Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Originally published in the Herald magazine.
Gary Shteyngart may have made a mark with his earlier novel Absurdistan, but with Super Sad True Love Story, this mark is now indelible. Super Sad carries multiple narrative voices that bring about just the right kind of cacophony – one that perfectly suits the world it is set in, and modern readers’ short concentration spans. We meet protagonist Lenny via his personal diary in a post-literate society where no one reads or writes anymore. Lenny believes in literature, reading books that are repeatedly acknowledged as “smelly” and archaic. In a society obsessed with youth, beauty and achieving immortality, Lenny is almost obsolete himself – until he meets the much younger Eunice. Her emails to her mother and to her best friend, her instant message chats with her sister are the voice of the now. Eunice is atypical of the youth of Super Sad’s world – except that she falls in love with Lenny. And so boy meets girl, girl meets boy, they break up, they make up – theirs is a relationship doomed and it could really be that simple, if only it was not set in an absurdist future dystopia that may well be right around the corner. “Next Tuesday” even, as Shteyngart says.
Is this really a super sad love story, as the title claims? Yes, but it is also the sad story of a world fragmented by its desire to have more and be more – whether its trying to buy back youth (Lenny works for a company that sells potential immortality to “High Net Worth Individuals”), or acquiring the latest fashion (onion skin jeans - yes, they’re completely transparent). Anything of value is pegged to the Chinese yuan,Americais an absolute disaster and in massive debt. The government may as well have come straight from 1984, with their constant refrain “by reading this sign you have denied existence of the object and implied consent”. They are at war withVenezuelaand people’s careers are by far the vaguest things about them: “Retail, Media, Credit” are how they are described, with no details on what this actually means. Life is about staying young, looking thin, communicating details openly and electronically to everyone around but barely talking to the people you’re actually with. “Verballing” is rare – watching someone stream their life live is the more acceptable way of getting to know them. Most of this already does not sound fictitious at all.
There are obvious inflections of Orwell at play in Super Sad, but there is also a very strong feeling of H.G.Wells’ The Machine Stops. At one point it is considered that perhaps a “NonNuclear Electromagnetic Pulse” has been set off causing all electronic communications to be cut off. People are forced to talk to each other face to face without the ability to hide behind their ‘̈äppärätï̈̈’. A few commit suicide, leaving notes explaining how they didn’t think they could live 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 the world.” Lenny, while weak willed about a great many things, is firmly outside of this desire to be ranked. His attachment to things past, his love for actual books (“bound historical artifacts” considered smelly) makes him a singular character in Shteyngart’s hilarious riot of a cast.
Shteyngart’s vision isn’t far from our current reality – we’re already obsessed with youth, being thin, buying and owning more stuff, and of course, having the ability to connect to people via multiple methods of electronic communication. How much longer till äppäräti hanging around our necks broadcast our personal histories, all the while rating us amongst our peers, for “personality and hotness”? From the constant real life debates about Facebook’s privacy clauses to a world where everything about you including your credit ranking and cholesterol levels are public domain, it’s not a far stretch at all.