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 him go down on me.” Eunice is not deliberately witty, but her e-mails can be an amusing corrective to Lenny’s version of events.
Eunice’s three primary correspondents are her best friend, Jenny Kang, her younger sister, and her mother. She and Jenny exchange GlobalTeens messages that have the form, curiously, of old-fashioned letters: long, multi-paragraph missives about the latest in their lives, punctuated by coarse teenage slang that is a highlight of the novel. Eunice’s friends, carrying on their romantic relationships in an anesthetized haze of emotional confusion, are casual about every kind of sex act. Here is Jenny on how she won back her boyfriend, Gopher, after she caught him cheating with another girl:
So I went on this new Teens site called “D-base” where they can digitize you like covered in shit or getting fucked by four guys at once and I sent Gopher all these Images of myself getting fucked by four guys at once. It’s like you said, I’ve got to own my feelings about Gopher and that’s the only way he’s ever going to respect me…. Anyway, he came over to my parents house and fucked me in the ass, which I guess is a good sign because we haven’t done that in a while.
Super Sad True Love Story is Shteyngart’s first attempt to represent multiple consciousnesses in a novel; the florid, excitable Shteyngartian dude has never before had a female counterweight. Through her correspondence—which has a pedestrian flatness that is credible, if not always exciting—Eunice holds up her part of the story. Like Lenny, she is sometimes an object of Shteyngart’s gentle mockery (for her compulsive online shopping, especially from the lingerie store AssLuxury), but generally seems a sympathetic figure doing her best in a D-based world. She is part of a generation completely in thrall to their äppäräti, which they use to share and obtain stunningly intimate information—blood pressure, bank account balance, histories of childhood sexual abuse, something called “anal/oral/vaginal preference”—on everyone around them. The newest äppärät models come with RateMe Plus software, which will do a comparative analysis of everyone in a given room and provide rankings in the categories of personality, fuckability, and sustainability—the last referring to personal income and assets.
One of Lenny’s friends, a talented former novelist who realized that there was no future in books, uses his äppärät to record a live-stream show in which he rants and rambles caustically, and formlessly, about himself. His girlfriend has her own weekly show in which she “spends about seven hours a day streaming about her weight.” Eunice’s shopping habit seems, by comparison, the most benign of all possible electronic diversions.
The mean-spiritedness and shallowness of these entertainments are part of Shteyngart’s larger complaint about his—and obviously our own—dystopian US: its citizens are not grown up. They refuse to consider that anything at all valuable might accrue to them with age. They do not aspire to seriousness of purpose or of mind. They allow themselves to be insulted and infantilized by companies trying to sell them things. They do not pay close attention to what their political leaders are doing. As in other dystopian futuristic fiction, the most unsettling thing about Super Sad America is that there seems to be no one left to say any of these things aloud. If there were ever any pundits in Shteyngart’s America who warned about the ill effects of the Internet, if there was ever a New York Times Op-Ed page or an n+1 magazine, none of those things exist now (the eminent New York newspaper has in fact been renamed The New York Lifestyle Times).
It is odd to have Shteyngart, of all novelists, haranguing us about not being grown up. He is a writer of farce who has not previously cared to represent anything that might look like grown-up life, in any of the possible ways one might define it. His characters are fools and naifs and rogues who get caught up in improbable international capers. They deliver their brilliantly funny observations with an obligatory dose of clowning and broad jokes. Their laments are mock-laments. “Oh dear diary,” Lenny writes, “My youth has passed, but the wisdom of age hardly beckons. Why is it so hard to be a grown-up man in this world?”
Lenny is the first of Shteyngart’s characters to pose such a question, but he poses it while wearing a jester’s suit: one reason that it’s hard for Lenny to be a grown-up man is that his author has saddled him with puerile, goofy tics (like his apostrophes to his diary) and bad one-liners (when his äppärät stops working he “can’t connect”). If Super Sad True Love Story seems more serious than Shteyngart’s previous two novels—as reviewers have noted—it is partly from a dissipation of comic energy when compared with his last, Absurdistan (2006). The earlier book is narrated by a 325-pound Russian-Jewish scion (“son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia”) who gets trapped in decrepit Putin-era Russia when his American visa is revoked.
