review of Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, New York: Random House, 2010
by James Newlin
Perhaps it is best to start with the title. As with Dave Eggers’s career-making memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the name of Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is less a Genettian threshold for the text than a half-serious contractual guarantee. As a love story, one can take Shteyngart at his word: the doomed May-December romance of Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park is certainly both super and super sad. As a work of Pynchon-style satire, the title’s trueness is naturally less literal, though for plenty of readers—particularly those of a leftist persuasion—it’s no less resonant. Shteyngart’s dystopian vision is set in a near future where the “overblown spire of the Freedom Tower” mangles the New York skyline, citizens are constantly monitored and monitoring one another on iPad-like devices called äppäräti, and where Lenny, the book’s protagonist, labors for the Post-Human Services department of an enormous conglomerate, marketing actual immortality to the rich (here dubbed HNWIs, or High Net Worth Individuals). Super Sad’s portrait of an empire on the verge of collapse is filled with so many rich details that, as a reviewer, it is tempting just to list them. “Credit Poles” line the streets, broadcasting the credit rating of each passerby to every other passerby. Glued to their äppäräti, characters are perpetually shopping for TotalSurrender panties, Onionskin jeans, and JuicyPussy cocktail dresses. The aversion to books (or “nonstreaming Media artifacts”) by everyone except Lenny is so strong that characters gag at the pages’ very smell; Lenny pitifully sprays his beloved collection of the Great Works with Pine-Sol in preparation for a visit from Eunice.
Shteyngart proved his gift for wordplay and invention in spades with his masterful debut, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (it was routinely compared to Nabakov). The Handbook’s follow-up, the flawless satire Absurdistan, was even better, and it is probably still his finest hour. Absurdistan skewers Halliburton and the collapse of Eastern Europe far more acidly than Super Sad takes on the death of (traditional) literacy and the new recession. But if Super Sad True Love Story is less dazzling than Shteyngart’s first two books, that may be because it’s far less delirious. Absurdistan’s Misha Vainberg, the 325-pound son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia, was an explosive, Rabelaisian creature, whereas Lenny Abramov is meek and bookish. Absurdistan began with Misha’s hilariously inept free-styling (“I like ho’s / Sniff ‘em out / Wid my Hebrew nose”). By contrast, Lenny opens Super Sad confessing that “slightness is my curse in every sense,” and finding a twin soul in the “unattractive but decent” Laptev from Chekhov’s novella Three Years (as opposed to, say, Ice-T). Still, though Lenny is a far more modest literary figuration than Misha, Shyeyngart grants him some sense of gravitas that is both recognizable to anyone who’s ever been in love and unique to this particular apocalyptic nightmare: “For me to fall in love with Eunice Park just as the world fell apart would be a tragedy beyond the Greeks.”
The dorky Lenny meets and becomes immediately enchanted with the “very young Asian Audrey Hepburn”-like Eunice at a party in Rome, though the bulk of their courtship takes place in New York City. In the near future, Staten Island is hipper than Manhattan, and Eunice is disappointed in Lenny’s 740 square feet “atop a red-brick ziggurat” on the East River. But as she grows more comfortable with and more affectionate towards Lenny, Super Sad follows the example of any number of other Gotham love stories by becoming as much an ode to the city of New York as it is to romantic bliss:
Noah told me there’s a day during the summer when the sun hits the broad avenues at such an angle that you experience the sensation of the whole city being flooded by a melancholy twentieth-century light, even the most prosaic, unloved buildings appearing bright and nuclear at the edge of your vision, and that when this happens you want to both cry for something lost and run out there and welcome the decline of the day.
Shteyngart, who teaches at Columbia, writes most lovingly of New York when Lenny speaks nostalgically about what is actually, for the reader, the present. As we also recognize details that are familiar because they are timeless (such as Lenny and Eunice’s discomfort meeting each other’s parents) and others that are familiar because they are uncanny (such as the GlobalTeens stream, clearly modeled on Facebook) in a work of, technically speaking, science fiction, these poetic reminders of the Good Ol’ Days of our own not-so-good days seem more chilling than wistful. Despite the novel’s exaggerated images of this bleak future-world—from the chuckle-inducing brand-names to the riots in Tompkins Square Park—Shteyngart is a master of tone, deftly linking End Times-dread with romantic melancholia.
Similarly, post-modern goofiness is blended seamlessly with canonical heft: Super Sad True Love Story takes the mode of the epistolary novel as its structure, excerpting Lenny’s handwritten diaries and Eunice’s GlobalTeens emails and chats in alternating chapters. Considering the novel’s concern with the extinction of print—I wonder if Kindle users are missing a joke that those of us clinging to our non-streaming media artifacts catch—it is surprising that Eunice’s GlobalTeens sessions enchant in a way that Lenny’s verbose, old fashioned diary entries do not. Shteyngart, who recently wrote a New York Times op-ed on the questionable virtues of the iPhone, fills his novel with a half-loathing, half-adoration for the omnipresent äppäräti, recalling Philip K. Dick’s bemused treatment of technology. Yet if connecting to äppäräti disconnects the characters from actual human interaction, that same detachment works for the author’s advantage. Though Shteyngart clearly sympathizes with Lenny’s fetish for the written word, Eunice’s typed ones make for the richer portrayal. The minimalist, Burgessian slang of Eunice’s GlobalTeens messages and chatroom sessions leave enticing blanks that Lenny’s loquacious diary entries always insistently fill in. Eunice remains a cipher, even as we’re privy to her thoughts as she falls for Lenny, fears for her family’s safety, and then must choose between the two following the events referred to as “The Rupture.”
Here again Shteyngart can’t help but invite comparisons to his masters, as he did in the opening of the novel by linking his protagonist to Chekhov’s. One of Super Sad True Love Story’s loveliest scenes takes place when, after their äppäräti cease working, Lenny reads to Eunice from The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Skimming Milan Kundera’s philosophical prologue, Lenny writes: “For Eunice’s sake, I wanted him to get to the plot, to introduce actual ‘living’ characters—I recalled this was a love story—and to leave the world of ideas behind.” It is a testament to Shteyngart’s skill that the titular love story is never severed from the elaborately inventive world of ideas, but rather entangled with, enriching, and intensifying Super Sad’s political homily. Shteyngart’s great gift is his knack for making satire seem so real.
James Newlin is an alumni fellow in the English department at the University of Florida, specializing in Early Modern British drama and verse and is preparing a dissertation project on the “unreadability” of King Lear. His research interests include allusions to Shakespeare in philosophy, literature, and film. He lives in Gainesville, Florida, with his dog, Gail.