A reviewer I respect once wrote that one shouldn’t “fake it,” by suggesting a familiarity with an author’s work one doesn’t possess. So I’ll begin this review by confessing that I haven’t read Gary Shteyngart’s previous novels, THE RUSSIAN DEBUTANTE’S HANDBOOK and ABSURDISTAN. On the strength of his fantastic, wildly imaginative SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY, I’ve quickly added both of those novels to my “to be read” pile. For the combination of sheer inventiveness and a compassionate heart, it’s hard to imagine many novels challenging Shteyngart’s this year.
Narrated in alternating diary entries, emails and instant message chats conducted in a jargon that at first requires some effort to decode, SUPER SAD is set in New York City, in a United States whose near collapse, revealed in small but ever more disturbing increments, is close enough to make us squirm with an uneasy feeling of recognition. The economy is in tatters, “an unstable, barely governable country presenting grave risk to the international system of corporate governance and exchange mechanisms,” in the words of a menacing figure known as the Chinese Central Banker, whose country, along with the Northern Europeans, controls the U.S. economy. The Bipartisan Party manages a one-party police state through its American Restoration Authority (checkpoints manned by heavily armed security forces blanket the city, and incoming passengers at JFK Airport are met in the middle of the Van Wyck Expressway), and the country is reeling from a disastrous invasion of Venezuela. Restive veterans, denied their bonuses, huddle in tent cities in Central Park and Tompkins Square.
Corporations have merged into bizarre conglomerates like AlliedWasteCVSCitigroup, and the concept of privacy has disappeared, as citizens cling to the äppärät, a turbocharged smartphone that broadcasts a constant stream of personal information to and from its users. Shteyngart has drunk deeply at the fire hydrant of popular culture, and his ability to evoke its totems is dazzling. The world of Media (Retail and Credit are the other main occupational categories) features only two television networks --- FoxLiberty-Prime and FoxLiberty-Ultra --- while the paper of record has morphed into the New York Lifestyle Times.
Amidst this maelstrom of desperation and decay, one that emits a sort of oddly appealing energy, Shteyngart has created an utterly realistic love story that evokes the doomed relationship between Winston Smith and Julia in Orwell’s 1984. While spending a year in Rome recruiting High Net Worth Individuals for a program of Indefinite Life Extension, Lenny Abramov, a rumpled, overweight 39-year-old and the son of Russian immigrants, meets Eunice Park, 15 years his junior and herself the daughter of Korean immigrants. After Lenny returns to New York, Eunice (for reasons she can’t fully understand) follows him, and the novel traces their unlikely relationship as it plays out against the city’s increasingly grim landscape. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the cultural and emotional gulf separating the pair than their relationship to books, or “media artifacts,” disdained by Eunice’s contemporaries for their moldy smell (Lenny sprays his copy of WAR AND PEACE with Pine-Sol). “People just aren’t meant to read anymore,” Eunice tells him as he tries to engage her in a Milan Kundera novel. “We’re in a post-literate age. You know, a visual age.”
Beyond his gifts for piercing social commentary and his verbal pyrotechnics, Shteyngart’s achievement ultimately rests on a determination not to lose sight of the odd romance at the novel’s core. In Lenny and Eunice, he has created two characters struggling to preserve something resembling intimacy in a world sliding into chaos. “For me to fall in love with Eunice Park just as the world fell apart,” Lenny wistfully observes, “would be a tragedy beyond the Greeks.” And while Lenny can be forgiven just a hint of hyperbole, it’s undeniable that the plight of the lovers, their families and friends evokes our sympathy.
Lenny’s job promoting eternal life through a narcissistic obsession with healthy living (the location of his company’s headquarters in a former synagogue highlights his alienation from his ancestral heritage) and the years separating him and Eunice also sharpen another of the novel’s themes: our yearning for unending existence and the impossibility of attaining it. Lenny’s gradual abandonment of that most persistent form of human folly adds another layer of poignancy to the story. “The fading light is us,” Lenny understands, “and we are, for a moment so brief it can’t even register on our äppärät screens, beautiful.”
It remains to be seen whether through some combination of self-indulgence, profligacy and inattention America will slide into the chaos Gary Shteyngart channels in this brilliant satire. We have something to say about that, he seems to be telling us. And we might do well to take heed before it’s too late.