Misha lives large: he has an American college degree, a Puerto Rican girlfriend in the South Bronx, an analyst on Park Avenue, and a Russian manservant who follows him everywhere; he also has a deformed, but very much functional, penis that was badly scarred during a careless adult circumcision. His remarkable soliloquies about his body and its appetites have been described by Christian Caryl in these pages as being written in “heroically bad taste.”* Lenny, written on a more human scale, in a novel with aspirations to psychological realism, paradoxically seems sillier. Something about the challenge of writing about a grotesque like Misha seems to have allowed Shteyngart to channel his comic energies more precisely; Misha never speaks or jokes or apostrophizes idly.
Like characters in Shteyngart’s other novels, Lenny is fascinated with what he considers his physical defects. He goes on narcissistically, almost lovingly, about his wrinkles, his sweat, his gray hair. Lenny is more ordinarily unprepossessing but also more lonely than Misha, who never hurts for female attention. Misha’s scale seems, among other things, to have freed Shteyngart from the tediously familiar comic plot of an awkward nerd struggling to get a beautiful girl. Lenny, on the other hand, is very much that nerd.
His swoon over Eunice is not tempered by much previous romantic experience. He has had few girlfriends and lies awake at night worrying about “unredeemed pleasures.” He worries that Eunice will find the smell of his cherished book collection repellent and sprays it with Pine-Sol before she first comes to visit his apartment in New York. The morning after their first date—dinner and cunnilingus—Lenny is “thinking already of how I would bait her to New York, make her my wife, make her my life, my life eternal”:
I felt the triple pangs of being happy and lonely and needy all at once. She had made me wash my lips and chin thoroughly to obliterate all traces of her, but Eunice Park’s alkaline tang still remained on the tip of my nose. I made great sniffing motions in the air, trying to capture her essence….
The man vainly trying to sniff the remnants of last night’s pussy clinging to the tip of his nose—this is Lenny. The joke sums up what is very funny about him and also his limits as a character: he is ever a hapless supplicant.
In fact Eunice does reluctantly come to New York to move in with him. The arc of their relationship is six months long and does not involve a great deal of pleasure. Lenny longs for her love but gets mostly frost, with a little grudging affection here and there. Eunice appreciates his devotion but is mostly repelled by him physically. As a love story it is, in a way, modest in scope, but Shteyngart takes it seriously: through each other Lenny and Eunice are searching for something more deeply satisfying than the other pleasures and distractions available to them. Their romance, abortive as it is, is not an object of satire but a refuge from the trivial and ridiculous culture that surrounds them. For Shteyngart, it is an antipode to satire itself, a locus of the authentic.
Their story is bittersweet but not unsettling—the bubblegum hyperbole of “super sad” perfectly conveys the tone of the romance, for neither Lenny nor Eunice ever seems in any danger of being corrupted by the cynicisms of their world. Eunice can be cool toward Lenny, but in her own correspondence we see that she is making an earnest effort to be open to him. Lenny takes her seriously even though he feels a significant gap between them in education and intellectual curiosity. Though Lenny sometimes calls Eunice “cruel,” there is little cruelty between them. Their relationship, though doomed, is sweet.
Meanwhile, the country around them is cracking up. Since they have been back in the US from Italy, homeless people have gradually been amassing in public parks to protest their lack of housing and welfare benefits. In a few places riots break out. Or maybe they don’t—it’s hard for Lenny and Eunice or anyone else to tell what’s really happening; the government is mendacious and there is no real investigative journalism, just live streaming by ordinary citizens.
In any case, news of some kind of violence comes to Lenny and his friends in confusing bursts of electronic information. While they’re drinking at the hipster bar Cervix, images of protesters getting shot in Central Park filter into their äppäräti and interrupt the merriment. “A silence overtook the Cervix,” Lenny writes in his diary, “I could hear nothing but the sound of my Xanax bottle being instinctually opened by three of my benumbed fingers.”
On a later evening, while they’re at a party, they get the first glimmer of an even bigger disaster. A channel called CrisisNet announces, “CHINA INVESTMENT CORPORATION QUITS U.S. TREASURIES.” Lenny isn’t sure what this means, but it is apparently very bad: he sees his friend Vishnu “blink several times as the latest news scrolled on our äppäräti, and some of the Credit guys were whispering stuff to one another.” Then comes an announcement that the American Restoration Authority has raised the threat level for New York, L.A., and Washington to “RED++IMMINENT DANGER.” By this time military helicopters are flying overhead and the party guests are shouting and preparing to flee to their homes. Rumors spread of small arms fire exchanged in the parks. Rich Media people who live around Tompkins Square Park hold their äppäräti out their windows and stream murky footage of smoke and bodies being carried on stretchers, which Lenny and his friends strain to decipher on their own äppäräti.
