Super Sad True Love Story
By Gary Shteyngart
Random House, 352 pages, $26
In his first two novels — his blini-wrapped Bildungsroman, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” and his highly absurdist “Absurdistan” — Gary Shteyngart coaxed his darkest humor out of imagined settings, alternate universes only one step removed from our own. It’s the satirist’s smartest tool. Rather than appear a moralizing prig, invent a blow-up doll version of that thing you want to deride or criticize and then punch at will. You can see this at work in the Prava of “Russian Debutante,” a postcommunist theme park styled on 1990s-era Prague full of entitled young American hipsters, or in the war-torn “Absurdistan,” a cartoonish take on those faraway lands whose natural resources have turned them into playthings of the West.
Now, Shteyngart has peered into the future, producing a dystopia to rival Orwell’s. No surprise that it’s hilarious, but it’s also as finger-waggingly disapproving a vision of the technologically addicted, oversexed, dumbed-down world we inhabit as I’ve ever read.
Our guide through this near future — we never learn exactly what year it is — is the diarist who takes up half of “Super Sad True Love Story,” Lenny Abramov. He’s another one of Shteyngart’s Russian-Jewish schlemiels whose bodily imperfections come oozing off the page. He’s no 325-pound Misha Vainberg, who gorges and shvitzes his way through “Absurdistan,” but Lenny Abramov is every bit the dying animal. His bald spot, shaped like “the great state of Ohio,” is growing; he has a “giant, gleaming forehead,” and his nickname is Rhesus Monkey, for, as even his girlfriend puts it, his “long arms and that, like, bunched-up middle.” The man breaks down into tears every 10 pages or so.
He is also, improbably, a salesman for eternal life, the “Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator” of the “Post-Human services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation.” His job is to discover “High Net Worth Individuals” who might be interested in living forever, courtesy of a “dechronofication treatment” pioneered by a strange and plasticky entrepreneur.
But who would want to spend eternity in this illiterate future where all that is most shallow has prevailed? Everyone is a slave to their äppäräts, a handheld device that makes the iPhone look as ancient as one of those brick-sized car phones Michael Douglas used in “Wall Street.” People are on them constantly, combing through intimate details about the strangers around them — cholesterol levels and favorite sexual positions — and then rating and ranking each other. “Credit polls” on every corner flash the credit scores of those walking by. Completely transparent jeans, called “onionskins,” are all the rage. In this future, adults speak in the abbreviated patois of 12-year-old teenage texters. In one of Lenny’s first conversations with the woman who will trigger this “super sad love story,” she tells him, “TIMATOV. ROFLAARP. PRGV. Totally PRGV.” To which Lenny, as bewildered as we are, answers, “IMF. PLO. ESL.” Oh, and there are no books. When Lenny opens up a volume of Chekhov on a flight, he is reprimanded by his neighbor, who says the book smells “like wet socks.” In his own apartment, he guards his contraband paperbacks as if they are the last of some endangered species of butterflies.
The United States is also at a moment of grave, inexplicable crisis. All currency is pegged to the Chinese yuan. Huge conglomerates with names like LandO’LakesGMFordCredit control the world. America, run by one party — dubbed, geniously, the Bipartisans — with a sinister Jewish defense minister named Rubenstein is at war for unknown reasons with Venezuela. Tanks roll through the streets of Manhattan, and missiles dispensed by menacing helicopters blow ferries out of the waters of the East River. The National Guard is shooting revolutionary rioters in Central Park.
Amid all this, Lenny seems like the last introspective man on earth, nostalgic for all that is quickly slipping away. Listening to children playing in a park, he writes: “I relished hearing language actually being spoken by children. Overblown verbs, explosive nouns, beautifully bungled prepositions. Language, not data. How long would it be before these kids retreated into the dense clickety-clack äppärät world of their absorbed mothers and missing fathers?”
But he is only half this story. In between Lenny’s diary entries are the GlobalTeens (think Facebook on
speed) messages of Eunice Park, a Korean-American woman 15 years his junior who has become his muse, his reason for desiring eternity. We read him describing his courtship of the young, beautiful Eunice, daughter of an abusive immigrant father. These descriptions alternate with her messages and online chats as she becomes slowly convinced that she might enjoy taking care of Lenny for a while (“I know he’s gross physically, but there’s something sweet about him…” she writes to a friend at the beginning of their romance).
The romance is much more intimate and domestic terrain than Shteyngart has explored previously. He tells the story of Lenny and Eunice (or lets Lenny and Eunice tell their story), and there is nothing satirical about it. It’s about two people who don’t really speak the same language, whose emotional needs nevertheless briefly intersect and come close to something called love.
But, as in his earlier novels, Shteyngart himself is never far beneath the surface: sly, impish, giggling at the absurdity in his distinctive and propulsive Rabelaisian style. There is just a bit more pathos in the mix now, between the detailed intricacies of one couple’s inner life and gorgeously mournful passages about the fallen world.
Is Shteyngart also criticizing the way we live our lives? All I can say is that as far as the äppärät is concerned, he is dead on. Take it from someone who starts to itch when an hour has passed without checking his iPhone. The look into our future is vertiginous, and certainly seems as cautionary as it is funny. But Shteyngart would do well to guard himself against being too much of a scold, at least about the onslaught of technology. He’s not safe. As my iPhone recently informed me, there is now a “Gary Shteyngart app” available for download.
Gal Beckerman is a Forward staff writer. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle To Save Soviet Jewry,” will be published in September. In the interests of full disclosure, Shteyngart will write a blurb for the book cover.