Review by Benjamin Dolson
The promotional video for Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Super Sad True Love Story, features the author as a parodied version of himself ranting in faux Russian-ESL while trying to hustle copies of his new book. It is a star-studded event with James Franco (a student of Shteyngart’s at Columbia’s MFA Program) declaring of Shteyngart: “I don’t think reading is really his thing.” While author Edmund White marvels, “They let him teach at Columbia?”
The video, in short, is ridiculous, but it generated a good amount of buzz in anticipation for the book’s release. And for his part, Shteyngart seemed to have fun with it (at his own expense, to boot). It is becoming increasingly common for publishers to use promotional videos to market upcoming books by their most popular authors. But not everyone is pleased about it. Novelist Jonathan Franzen appeared in a video to promote his new novel, Freedom. As the video begins, Franzen expresses his “profound discomfort at having to make videos like this.” Franzen’s stated reluctance about appearing on camera, while somewhat unnecessary, does lead him to a valuable observation that “the point of a novel is to take you to a still place,” and that reading “is a quiet alternative” to the constant multitasking offered by technology and online media.
This tension between our hyper-interactive online lives and the sustained focus of reading is at the center of Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. In this dystopic novel, Americans no longer read; rather, they “stream” texts and scan for information on their äppärät devices (think iPhone 22.0). Shteyngart imagines a country teetering on the verge of eternal, Roman collapse, addicted to Chinese debt, and governed by the authoritarian Bipartisan Party. In interviews the author refers to the exact setting of the novel as “maybe next Tuesday.” And yet, the book’s title insists that it is a love story.
Lenny Abramov, 39, is thought odd because he still owns actual books, which he douses with Pine-Sol in anticipation for the arrival of his love interest, Eunice Park, 24, whose generation considers books to be “smelly.” Shteyngart explores this generation gap by narrating the story through Lenny’s diary entries and Eunice’s GlobalTeen (i.e. Facebook) Messages.
Lenny’s diary provides the bulk of the story’s linear plot progression. The novel begins with his declaration that he will never die because “yesterday [he] met Eunice Park, and she will sustain [him] forever.” It should be said that Lenny’s renouncement of death is literal. He works at Post-Human Services where he recruits High Net Worth Individuals who want to live forever using the company’s patent advances in medical technology.
In her GlobalTeen Messages Eunice writes in a highly entertaining teenage-speak using such acronyms as TIMATOV (Think I’m About To Openly Vomit). In one message to a friend, Eunice describes a guy she met in Rome (not Lenny) who was streaming Chronicles of Narnia in a café. “Remember we streamed that at Catholic?” Eunice recalls of her post-literate education.
Later, when Lenny tries to entertain Eunice by reading from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it ends with Eunice crying and telling Lenny that she never learned to read texts “just to scan them for info.” Lenny apologizes for reading:
People just aren’t meant to read anymore. We’re in a post-literate age. You know, a visual age. How many years after the fall of Rome did it take for a Dante to appear? Many, many years.
Unlike many of his predecessors who imagined a dystopic future where books are banned or burned, Shteyngart imagines a world where books are ignored and forgotten.
The novel’s scope is remarkable, and Shteyngart provides all the necessary inventiveness to compel his reader through its grandiose plot. Some of the story’s most intriguing twists may feel like headlines from late 2008, announcing the Great Recession. However, Shteyngart started writing this novel in 2006, before Lehman Brothers folded, before Big Auto collapsed, and before amendments to the American Dream had to be issued from all cultural corners. The earliest version of what became the novel appeared as a short story in Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists published in Spring 2007. Another draft appeared earlier this year in The New Yorker when Shteyngart was selected to the prestigious list of Best 20 under 40 fiction writers.
Despite his reputation as a humorist and satirist, in Super Sad True Love Story, Shteyngart has proven himself abundantly trustworthy of caring for our culture’s ideas of love, attraction, and pursuit. The emotional heart of this story is big and it beats most convincingly through the unlikely love between Lenny and Eunice. In addition to the adjectives that help title this novel let’s add: hilarious, terrifying, and beautiful. Shteyngart is a visionary, able to peer into the darkest parts of America’s common future and somehow discover a love story buried within. With Super Sad True Love Story Shteyngart emerges every bit as funny as we thought him after Absurdistan (his second novel) and even more promising than we realized after his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
About the author:
Benjamin Dolson is a writer from Michigan. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York with his lovely wife.