Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart. Random House, 2010. 334 pp. 978-1-4000-6640-7.
... in which an unlikely couple in the near future embarks on a super sad story of true love.
The problem with lavishly praised fiction is that the reader goes in with absurdly high expectations. Having read reviews of this book in multiple notable sources (The New York Times, Amazon's Editors Picks, Newsweek), I went expecting something brilliant. I was not disappointed.
Set during some undefined point in the near future, the story mostly takes place in New York City, in a USA that is on the verge of collapse. Based on the fact that some of the older characters remember fairly recent real events, I would estimate that perhaps the story takes place somewhere between 2020 and 2040. The USA is so deeply in debt to China that China is considering pulling the plug on the USA entirely. Literacy and education have plummeted, and the USA is totally reviled internationally. Everyone wears a device called an äppärät, which will henceforth be referred to as an apparat because the umlaut is a pain the butt to type. The apparat seems to be some kind of really souped up smart phone, allowing you to shop, watch TV, and learn every single personal detail about the people around you in public places.
Our main characters are a really unlikely couple: Lenny Abramov, the balding 39-year-old son of Russian immigrants, and Eunice Park, the beautiful 24-year-old daughter of Korean immigrants. Lenny works for a company that specializes in immortality, by providing its customers with ultra-purified diets, frequent blood and tissue replacements, and other "solutions" meant to prolong life indefinitely. Eunice is a recent college graduate, with a major in Images and a minor in Assertiveness (ie, a pretty useless degree). Lenny meets Eunice when he is abroad in Rome, and instantly falls in love with her. Despite the fact that Eunice is young and beautiful and fairly shallow, she eventually learns to love Lenny in return. The majority of the novel revolves around their time together in New York City. Most of the story is told in the form of Lenny's diary entries, with part of it told in the form of Eunice's instant messages and emails between her and friends and family.
Probably the most intriguing part of this book is the setting. Definitely intended as a satire, the setting is basically an exaggeration of everything that is wrong with America today. The crippling debt, both individual and national, is the primary characteristic of the nation as a whole. The constant presence of the apparat means that one never has to actually make eye contact or speak out loud to someone else; instead, they can just send them the equivalent of a text message, poor spelling and everything. One of Lenny's more quaint characteristics is his fascination with books, or as they are called at this point in time, printed, bound media artifacts. By this point in time, books are considered smelly annoyances, and reading has become a thing of the past. Instead, you get super-condensed versions of literature delivered to you through your apparat. Yes, this novel is available as a version for the Kindle. If you read it in this format, I sincerely hope it makes you squirm in discomfort. This novel does a really excellent job of exploring themes like consumerism, materialism, immortality, love, immigrant culture, and technology as a substitute for human contact.
Despite the pathetic nature of the setting, the true love that Lenny feels for Eunice is the bright part of the story. Most people form their relationships by getting on their apparat and ranking the people around them in terms of "Fuckability" (hotness), or "Sustainabilit¥" (ie, wealth in terms of the Chinese yuan). What Lenny feels for Eunice goes beyond the shallow concerns of physical appearance and wealth. While the parts of the story told in the form of Eunice's emails are better for illuminating what American culture is like at this point in time, Lenny's diary entries are really the highlight of the story. Although he is certainly naive and idealistic, Lenny's narration of his story is genuinely touching, making him feel like a real human being writing in a diary.
The title for this novel is apt. This is indeed a sad story, both in terms of the lives that Lenny and Eunice lead, and in terms of the depiction of what could very well happen to our culture. And it is certainly a story of true love.
Highly recommended reading for anyone who enjoys satirical fiction, or fiction that's just a little bit off the beaten path.