By Gary Shteyngart
Random House. 334 pp. $26
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Reviewed by Jane Smiley
Gary Shteyngart's new novel,
Super Sad True Love Story
, is set in the near future, and believe me, you don't want to go there.
If you are my age, you will be finding yourself in a crumbling housing project in New Jersey, cut off from your children by many layers of security (bridges, highways, trains), and also by the fact that your outmoded old laptop barely functions, while the children are all equipped with lavalier "appäräts," which they use to shop, stream live video, scan texts, and rate everyone they see on many scales, including but not limited to credit ratings and "attractiveness" index.
The great dark pleasure of Shteyngart's novel is the world that his characters live in, inferred from the most dynamic and threatening parts of ours. The Chinese control everything, the streets are equipped with "Credit Poles" that broadcast the credit ratings of passersby, the U.S. is at war in Venezuela, and it looks as though Venezuela might win. Betrayed veterans of the Venezuelan war are camped out in Central Park, attempting to put together a coup, but it is doubtful that the only named government official, Secretary Rubinstein of the American Restoration Authority, will allow that. The difficulties of daily life are constant. When Shteyngart's protagonist, Lenny Abramov, goes to pick up his friend at JFK, "I almost missed her flight because a part of the Williamsburg Bridge had collapsed and we spent an hour trying to turn around on Delancey Street next to a hasty new ARA sign that said, 'Together We'll Repare [sic] This Bridge'."
The general impoverishment of the U.S. does not mean that there isn't an elite class of the wealthy and stylish. Young college graduates with high scores of all sorts have three ways to become High Net Worth Individuals: Retail, Media, or Credit.
Lenny's beloved, a Korean American immigrant named Eunice Park who is both appalled and attracted by Lenny's habit of reading books rather than scanning texts, is preparing herself for Retail; Lenny's best friend from college, Noah Weinberg, is in Media, which consists of live streaming every moment of his day.
Lenny himself is employed by Joshie Goldman, CEO of the Post-Human Services Division of the Staatling Wapachung Corp. Joshie's business is immortality, and the headquarters of the company is a very large former synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Joshie is 20 years older than Lenny, but because he has made use of all of his own "dechronification" procedures, he looks about 10 years younger. Lenny has taken Joshie as his personal savior, and Joshie has a lingering fondness for Lenny, which intensifies when Joshie meets Eunice. Lenny's job, for Joshie, is intake - High Net Worth Individuals come to Post-Human Services seeking immortality, and Lenny's job is to guide them through the very expensive admissions testing, and then, having relieved them of a considerable proportion of their Net Worth, to give them the bad news that they will not be accepted.
And then, as the political situation disintegrates, Lenny realizes that the Staatling Wapachung Corp. is a larger and more powerful conglomerate than he had thought, and that kindly, humane Joshie is probably implicated in the disposal of numerous Low Net Worth Individuals (although Lenny manages to get some of his and Eunice's LNWI relatives into the ranks of the chosen).
Shteyngart has the sort of imagination, demonstrated in his two previous novels, The Russian Debutante's Handbook and Absurdistan, that proliferates and gets funnier, too, and he is pretty good at keeping order in the parallel worlds that he creates - threads of narrative and brilliant motifs accumulate with apparent effortlessness and the narrative tone remains matter-of-fact and understated. He has gained a lot of praise for his first two novels, and yes, he does remind me of Nikolai Gogol and Evelyn Waugh both at the same time.
As with all satirists, the mix of humorous and horrifying is idiosyncratic, and the reader may not respond as readily with laughter as with tears, or vice versa. My own reservation has to do not with the super sad part, but with the love story part. Lenny is a bit annoying in his diary entries, full of fear, self-pity, and shame, and Eunice is his anorexic counterpart, the self-doubting victim of family violence that I feel sorry for, but am not drawn to.
Lenny is not that different from his Absurdistan counterpart, Mischa, ever frustrated in his search for love by his own endless neediness and self-examination. A story of true love (since this can't actually be, at least at this point, a true love story) has to have a lovable pair of lovers. Lenny and Eunice assert their affections, but I don't feel them.
However, Super Sad True Love Story is about as amusing and harrowing a reflection upon the world we live in now and the direction we could be heading as you can hope to find, and well worth reading for that alone.
And I mean reading, not scanning.