And On "Super Sad True Love Story"

(originally published in the Rockford Independent Press)

“Shteyngart melds romance and terrifying satire in Super Sad True Love Story


Having built a reputation as one of the nation’s foremost and sharpest-witted comic satirists in his previous novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart seems an unlikely candidate to author the most frightening novel of the past decade.

Super Sad True Love Story, however, seems a likely candidate for the distinction, though – true to its title – Super Sad True Love Story explores a complex relationship with compassion as it terrifies.

Super Sad True Love Story takes place in a radically-altered America sometime in the 2020s. The dollar has lost practically all its value, and only currency pegged to the Chinese yuan has any value. The US military is bogged down in a military adventure in Venezuela. Secretary of Defense Rubinstein (in an echo perhaps of 1984’s Emmanuel Goldstein) has created a sprawling bureaucracy known as the American Restoration Authority which functions as a sort of secret police. Global corporations pretty much run the show, and they’ve gotten bigger, leading to monstrosities like UnitedContinentalDeltamerican Airlines. The protagonists’ parents flip back and forth between FoxLiberty-Prime and FoxLiberty-Ultra. In other words, it’s pretty fucking bleak.

Even more horrifying, though usually in a comical way, is the manner in which social mores have changed in this new and improved America. Practically everyone, young and old alike, is plugged in constantly to their äppärät – the nightmarish device smart phones have evolved into. Most text-based elements of the world have become obsolete, and people use their äppäräti to”stream,” and to monitor the worthiness of everyone around them. That’s another terrifying element of Super Sad True Love Story – the disappearance of privacy as a concept and social media have reached their logical end, and individuals can be “scanned” to discover practically any personal information, income, credit, “fuckability” and personality, the latter two of which have a point rating system based on others’ opinions. Everyone monitors everyone else at all times. Who needs Big Brother?

And it’s in this world that the reader is introduced to Lenny Abramov, a 39-year old anachronism of sorts – he apologizes on one occasion for still owning books – who works in the Indefinite Life Extension division for a conglomerate. Returning to the United States after a year in Rome, Lenny is desperately in love with Eunice Park, a 24-year old daughter of Korean immigrants he had met in Rome, where she was studying. Lenny – himself a second-generation American and invariably described in reviews as “schlubby” – moves uneasily through this hyper-youth-and-status-oriented world, longing to be a High Net Worth Individual in order to afford the services of his employer to appear younger while mentally quoting Chekhov and reading to Eunice The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He is sweet in a place where men and women in the same room are ranked by hotness, bumbling in his earnest affections in a time when prep schoolers attend “Assertiveness Class.”

At first sight, he’s also a complete mismatch for Eunice, who’s slight and “super-hot,” as one of her friends reminds her several times. She, like most of her generation, has a bad spending habit and a predilection for skimpy clothing. As Lenny notes, she’s also, however, in her own way, damaged goods. She’s at a point many 24-year olds can relate to – done with school, sort of considering law school and halfheartedly looking for work while not really knowing at all what the hell she wants to do. Her relationship with her family is complicated. Her mother is very stereotypically (almost too stereotypically) first-generation Korean – stay-at-home, very religious, and devoted to the strict social values of her homeland, while her father is an alcoholic podiatrist.

Yet the relationship that develops between the two is genuine, and the care Eunice develops for Lenny unaffected. Lenny’s fear of mortality finds solace in Eunice’s youthful vivacity, while Eunice’s detachment and need for affection are overcome by Lenny. To Shteyngart’s great credit, the relationship is as authentically-portrayed as it could be possibly be – certainly no easy task against the backdrop of bombastic satire. The counterpoint the ultimately-doomed love story provides to the decadence and tragedy of fin de siècle America is both bittersweet and poignant.

The stories of Eunice and Lenny, interestingly, are told from the first-person perspective, the two alternating narration in their respective diaries – Lenny, true to form, writing lyrically with pen and paper, Eunice in various posts to friends and family on her GlobalTeens account (the social network of choice) and peppered with the argot of the young and disaffected.

Super Sad True Love Story is sphincter-looseningly terrifying primarily because it does what great satire always does – describe something outrageous in order to illuminate the present. The mindless consumerism, obsession with image, plutocracy, Orwellian media discourse, and reactionary politics that populate Lenny and Eunice’s New York is the world we inhabit, and that will scare the shit out of any thinking person who reads Super Sad True Love Story. The genuine and wistful experience of actual connection between two human beings who had doubted its possibility, however, reminds the reader of the universality of being a piece of thinking, feeling, lonely and longing meat. That’s Shteyngart’s accomplishment in Super Sad True Love Story, and it’s a significant one.

~ by Benji on July 16, 2011.

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