I recently had the pleasure of reading “Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart, which I borrowed from my local public library. In this dystopic black comedy, the author takes the superficiality of modern love, the overabundance of data (and people’s cavalier attitude toward their own personal information) and the sense of America’s decline, contrasts it with an Old World sensibility.
The book is set in a time which may be the not too distant future. The protagonist is one Lenny Abramov, the only son of Russian Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Lenny is 39 years-old and works on Indefinite Life Extension for the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation’s division of Post-Human Services, whose mission is to reverse the aging condition of its clients, preserve them for as long as possible in their rejuvenated condition, and presumably enable them to live forever. Lenny’s boss is Joshie Goldmann, who has availed himself of age-reversal technology to such an extent that he appears about 40 years younger than his actual age of 70 (throughout the book the estimate of Joshie’s age steadily creeps upward).
In their universe the United States is in terminal decline and superficiality reigns supreme. As the book opens, Lenny is in Rome, trying to recruit “high net worth individuals (HNWI)” for his company. HNWIs are the only people that count in this society, though ironically whether one is an HNWI is as much dependent on one’s credit rating as on their actual monetary worth: people have their credit ratings flashed from Credit Poles posted on sidewalks. “Low net worth individuals” (LNWIs) are relegated to the margins of society, and often live in what we would recognize as homeless encampments in the park.
While in Rome, Lenny meets Eunice Park, with whom he falls irrationally in love. Eunice is approximately 21 years old, Korean-American (also the offspring of immigrants), and seemingly superficial, caring for nothing but shopping and general youthful frivolity.
Lenny is her complete opposite, and can politely be described as a schlub. He’s overweight, bald, looks his actual age, dresses funny, is socially awkward, and reads – gasp! – actual books. On an airplane he gets dirty looks from other passengers for having one, and one of his fellow passengers says, “[T]hat thing smells like wet socks!” Lenny is the archetype of the “Nice Jewish Boy”. He is a sad sack, an idealist and a dreamer, very much a classic schlemiel – but also the most human character in the book. He alone feels that the time before the onslaught of digital information overload and the sense of social isolation it fosters is something to be appreciated, though irretrievably lost. He lives in an old co-op on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that is home mostly to senior citizens, and makes efforts to visit his parents at their home on Long Island. A comparison between Lenny and the author’s biography reveals that he is none other than the author himself.
So what do people read instead of books? They don’t. Every individual carries around what are known as “äppäräti” which are basically smart-phones run amok. In addition to being used as communication devices, äppäräti constantly stream data on people’s attractiveness, credit rating and age (both real and apparent). These marks of a person’s worth can both change and are tracked by others in real time. In one scene, Lenny is at a bar in Staten Island, which has become the hipster enclave of New York City, the setting for the book. He watches his äppärät as it shows that his attractiveness rating continues to slip as more men enter the bar. People also use their äppäräti to broadcast live shows about themselves, regardless of where they are or what is happening around them.
Through the äppäräti, Shteyngart shows that people want to be ranked. People don’t have a sense of self or where they fit into the world based on anything other than their rankings, and begin to feel anxious when they aren’t ranked. Rather than suffering from information overload, the characters in the novel revel in the streams of data that they practically bathe in. In fact, in many ways they seem to feel more comfortable immersing themselves in the constant data stream than interacting with each other.
Data is an item of public consumption. It is relatively easy for people to find out anything they want about each other. Privacy seems to be a non-issue. People can also instantly communicate with each other through GlobalTeens, which is the only social network. Unlike Facebook, everyone’s GlobalTeens information is public, and anyone can communicate with anyone else, without having to be friends with them in the Facebook sense.
Lenny attempts to court Eunice in Rome, and when she decides to move back to New York, he decides to drop everything and follow her, smitten as he is, and convinced that she will be his salvation. It is here at that we start to get the sense that the United States is not the super power it once was.
The United States of the not-too-distant future is in its death-throes. The dollar is no longer considered valuable on its own, and is only considered valuable when pegged to the Chinese yuan. As part of the background to the action, the Chinese Central Banker is on his way to the US to make an assessment of America’s financial situation. As in real life, China holds a large portion of America’s debt, and in the book they use this to their political advantage. Other nations are considering breaking with the United States altogether. Countries’ names are now also merged with those of their predominant resources or corporations, as in HolyPetroRussia and HSBC-London (formerly known as England).
Power in the United States is held by Defense Secretary Rubenstein who has led the US into a disastrous war in Venezuela. There is a president – Jimmy Cortez – but he is only a figurehead who is trotted out once in the book to a make some statement that is conciliatory to the Chinese. His name is only mentioned once in the book, after which he is never heard from again. Authority is wielded through the American Restoration Authority, or ARA, which is rather xenophobic in its outlook, and which acts as Rubenstein’s enforcement arm. Before returning to the United States from Rome, Lenny has to report to the US Embassy for a form of debriefing/interrogation by a computer which takes the form of a cartoon otter who says things like “That’s why I never leave the brook where I was born”, indicating that it would be best of all Americans followed his lead and stayed home. The otter is in the habit of misinterpreting what Lenny tells it, and even though one never knows if this is deliberate or not, the misinterpretations are usually detrimental to the person being debriefed/interrogated.
With the help of an old family friend who coincidentally works at the embassy, Lenny manages to persuade the otter to clear him for return to the US, and once home persuades Eunice to move in with him, convincing her that she can be close to her family in Ft. Lee, New Jersey without necessarily having to live with them.
The nature of their affair can best be described as awkward. Eunice at first is turned off by Lenny, but eventually warms to him, though her love is fickle. In the course of the novel, she also falls for Joshie, and for a leader of a camp of LNWIs who is marked as a resistance leader by the ARA. As unlikely as it seems in the beginning, Eunice undergoes the greatest change in the book, going from completely superficial at the beginning, to a caring individual with a conscience and sense of social justice at the end as she reacts to the circumstances around her brought on by the United States’ collapse, which intrudes on her insular world. Very few of the other characters seem to change or grow, including Lenny, though in an act of jealousy he manages to actually save both his life and Eunice’s as the United States’ finally collapses over the course of an afternoon.
Shteyngart takes what he feels to be some of the most defining features of our world – the superficiality of love, the increasing openness of people in regards to their own data and the world of others, and the state of paranoia, xenophobia and insecurity that comes with knowing that your home is collapsing around you – and squeezes them together so they bump up against each other. But whereas many dystopias tend to be warning as to where we are headed if we don’t watch out, “Super Sad True Love Story” seems to be an extreme version of where we are.