Imagine a vaguely possible future. The American dollar is nearly worthless and what value it has is pegged to the ¥uan. The only viable or respectable professions are media and retail because America’s dominant cultural value of consumerism outweighs productivity or creativity. Mobile devices are used to rank and display credit scores, desirability, and health statistics of everyone in your vicinity. The American government is run by a single party, The Bipartisans, and government surveillance and militarism is prolific, constantly eroding the concepts of rights or individual freedom. This is a world that is a slightly distorted reflection of our present day, a world wherein disappointment and longing are inarticulately satisfied by the distraction of mobile devices, the fleeting promise of inter-connectivity and denial of life’s limitless limitations.
“And the looks on the faces of my countrymen-passive heads bent, arms at their trousers, everyone guilty of not being their best, of not earning their daily bread, the kind of docility I had never expected from Americans, even after so many years of decline. Here was the tiredness of failure imposed on a country that believed only its opposite. Here was the end product of our deep moral exhaustion.” (130)
This is the dystopian satire of Super Sad True Love Story and it is the world of Leonard Abramov (Lenny), a middle aged, middle class son of a Russian emigrant and janitor who lives in the run-down, military-occupied Manhattan. Lenny works as a salesman for Post-Human Services, a division of a mega corporation that specializes in extending life and longevity to the ultra-wealthy through nano-robots and health elixirs. Youth and virility are tantamount to an individual’s social worth – yet, ironically Lenny lives a step behind, focused on the values of another century, spending his time reading smelly, dusty “artifacts” (also known as books) and is ridiculed by his colleagues as an old-timer out of touch with the times and out of league with his body’s aging decline toward gravity’s will.
As sad as this sounds, it is actually quite funny stuff. Super Sad True Love Story is satire after all. The novel is told through rotating chapters spoken from the first-person narratives taken from entries of Lenny’s diary and entries from the GlobalTeens (an obvious satirical stand-in for Facebook) account of his twenty-year old Korean girlfriend, Eunice (screen name Euni-Tard) Park. Eunice’s entries are mostly written as screen chats between her family and friends, with a few long letters, but all of her reflection is outward, directed at another, whereas Lenny’s diary entries are internally observational and often reflective on the declining culture he lives in and declining personal worth he sees in himself. Lenny’s love for a woman several years his junior is oddly contradictory to his obsession with literature and the ways of a time long past, however this contradictions acts as a symbol for the dichotomy of America’s moral dilemmas regarding consumer worth and global power. Taken at face value, the novel is sarcastic and flippant, but the book manages to explore some really exciting and thought provoking themes, such as the value of youth and the reality of aging decline, as noted in the following reflective passage:
“Joshie has always told Post-Human Services staff to keep a diary, to remember who we were, because every moment our brains and synapses are being rebuilt and rewired with maddening disregard for our personalities, so that every year, each month, each day we transform into a different person, an utterly unfaithful iteration of our original selves, of the drooling kid in the sandbox.” (65)
The question of the devaluing change of self-worth through age and change is central to the novel’s themes and this is further elaborated int the following passage:
“My hair would continue to gray, and then one day it would fall out entirely, and then, on a day meaninglessly close to the present one, meaninglessly like the present one, I would disappear from the earth. And all these emotions, all these yearnings, all these data, if that helps to clinch the enormity of what I’m talking about, would be gone. And that’s what immortality means to me Joshie. It means selfishness. My generation’s belief that each one of us matters more than you or anyone else would think.” (70-1)
Posing these thematic questions provides much for the fodder for the reader to reflect upon in reflection to our current moral stasis. What is it that we are really doing, thinking that we are changing the world with all of the advertisement driven internet age? Who are we becoming in this world of flash acquaintances and superficial communities? The novel’s plot further plays with these questions through the creation of an economic crisis wherein the American dollar completely collapses after the Chinese Central Bank decides to unpeg the ¥uan from the dollar. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that mass riots occur and communications are shut down for weeks. The loss of communications create an overwhelming social discomfort best described in the following passage:
“It’s been almost a month since my last diary entry. I am so sorry. But I can’t connect in any meaningful way to anyone, even you, diary. Four young people committed suicide in our building complexes, and two left suicide notes about how they couldn’t see a future without their äppärät [mobile devices]. 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. And that may sound ridiculous, but I can understand him. We are all bored out of our fucking minds. My hands are itching for connection.” (270)
I found the novel’s satirical play on our current culture amusing and well informed. Though this be fiction, it presents a believable and possible culture dystopia that is right around the corner. However, this novel isn’t solely about culture and American decline. As the novel’s title alludes, there is also a love story within these pages. All of the quotes I’ve cited above are taken from Lenny’s diary and although there is plenty of social commentary to reflect upon, his diary entries are consistently focused on his girlfriend, Eunice, in an obsessive and doting manner. This doting is humorously contradicted by Eunice’s reflections on Lenny that reveal her hesitation an disgust with his aging body. Eunice isn’t completely shallow, she is simply human and a young woman with many options before her and the contradiction presents the reality of that often occurs within the opposing perspectives of two people’s supposed love affairs.
Additionally, of note in regard to the love between Lenny and Eunice is that their relationship represents an unexplored trend in urban matchmaking: the white man/Asian woman couple. There is a lot of fun stuff here, which is further illuminated by Lenny’s Jewish immigrant roots as a contradiction to Eunice’s Asian immigrant roots. Both have parents that came to America searching for the promise of the American dream only to find dissatisfaction in the emptiness of those promises presented in America’s decline in global prominence. Lenny and Eunice both find a common bond in that disappointment and it is questionable whether the white/Asian pairing trend has any significant connection to an attempt to supplant the failed promises of the American dream. Whatever can be made of that, love story acts as a metaphor for the plot’s larger themes. The reader doesn’t walk away from this book with the impression that this is the tragic story of Lenny and Eunice, but their love story provides a backbone for the bigger story about the very real tragedy that the immigrant’s love for the American Dream is a misspent effort and broken dream.
This is my second novel by Gary Shteyngart and I will acknowledge that Absurdistan was a superior book in that it was comically laughable with its satirical whit, but Super Sad True Love Story had a more mature vision that satisfied this reader. This is actually a book that I would recommend to many of my friends that don’t read too much because the topics covered here are temporally poignant.