By Ron Charles
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; C01
SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY
By Gary Shteyngart
Random House. 334 pp. $26
Gary Shteyngart has seen the future, and it has no room for him -- or any of us. His new novel, a slit-your-wrist satire illuminated by the author's absurd wit, follows today's most ominous trend lines past Twitter and Facebook addiction to a post-literate, consumption-crazed America that abhors books, newspapers and even conversation. "In other words," Shteyngart notes, "next Tuesday." This zany Russian immigrant loops the comedy of Woody Allen's "Sleeper" through the grim insights of George Orwell's "1984" to produce a "Super Sad True Love Story" that exposes the moral bankruptcy of our techno-lust. I hope the e-book version contains a virus that melts your iPad.
A funny excerpt of it appeared last month in the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" issue, and it's the sort of riff-based novel that does particularly well in bite-size pieces. Indeed, some of the funnier parts read like the magazine's "Shouts & Murmurs" column -- perfect for our Internet-shrunk attention spans.
We meet the main character, Lenny Abramov, through his diary entries. He's a death-obsessed, 39-year-old Jew with "a so-so body in a world where only an incredible one will do." Raised and educated in the obsolete literate society, he now works as a Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator for a multinational corporation that sells immortality to High Net Worth Individuals. His 70-year-old boss, a rabid advocate of dechronification and fish oil, gets younger every week, and everyone's neurotic preoccupation with physical health, in a society that's spiritually dead, is only one of the novel's clever themes.
But what pulls on our affections and keeps the satire from growing too brittle is Lenny's earnest voice as he struggles to fit into a world that clearly has no more use for him. (Raise your Wii if you know what I mean.) He opens his diary with the declaration that he's fallen madly in love with a grim, anorexic Korean woman named Eunice Park. Much younger, infinitely more hip and completely in sync with the glittery e-culture, Eunice is a well-educated woman with a major in Images and a minor in Assertiveness. She's a sad, anxious poster child for "The Shallows," Nicholas Carr's new book about what the Internet does to our brains. Lenny's diary entries are interspersed with her e-mails written in a futuristic Internet patois, which allows us to follow the super sad trajectory of their love story as the United States collapses.
Like "Chronic City," Jonathan Lethem's dystopic vision of a near-future New York, Shteyngart's novel is light on plot but studded with hilarious and sometimes depressing details of our culture's decay. He's blended the competing nightmares of Sarah Palin and Nancy Pelosi to imagine the worst of both worlds, ruled by a bureaucratic monster called the Bipartisan Party. It hardly feels like any distance into the future at all when Eunice cries, "Oh, what has happened to us, Lenny?"
Mega-corporations like UnitedContinentalDeltamerican and ColgatePalmoliveYum!BrandViacomCredit dwarf the government's power; health care, education and transportation have been privatized with disastrous effects; citizens live at the mercy of gyrating currency and credit markets; the poor and the old are deported to make room for exclusive Lifestyle Hubs. The United States is a crumbling police state, buried in debt to the Chinese (as if) and stuck in a crippling war with Venezuela (get ready, Hugo!). Our last futile hope is a rousing new marketing campaign: "Together We'll Surprise the World!"
But Shteyngart's most trenchant satire depicts the inane, hyper-sexualized culture that connects everybody even while destroying any actual community or intimacy. This may be the only time I've wanted to stand up on the subway and read passages of a book out loud. In these pages BlackBerrys have evolved into something called an äppärät, an irresistible multipurpose device for shopping, scanning and "verballing" our pornographic lives in real time over the "GlobalTeens" network. Only the youngest children actually speak before "retreating into the dense clickety-clack äppärät world of their absorbed mothers and missing fathers." Privacy, of course, is as quaint as a Victrola -- sexual preferences, credit ratings and cholesterol levels are broadcast nonstop -- and everyone continually rates everyone else on an 800-point scale for personality and sexiness in the most salacious terms imaginable. I'm tempted to "friend" Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and "message" him these scenes one by one.
Most of the story swings on gallows humor aimed at anyone fusty enough to still be reading novels -- or, worse, reviews of novels. Eunice is horrified by Lenny's devotion to his smelly old books: "I was so embarrassed I just stood there and watched him read which lasted for like HALF AN HOUR." Her friend texts back: "Maybe you guys can read to each other in bed or something. And then you can sew your own clothes. HA HA HA." Of course, the rest of what we might call literary culture is a shambles, too. In the New York Lifestyle Times, bits of political analysis are sometimes dropped into the stories about new products, and the nightly news is delivered by a naked muscleman being sodomized.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of this "Super Sad True Love Story" is that you can smell Shteyngart sweating to stay one step ahead of the decaying world he's trying to satirize. It's an almost impossible race now that the exhibitionism of ordinary people has lost its ability to shock us. Just try coming up with something creepier than middle school girls wearing shorts with the word "Juicy" across their bottoms, or imagine a fashion line cruder than FCUK (Shteyngart comes close). His description of friends getting together after work to text other friends is taking place today in every D.C. restaurant. And how can you parody the TV news coverage when George Stephanopoulos has already presented a straight-faced report on Lindsay Lohan's obscene fingernail stencil?
The only bulwark against despair, Shteyngart suggests with a nod to Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," is our fidelity to those we love, the persistence of affection on a darkling plain lit only by giddy advertisements. What a tender, haunting moment, late in the story, when Lenny finds an old copy of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and actually tries reading it to Eunice in bed, as her friend once joked he would. It's a brilliantly apropos novel to pull down from his antique Wall of Books, but is it still possible to comprehend Milan Kundera's rich, existential story about the search for meaning during the Prague Spring? Maybe. The best satire is always grounded in optimism: faith in the writer's power to gibe and cajole a dormant conscience to reform. And if that doesn't work, well, the future really isn't very far away after all, and we should listen to Lenny's ever-younger boss: "Brush up on your Norwegian and Mandarin."
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.