In this sometimes shaky, dystopian love tale, America’s obsessively plugged-in, consumer focus has yielded a nation financially, intellectually, and emotionally in ruins
In Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story,’’ books stink. They literally do. They bear the faint odor of rot and decay — the jaundiced smell of a decomposing past or just “wet socks,’’ as someone puts it. No one wants to touch them. Or own them. Or read them. They’re affronts. An entire generation in Shteyngart’s novel — his third — has emerged without them. And the results are uproarious but grim. Here Americans exist solely through their äppäräti — smart-phone-like apparatuses used by an increasingly diminished people. One of the devices’ apps turns private information into public dazzle.
Newspapers, magazines, and the reporting and evaluation they delivered are gone. Except for FoxLiberty-Ultra and FoxLiberty-Prime, TV is over, too. The nation’s biggest shows are just live rants streaming into äppäräti, which people also use to shop, stalk, and otherwise stagnate. Ladies wear transparent jeans. Corporations exist as merged monoliths: ColgatePalmoliveYum!BrandsViacomCredit. There is an American president, but it’s the secretary of defense who appears to run things. An antiaging firm is the new hedge fund — investors hedging against death. Plus, the dollar’s worth now depends wholly on the Chinese yuan. Poor colored folks and jobless financial dudes live in a militarized shantytown formerly known as Central Park.
Shteyngart’s book is about the end of America — or rather, the ending of America. Yes, it’s a touch postlapsarian, loosely post-apocalyptic, and wistfully patriotic. But apocalypse really is now. With exclamatory mordancy, the novel proclaims that we have so overeaten, overspent, and over-communicated that we’re flatulent with the contents of our consumption. We’ll go up in an altogether figurative mushroom cloud. The knell of our destruction is the sound of passing gas. Rome fell. America farts.
Yet for all its sardonic thoughts about national collapse, its persuasive dolorousness, and its atomic disdain, “Super Sad True Love Story’’ is modest in ambition. It harrumphs but doesn’t hulk. It tsk-tsks but doesn’t tower. It is, in other words, a strangely manageable disaster epic: Don DeLillo after gastric bypass. That’s still a spectacular thing. Shteyngart sends up the way we live now without forsaking solemnity. At its best, his satire is appallingly funny but never less than personal, a tour de force of ridiculous appropriation and conflation — college dining-hall life meets reality television, “Rent,’’ and Milan Kundera.
Shteyngart delivers a legitimate worry of demise — of physical books, of emotional connection, of the United States. But his choice of structure, while meant to be old-fashioned, elegiac, and ironically funny in an only-in-the-21st-century way, is also hoary. Two of the book’s first words are “Dearest Diary.’’ They belong to Lenny Abramov, Shteyngart’s schlubby, homely 39-year-old protagonist in need of affection and, apparently, soap. He reports immediately that a petite Korean-American named Eunice Park has besotted him. Eunice is 24 and a victim of both her abusive podiatrist father and the vacuity of America culture.
Lenny wants to rescue her from both. He wants to show her how to read and how to love. The story becomes one of those tales in which two lovers — here, the children of immigrants (Lenny’s parents are Russian Jews) — fight to survive against the backdrop of pending doom.
This is a shaky performance for Shteyngart. The deft satire, cross-national wit, and uncanny talent for locating the ridiculous in the mundane (and vice versa) that came to him so naturally in his first two books — “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook’’ and the exquisitely piquant “Absurdistan’’ — strain under even his slimmed-down enterprise. Its less successful ideas are all ethnic. Shteyngart clearly wants to inflate his Jewish and Asian stereotypes with the oxygen of humanity but runs out and has to settle for helium. These are inexorably light characters.
Some of the trouble is Eunice. Half the book comprises her e-mails and instant messages, suggesting she can at least emote when typing. She’s more alive in her own correspondences than in Lenny’s, and even then she bears uncomfortable traces of fetish. Lenny writes early on that Eunice “existed as easily on an äppärät screen as on the street before me.’’ And it’s true. The character rarely seems like more than a gaming avatar.
There’s a point at which Shteyngart’s shtick is merely that, a hyperbolic demonstration of his own abilities as a critical impersonator of ethnicities, races, personalities, and their banalities. In the novel’s greatest moments, his habit for impersonation and knowing reduction culminate in transcendent writing. He achieves this at least two or three times, once when Lenny visits Eunice’s family in a Korean church service in Madison Square Garden. “My silvery jacket glided past the rows of exhausted Koreans,’’ he writes. “I had to keep myself from sweating further, because the reaction of salt and the poly-whatever-it-was of my jacket may well have hastened all of us into Jesus’s waiting arms. And then I saw them. Sitting in a good row, heads bent forward either from a sense of shame or to get a head start on worship. The family Park. The tormentor, the enabler, the sister.’’
Here, without breaking the character, Shteyngart has to bend Lenny’s pseudo-nincompoop just enough for his outsider’s keen perceptions to resonate. They do, like sunlight through stained glass.
Other more cringingly observant and prophetic scenes speak to how true they are. Those parts of this book’s United States that haven’t been gentrified — although by the end it appears that class genocide is underway — are soon to be owned by other countries. The nation is dying, but the culture is dead. That coarsening of taste dismays Shteyngart without turning him into a complete snob. In reality, there actually is something depressing about watching two people sit at the same table and remain glued to devices.
I just saw a woman use a BlackBerry while listening to an iPod, while sitting in front of a powered-up Kindle. This same person failed to realize she’d spilled a coffee on the woman in front of her and let the door slam in the face of a toddler. What Shteyngart is after is the spreading cancer of narcissism, the affliction of looking everywhere and seeing only yourself — or America. We are retarding. Shytengart’s satirical disdain, uneven though it may be, is contagious all the same. My own äppärät now disgusts me. Super sad but true.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.