Super Sad True Love Story – review

Super Sad True Love Story

It almost feels wrong to class Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (2010) as a dystopian novel. The near-future world he describes in such immersive detail is so familiar to today’s reader that it’s almost an effort to remember this stuff is made up. But in this familiarity lie both the novel’s successes, and its flaws. The society Shteyngart describes is extremely well-observed, and convincingly modelled on (while being a mutation of) our contemporary culture. Yet underneath all its fresh modernity, Love Story is a familiar tale about love and death, without much insight into either.

The eponymous tale centres on Lenny Abramov, a middle-aged Jewish schlub who seems entirely out of place in his shiny, hi-tech surroundings. He works for ‘Post Human Services’, a company that (under a more sinister parent company that seems to be pulling most of the world’s strings) aims to let incredibly rich clients live forever. Needless to say, this doesn’t do wonders for his own self-esteem, nor does it ease his traditional Jewish neuroses about illness and dying alone.

We are introduced to Lenny in Rome, where he meets a youthful, attractive US-Korean girl named Eunice Park. She’s a generation younger and extremely out of his league, yet they somehow end up together. Lenny returns to his apartment in New York, and Eunice soon follows him there. Their relationship is then charted from bloom to decay, as the city and the wider country fall completely apart.

Shteyngart’s vision, as I’ve said, is intensely immersive, and this is in large part due to the narrative technique. The chapters alternate between Lenny’s verbose, introspective and literary diary entries, and Eunice’s seemingly superficial conversations with various people over the ‘Globalteens’ network (complete with alternating fonts). As such, there is little exposition. Instead, Shteyngart trusts in how familiar all this will be to the reader, and knows he doesn’t need to explain what an ‘äppärät’ is – it’s enough for us to understand that everyone has them, they hang around your neck, and connect to the internet. Unlike the more distant societies of 1984 (1949) or Brave New World (1931), this novel seems to be happening just a few short years from now, in a very recognisable America.

This lends the novel a great deal of verisimilitude. People live-stream their own shows around the world via their äppäräti (one of Lenny’s friends presents the ‘Amy Greenberg Muffintop Hour’), London has become HSBC-London (along with HSBC Goldsmith’s College), and people are being judged mercilessly by their credit-rating. All this roots this futuristic world very much in today. Moreover, though Shteyngart never gives the reader a specific year, the fall of the USSR and the Berlin Wall are well within living memory for most of the characters. One is therefore left in no doubt that what we’re seeing may take place very soon indeed. It’s a bold move by the author, but he has enough insight into contemporary technology and societal behaviours that he just about pulls it off. However, one does have to wonder how clever his predictions will look a short decade from now.

In fact, strip away the contemporary references and witty predictions, and there’s not a great deal left behind. Shteyngart satirises our image-obsessed, anti-intellectual culture by taking it to absurd lengths, but he uncovers nothing new. In their uncomfortably modern surroundings, the characters fail to connect with one another – this could just as easily describe Howards End (1910), a novel published a century before this one. There is a familiar self-deception on display, which Larry sees in one of his closest friends: ‘I had always been unsure of his affection for Amy Greenberg, and now I had no reason to doubt. He didn’t love her. They were together for the obvious and timeless reason: it was slightly less painful than being alone.’

‘Obvious and timeless’ – a good summary of the novel’s subject. Behind all the superficially clever trappings of dystopia and technological lies Larry’s central fear of illness and death – again and again we are subjected to the protagonist’s almost intolerable sensitivity (he even cries when receiving a blowjob), to the extent that one almost wills Eunice to walk out on him from the start. He fears his own demise, and is terrified of being alone – but he offers no insight into his predicament. Moreover, he is perhaps a character incapable of doing so. After all, when Larry reads passages from Kundera to Eunice, he struggles to engage intellectually even with his own adolescent marginalia (‘EUROPEAN CYNICISM or VERY SCARY TRUTH???’). To the disgust of everyone around him, Larry keeps his old physical books, but he doesn’t know why. He reads War and Peace, but we never see him learning or improving from the practice. Essentially, he is too mediocre to break free of his oppressively superficial surroundings. This kind of mediocre protagonist has a proud tradition in literature, but because of the diary-style narrative, Shteyngart cannot provide the reader with any more insight than Larry is capable of – which is not a great deal.

On the topic of Larry’s books, a pertinent quote comes to mind from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) – a novel to which Shteyngart owes a great debt. By the end, I wanted to shake poor Larry out of his bewildered stupor and shout this at him:

You’re a hopeless romantic… It would be funny if it were not serious. It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlour families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.

Shteyngart should have stapled that quotation firmly above his desk when writing Love Story. Instead, he takes an easier path of cynicism and blunt satire. This by no means results in a bad book – on the contrary, there are several fantastic moments. In particular the obsession everyone feels with ranking their peers in various ways (including, but not limited to, the categories of ‘Fuckability’ and ‘Personality’) is an astute assessment of social networks and their insistence on categorisation, compartmentalisation, and implied competition. This initially feels insightful, though towards the novel’s close, Shteyngart unfortunately gives in to bad instincts and states his point too explicitly (thus eliminating any latent satire): when people’s äppäräti stop working, Larry notes how

four young people committed suicide in our building complexes, and two of them wrote suicide notes about how they couldn’t see a future without their äppäräti. One wrote, quite eloquently, about how he “reached out to life,” but found there only “walls and thoughts and faces,” which weren’t enough. He needed to be ranked to know his place in this world.

On occasions like this, Shteyngart needs to let the world speak for itself, rather than have Larry spell out its meanings and implications. That said, there are other moments when such explication works well. When a massacre takes place in Central Park, Shteyngart uses this moment to offer an uncomfortably truthful observation about the solipsism ingrained in modern society:

There’s eighteen people dead,” [Noah] said, as if he had surprised himself. “They shot eighteen.” And I wondered about the excitement in his voice: What if Noah was secretly pleased that all this was happening? What if we all were? What if the violence was actually channeling our collective fear into a kind of momentary clarity, the clarity of being alive during conclusive times, the joy of being historically important by association?

Unfortunately, though, this incisive analysis of our modern culture doesn’t happen as often as you’d like in the book. Mostly Shteyngart provides us with a less nuanced take – his world is one of shiny distractions, which will surely date extremely badly. Behind these lies a quite conservative and somewhat adolescent take on the world and its future. Though it might seem dazzlingly contemporary, Shteygart’s vision is at heart a wearily familiar one, driven by bibliophilia, nostalgia, and morbidity. 

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