In the opening sentences of Gary Shteyngart’s third and latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story, his protagonist Lenny Abramov makes this bold announcement: “I am never going to die.”
That may sound like a far-fetched pronouncement, but the near-future world in which the novel is set sees death as something completely avoidable. In fact, part of Lenny’s job is to rope in people with high incomes (known as High Net Worth Individuals or HNWIs) to the company he works for so that they can be bestowed the gift of immortality – for a price, of course, and payable in Chinese Yuan, which is the basic form of currency in Shteyngart’s and Lenny’s brave new America. However, Lenny doesn’t have the money or credit for this kind of treatment – at least, not yet.
Still, the late 30-something New Yorker has good reason to live for a very long time, if not forever. He has just fallen in love with a young Korean-American woman named Eunice Park whom he met while on a prolonged business trip to Italy, and wants that feeling of new love to last as both characters arrive to pick up their lives in the New World of New York. Of course, there are obstacles in Lenny’s quest for immortality.
For starters, his business trip failed to yield suitable recipients for this life-altering technology, which has him on the outs with his company: his desk is removed in his workplace upon his return, and he very tentatively still has a job. What’s more, his liaison with another woman while overseas (before he met Eunice) nearly lands him in hot water with a sort of ramped up version of the US Department of Homeland Security. If that wasn’t enough, Lenny’s own boss, a superior who is 30 years his senior and who has received treatments in immortality, may or may not have designs on Eunice as well. What to do? What to do?
Super Sad True Love Story has a lot going on within its 300-plus pages, so much so that it feels like a book that is twice as long and one that is best read in tiny morsel sized bites to really appreciate and absorb the goings-on in the future America that Shteyngart paints as being on the brink of collapse. Its characters carry iPad-like devices called äppärät that both streams information about other users and broadcasts information about its own user, including how they rank on a certain score that begins with a word rhyming with luck and ending with –ability.
If that wasn’t a suitably creepy breach of privacy, New York in Shteyngart’s world is populated with electronic posts that broadcast your credit rating as you walk past. That’s not all. Young adults reminisce about watching pornography in Kindergarten. Onionskin pants that allow the wearer to display their genitalia to the world are all the rage. The National Guard, which may or may not be backed by the company Lenny works for, patrol the streets at key checkpoints. The US is at war – not with Iraq or Afghanistan, but with Venezuela. Subway cars have a business class for those willing to pay a little extra. And so it goes.
Outside of its primary love story, there’s a lot going on in the margins of this book. It depicts a world that is completely absurd and out of control, which brings a lot of dark humor into the story, yet seems to be true enough in a scary way that you have to wonder if this is the slippery slope the real world is headed down.
The novel is clearly influenced by the work of both William Gibson in its futuristic detail, and early Jonathan Lethem in its surreal zaniness. There’s also a bit of Russian literature to be found in Super Sad True Love Story: Shteyngart references the short stories of Anton Chekhov and there’s also a bit of Vladimir Nabokov to be found as well: while Lenny and Eunice’s love affair is completely legal, Eunice is described as being a bit flat-chested, which invites comparisons to Lolita. Additionally, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being plays a big part in the text in the latter chapters, which is apt as the former details the invasion of the former Soviet Union on the former country of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which has a sort of parallel to the events in Shteyngart’s world.
As for our two protagonists, they couldn’t be more the same and far apart at the same time. Both have the commonality of being the offspring of immigrants: Lenny’s parents are from the former Soviet Union, and Eunice’s kin originally come from, of course, Korea. Both characters are at turns needy and require the approval and recognition of others in order to navigate the turbulent world in which they live. However, they have some major differences to reconcile. That the novel is told from both Lenny and Eunice’s perspectives illustrates at least one of the polarities in question.
Lenny writes his missives in the form of diary entries, which, by the year in this novel’s narrative, are a dated thing of the past. (Nobody reads books in Shteyngart’s world: they are considered outmoded media objects.) Eunice, on the other hand, communicates in the form of Instant Messages and e-mails sent from her personal äppärät account. To go further, Lenny is a bit of a slovenly dresser and has problems with personal hygiene. Eunice, otherwise, is well groomed and up to date on the latest fashions from designer brands such as JuicyPussy and TotalSurrender. Lenny is whiny and a bit of a navel-gazer. Eunice is something of a snobbish hipster. They are, in many ways, a bit of an Odd Couple.
It is to Shteyngart’s credit that you care about these individuals, despite the fact that they have major character flaws. This tension between the two protagonists leaves the reader feeling off-kilter and not sure what is going to happen next in the relationship. The novel’s only real flaw is that you never really get a sense for what our Romeo and Juliet see in each other, particularly from Eunice’s standpoint, because they tend to spend as much time arguing as they are kissing and making up.
It is to Shteyngart’s skill as a writer that each character has an individual voice, even those who are on the periphery of the novel. When Eunice e-mails her mother, who is living in New Jersey, she replies in suitably accurate broken English. When Lenny goes to visit his parents with Eunice, they spend a great deal of time speaking in Russian phrases. When Lenny lets us peek into the world of his friends, one of them speaks with the cadence of a newscaster as he broadcasts his life on his own personal social media stream from a hip new nightclub wryly called Cervix.
However, the real star attraction of this novel is the bleak and droll society that Shteyngart paints. In this world, China has become something of an economic superpower. America’s own veterans of the war in Venezuela have been spat out of the system and left to fend for themselves in city parks, living off of whatever scraps of food and old technology they can find. America is being ruled by a sort of fascist political party, and in turn, has become a one-party state, leaving people to question the loyalty of their friends who may or may not be snoops for the government.
What’s more, America’s immigrant population is ridiculed and referred to as grasshoppers and ants who don’t contribute to the economy because they don’t have enough money to spend. The picture Shteyngart paints, for all of its science-fiction trappings, feels very real and frightening, and in some ways, the sensory overload of images and scenes from this very society threaten to topple the very simple love story that is being told throughout the novel.
When it boils right down to it, Super Sad True Love Story is, by its closing chapters, very sad, bleak and depressing. It also carries a ring of truth to it, not only in the portrayal of its obsessive-compulsive characters but also its depiction of an Earth that is on the verge of a major meltdown. It’s additionally a story about love, ultimately about trying to find it when everything around you is in crisis mode.
Finally, is this book super? That’s an easy question to answer. Undoubtedly, yes. In fact, this is the type of book that people will be reading 20 years from now just to see how closely the world turns out to Shteyngart’s warning shot. Clearly, his vision raises the following question: even in love, is living in a world so full of despair and self-centeredness worth immortality in the hope that things will eventually get better? By the end of this book, an illustration of its author’s particular dexterity, a part of the reader that believes in fairness and things that work out for the best might just, indeed, wither and die. The novel’s power in that regard is simply soul-crushing.