09 July 2011

Gary Shteyngart's Somewhat Sad, Occasionally True Story With Some Lovers In It

Gary Shteyngart's third novel suffers from the crowded market of the subgenre where he's located it. The lovers who people his love story belong to a highly commercialized dystopic future America, where every corporation is a megaconglomerate of several names, citizens use their smartphones called "apparati" to hawk the brands they like and new graduates aspire to a job in Retail if they can't place themselves in Media. In short, a world close enough to our current state to jostle, while also having gone through some undescribed political upheaval that has left the U.S. at the mercy of China (oh, wait) and deeply in debt (oh, wait). There's also a South American war in there, somewhere.

A fair amount of cultural critique can still be pulled out of the hypercommercialization of the U.S., and I would not want to be the person to claim that vein has been exhausted. The trouble with SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY is that the critique doesn't do much that's new, and hijacks the narrative to the point that the super sad true love story itself is lost. Lenny Abramov, the New Yorker who narrates most of SUPER SAD TRUE through journal entries he is instructed to keep by his boss, is kind of an aberration to this world for his love of books. Not that he believes himself better than anyone else; in fact, he knows far worse, as whenever he walks into a bar or other public place people dole out ratings on his personality and fuckability (not so great).

(How long till the makers of Grindr add that functionality? Soon enough that I emailed someone who actually uses it and asked whether it was already there. [If you are reading this at work and you don't know what Grindr is, do not look it up at work. Or at all, if you are my parents.] [Just kidding, they never read this.])

In short, Lenny is a hopeless case, slightly disappointing to his Russian-Jewish emigrant parents, who is on the verge of losing his job in Post-Human Services, a department that culls very rich people and treats them to live forever. (The ethical ramifications of this business are fairly underdiscussed.) But his luck seems to turn when he meets recent college graduate Eunice Park on a business trip to Rome. Eunice is from a different generation, aspires to wear the coolest brands and writes slangy communiques to her best friend in southern California about how she met this guy she really doesn't like that much, only, she's going to stay in his apartment anyway. (Among other things, she's shocked to find him reading Tolstoy instead of just streaming the movie of THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE like her last date.) Lenny calls it love.

So, boy meets girl, boy loves girl, girl is persuaded to stay with boy. It's at this moment that Shteyngart begins world-building so furiously that the boy and the girl are, while still present, shoved to the side. The more elements that are added, particularly along the politico-economic axis, the less relevant Lenny and Eunice's relationship seems, even though they are still living through the thick of what turns out to be a very bad time to live in New York City. (A subplot about Eunice's sister's potential political awakening seems to have had a part cut out, although it may have added some useful context.)

And these new elements are emphasized to the point that it seems like everything is emphasized except the love story. In a way, the repetitious branding mirrors Lenny's not-totally-requited absorption in his new girlfriend, but the 18th time he mentions that someone is sporting clothes from popular-in-the-future retailer "JuicyPussy," the joke is over. (There were similar bits in the 2006 movie "Idiocracy," for example.) The gradual awakening of Eunice to books and a more literate existence is interrupted by new slang terms introduced deep in SUPER SAD TRUE that don't add any more context to her world than what we already know: Kids in the future are stupid and they don't read things that aren't on screens. On some level, it feels like Shteyngart just wanted to revel in that stupidity instead of wielding it as a cultural cudgel.

There are some very lyrical, touching "Love Among The Ruins" passages in SUPER SAD TRUE that escape the author's constant need to overdeliver on his dystopia, but the epilogue to this book, as sort of another shell, demonstrates what's really important here. And that's why it doesn't feel necessary to rule on Eunice's ultimate motives or whether Lenny was better off taking her in when she gets to New York, or the ultimate products of Post-Human Services. The conclusion that it sort of matters, as literary motivator, is insufficient for this reader.

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