The Big Joke on You

The bad news about our near future, as Gary Shteyngart imagines it in Super Sad True Love Story, is that young people do not read books. At most they might have “scanned” some European classic “texts” in college; now they only read the data that pop up on their smartphones.

The good news is that these semi-literates communicate almost exclusively in writing, mainly through their GlobalTeens accounts, a kind of social networking software that allows them to send e-mail-like messages and also have real-time written exchanges (in the manner of instant messaging or texting). Since people carry their smartphones—äppäräti—everywhere, usually pendant from their necks, there is no place from which they couldn’t plausibly be sending written messages. As in our own world, there exists a vast electronic archive of even their most trivial exchanges.

Thus we have a new possibility: an epistolary novel set in a supposedly postliterate age. The book splices the diary entries of Lenny Abramov and the e-correspondence of Eunice Park. Lenny works for an outfit called Post-Human Services, which is developing a medical treatment to keep people alive forever. Eunice is an unemployed liberal arts college graduate who warily becomes Lenny’s girlfriend. She is possessed of a dual degree in Images and Assertiveness, an underwhelming LSAT score, and no actual desire to go to law school. Lenny, at thirty-nine, is just old enough to have read books as a child and made a habit of it. His diary entries are improbably witty, finely observed, and lyrical for an ordinary man writing to himself. But then, Lenny longs for an earlier era that he imagines was more serious and literary, one that he is not old enough to have lived through but has inferred from his reading of Lionel Trilling.

Lenny meets Eunice at a party in Rome. They’ve both spent an aimless year in Italy, and both are vaguely discontented with what awaits them back home. Lenny asks her to dinner after the party. They get very drunk, but Lenny does his best to piece the immortal night back together in his diary:

I told her I didn’t want to leave Rome now that I had met her.
She again told me I was a nerd, but a nerd who made her laugh.
I told her I wanted to do more than make her laugh.
She told me I should be thankful for what I had.
I told her she should move to New York with me.
She told me she was probably a lesbian.
I told her my work was my life, but I still had room for love.
She told me love was out of the question.

Their first date leaves Lenny besotted. Eunice, on the other hand, describes it to her best friend this way, at the end of a long letter about other things: “P.S. I met this old, gross guy at a party yesterday and we got really drunk and I sort of let …

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