The spasm of violence, retroactively called the Rupture, results in the deaths of some protesters, looting, and riots around the country. An entire ferry boat of passengers from Staten Island is mysteriously bombed by a military plane. The dollar is devaluated. Private security personnel appear all over New York City, mainly to protect the rich.
Shteyngart has always had a keen satirical eye for the way in which political shake-ups leave rich elites untouched and ordinary people, in one way or another, fucked. What was true, in his previous novels, of Russia, the Czech Republic, and the fictional Caucasian country of Absurdistan also goes for post-Rupture America. Lenny describes riding in a cab past a formerly lower-middle-class, now destitute Queens apartment complex shortly after the violence breaks out, with everyone trying to get to Manhattan in search of relative safety and paid work:
The grounds of the LeFrak development were littered with homemade tents. People were lying on mattresses on a pedestrian overpass, the acrid smell of bad meat being grilled wafting down below. As we passed LeFrak City (“Live a Little Better” its heartfelt mid-twentieth-century motto), the Manhattan-bound side of the Long Island Expressway became an endless jumble of cars slowly maneuvering around men, women, and children of all possible persuasions compliantly carting their belongings in suitcases and shopping trolleys…. We crawled forward past a gaggle of poor middle-class cars, tiny Samsung Santa Monicas and the like, children and mothers huddled over one another in back.
For people with means, the most confounding effect of the Rupture was that their communication devices stopped working for several days. Eunice, unable to break her habit for her äppärät, stares at its blank screen (“I can’t buy anything,” she murmurs sadly to Lenny), and writes desperate messages to her mother and Jenny that she knows will be answered with glib automatic error messages from GlobalTeens: “We are SO TOTTALY sorry for the inconvenience.”
In the last hundred or so pages of the book, jokes give way almost exclusively to rueful reflection on Lenny’s part. He’s forced to leave his beloved apartment because the building is being torn down to make luxury condos, part of a post-Rupture plan to turn New York into a “Lifestyle Hub” for rich Chinese and Norwegians. Eunice slips away from him into the arms of his Post-Human Services boss, who is better positioned to protect her and her family in the shaky new economy. Lenny is not as well insulated from the political turmoil as it first seemed.
The gravity of the last portion of the book is not evenly effective—it sometimes seems overwrought—but it allows Shteyngart to find a subtler, more bitter kind of humor than he has used before. In one of the last scenes, Lenny finds out that what he has intuitively been fearing in recent days is true—Eunice is leaving him. They are at an art opening sponsored by his company, an event that doubles as a party to welcome the visiting Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Capitalist Party. The event is held in an opulent triplex overlooking the East River. The American guests—Media people, Post-Human Services employees, and oil execs—sip their drinks, wait with suppressed excitement for the Chinese guests, and impassively study the photographs on the wall. The photographs, “real art with a documentary purpose,” as Lenny admiringly describes it, show people committing horrifying acts of violence during the Rupture. As Lenny wanders around the makeshift gallery, his boss puts an arm around him and pulls him aside for a talk. The boss is seventy years old, but his dechronification treatments have made him look thirty. He is the original founder of Post-Human Services, a zealot for youth, health, and immortality. Lenny has looked up to him for years:
I cannot recall our exact surroundings when he gave me his speech. We were lost in negative space, his closeness the only thing I could still cling to. He spoke of the seventy years in which he had not known love. How unfair that had been. How much love he had to give; how I had, in some ways, been a recipient of that love. But now he needed something different: intimacy, closeness, youth. When Eunice first walked into his apartment, he knew. He picked up my äppärät and produced a study on how May-December relationships lifted the lifespan ceilings for both partners.
His boss winds up his speech and walks Lenny back to where Eunice is standing. Eunice herself can’t look him in the eye. Lenny stumbles out of the party just as the Chinese visitors arrive to the sound of firecrackers: “A series of loud pops exploded in the air, reminding me of tracer fire during the Rupture.” Instead of a stream of one-liners, Shteyngart falls into a quiet rhythm here in which he piles on detail after detail in perfect deadpan and creates an entire set piece suggesting the moral compromises of the affluent world. It is an extended joke that isn’t funny or melancholy or wistful. In its serene exposure of our decadence, it only makes us feel uncomfortable, and offers no escape.
May 12, 2011