteyngart takes pot-shots at the cheap optimism surrounding the Singularity. In the afterword, Shteyngart says he read Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near while he was working on the book, along with Aubrey de Grey's Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthrough That Could Reverse Human Aging In Our Lifetime. And through Lenny's work with Post Human Services, Shteyngart helps drive home the fact that if and when magical immortality technologies finally do exist, they'll only be reserved for a handful of the super-rich, and everybody else will be labeled Impossible To Preserve (ITP). That, plus the fact that there's always going to be a high degree of bullshit attached to any project aimed at extending human lifespans past a certain point. For anyone who's gotten overexposed to mindless Singularitarian cheerleading, Shteyngart's barbs will be extra welcome.
It's really in the final third of the book that it achieves true brilliance and insanity — I don't want to give away any major spoilers, but let's just say that it gets more and more intense, and the slight queasiness you've been feeling all throughout the book turns into outright horror. The last 100 pages or so are chock full of disturbing moments, and at the same time, Shteyngart turns his satire dial all the way up, so that the book becomes a full-on parodic nightmare. I read those last 100 pages in one feverish sitting, marveling as shit just keeps getting weirder and more horrible. By the end, I felt like I was reading one of the great dystopian novels of all time.