In a “postliterate age” not too far hence, books are out of fashion—reviled for their limitations and their supposedly foul smell. Everyone communicates with electronic devices called äppäräti, and “text-scanning for data” has replaced “reading.” The propaganda produced by the bankrupt, totalitarian United States government is riddled with spelling errors. In this brave new world, New Yorker Lenny Abramov, who suffers from the “ancient Jewish affliction for words,” turns for comfort to his dog-eared copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He pauses to consider the “laudatory quotes for the author and his work on the first page of the book from the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New York Times...even something called Commonweal. What had happened to all these publications?”
Like Milan Kundera before him, Gary Shteyngart has been lauded in publications big and small. His 2002 fiction debut, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, earned him comparisons to Nabokov, his fellow Russian immigrant. Shteyngart poked fun at this reputation in his second book, Absurdistan (2006), in which his main character, a Russian-Jewish world-traveling slob, loses a girl to a predatory fiction-writing instructor called Jerry Shteynfarb.
Super Sad True Love Story, Shteyngart’s clever new novel, features another wandering Russian Jew, this time navigating a dystopia that represents one possible outcome of present trends in media, politics, and culture. The book explores how immigrants from different cultures assimilate in America, and how the second generation relates to, and distances itself from, the first; it offers a comical, worrisome look at where our youth-obsessed, multitasking culture may be headed; and it adds to the canon of contemporary American literature about men trapped in (or, rather, unwilling to leave) extended adolescence.
The schlemiel at the center of all this is Lenny, the Lower East Side–dwelling son of Russian immigrants. He works in the immortality business, offering “Indefinite Life Extension” to “High Net Worth Individuals” (that phrase being one of the book’s sinister details that come uncomfortably close to present reality). It’s a difficult job for a man on the cusp of turning forty in a world where anxiety about aging has only defined youth downward.
“True love” is not the most accurate term for what Lenny shares with Eunice, the much younger object of his affections. She is the daughter of Korean immigrants and a recent college graduate, and he is attracted to her sharp-edged vulnerability. He records his anxieties in his diary; other chapters are written from other characters’ points of view, mainly via transcripts of Eunice’s virtual correspondence. She and Lenny are obviously mismatched: he sends an overeager message after their first meeting, and is elated when she replies, “I’ve been sort of thinking about you too.” Not an auspicious beginning, but Lenny is too self-absorbed and desperate to notice. Without much encouragement from Eunice, he sets himself a relationship goal: “Make yourself feel loved by her to lower stress levels and feel less alone.” Eunice agrees to move in with Lenny, using him for financial and emotional security and allowing herself to be used by him in turn. There is, in their relationship and in the book in general, a tiresome amount of sex—most of it, as they say, nonprocreative—but little genuine passion.
Though Eunice regards books with disdain (she majored in “Images”), it is to woo her that Lenny turns to Kundera: “I wanted this complex language, this surge of intellect, to be processed into love,” he writes in his diary. He confesses to being impatient with the slow start of Unbearable Lightness. “For Eunice’s sake, I wanted him to get to the plot, to introduce actual ‘living’ characters—I recalled this was a love story—and to leave the world of ideas behind.” Shteyngart reverses Kundera’s formula, starting right in with his characters and revealing the contours of the world in which they live only gradually. This makes Super Sad True Love Story less plodding than most futuristic fiction; it is not weighed down with exposition, and the humor is seldom too cute or heavy-handed. (One exception is the characters’ tendency to refer to speech as “verballing,” a joke that doesn’t improve with repetition.)
Shteyngart’s writing is full of wordplay, and his characters are vivid. His vision of a future world is, for the most part, chillingly plausible: American culture is hypersexual but no less sexist. For women, popularity depends on a willingness to debase oneself and a horror of being “brain-smart.” Men, too, are childish and superficial, and with the rise of the äppärät (which allows access to personal information about any nearby stranger), all relationships are filtered through a virtual network so comprehensive it allows almost no room for a private self. And then there’s the increasingly oppressive government, which blames domestic unrest on “frontline Islamic terrorism” and responds to outbreaks of violence by declaring, “Now is the time for spending.” Lenny and Eunice both prefer to steer clear of the social turmoil that surrounds them: “I don’t want you getting Political,” Eunice warns her younger sister. “Let’s just try to enjoy our lives.”
Are Lenny and Eunice unable to connect because they live in an unstable and faithless time? Are their flaws natural consequences of their surroundings? Or are they meant to be a study of a typical bad match, two modern people taking advantage of each other’s insecurities, set down for fun in an atypical world? Working out the relationship between characters and setting is an entertaining game, made more so by the constant shifting of the narrative voice. But eventually, despite all its imagination, Super Sad True Love Story founders for lack of plot. The romantic entanglement of Lenny and Eunice is never promising, and after a while their individual insecurities begin to bore. When the political and social upheaval that has been churning in the background finally pushes itself forward, the details remain frustratingly vague, and both the “world of ideas” and the actual story run out of momentum along with the sterile romance.
Because the pursuit of eternal life is a prominent theme in Super Sad True Love Story, the novel’s treatment of religion is a particular disappointment. It’s no surprise that the culture Lenny lives and works in is overtly secular: when his boss says, “Eternal life is the only life that matters,” he’s giving investment advice, not spiritual counsel. But while religious belief persists, it offers no serious challenge to the superficial selfishness of the culture. Surely Christianity would have something clarifying, or at least astringent, to say about a technological promise of physical immortality—but when Lenny attends a revival meeting with Eunice’s Christian family, what he witnesses only reaffirms his low opinion of “the Judeo-Christian lie.” The moral seems to be that eternal life is a sham no matter who’s making the promise. It’s likely to ring false for anyone who sees religion as a response to the human struggle with mortality, instead of just an “unsatisfying and delusional” distraction.
Super Sad True Love Story is enjoyable despite its limitations—but, as Shteyngart’s vision of the future makes plain, it is also enjoyable because of its limitations. “I’m learning to worship my new äppärät’s screen,” Lenny, adapting to a postliterate age, tells his diary, because “it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.” His words are a wink from the author at the artificiality of fiction—and a reminder of why scanning for data can’t replace the pleasure of actually reading.