'Super Sad True Love Story': Gary Shteyngart's dystopian novel is super, sad and true
A review of Gary Shteyngart's novel "Super Sad True Love Story," a wicked sendup of just about everything in contemporary culture, from social media to celebrity, status and fashion, delivered in a multivoiced collage of diary entries, e-mail ramblings and cellphone chats. Shteyngart discusses his book at 8 p.m. Monday at Seattle's Sunset Tavern in Ballard.
Special to The Seattle Times
Gary ShteyngartThe author of "Super Sad True Love Story" will appear at 8 p.m. Monday at Ballard's Sunset Tavern, 5433 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle. Shteyngart will be joined by Stranger book editor Paul Constant and the Seattle-based musical group Orkestar Zirkonium. Tickets are $5; no one under 21 admitted. Co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
Shteyngart will also discuss his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
'Super Sad True Love Story'
by Gary Shteyngart
Random House, 331 pp., $25
Gary Shteyngart has a wicked penchant for steering his hapless characters into absurd situations, then letting real-life global forces roll over them. But his wild, exuberant wit and deadly accurate satire have made the Russian émigré one of the most acclaimed, enjoyable — and unsettling — novelists working today.
Shteyngart's last novel, "Absurdistan," was set in an imaginary oil fiefdom on the Caspian Sea. Distance made its biting satire easy to enjoy. His newest, "Super Sad True Love Story," cuts uncomfortably close to home.
The story unfolds in a near-future New York where everything dehumanizing about our contemporary culture, economy and politics has gotten immeasurably worse.
Lenny Abramov, the balding, middle-aged son of Russian Jewish immigrants, falls helplessly in love with a beautiful and much-younger Korean-American, Eunice Park. Lenny works for Staatling-Wapachung, a large, multinational conglomerate with tentacles in defense, property development and indefinite life extension ("Post-Human Services"). Lenny works for the latter division, surrounded by health-obsessed 20-somethings and their messianic, ageless boss, Joshie.
Immortality seems close at hand, but it's a scary time in America. Lenny has already been targeted by an Orwellian government agency. He worries about the safety of his aging parents and clings to the youth and beauty of Eunice as to a skinny life raft.
America, now governed by the monolithic Bipartisan Party, is tightening its grip on its less-desirable citizens: minorities, "Low Net Worth Individuals" (LNWIs), émigrés with low credit ratings, vets from the ongoing war with Venezuela. Many of these have retreated to shacks in New York's crowded parks as a privatized national guard looks on, and military helicopters rake the skies overhead. Checkpoints shake down pedestrians and snarl traffic.
Meanwhile, the dwindling remnant of the middle class is either glued to "FoxLiberty" news or shopping incessantly on handheld "äppäräti."
Lenny's educated friends are "Media" types who stream and monitor one another in a futile effort to comprehend the deteriorating state of affairs. The younger Eunice is of an entirely post-literate generation who surfs retail fashion sites and texts incessantly on the Facebook-like "Globalteens" network. She is horrified, for instance, to catch Lenny reading a book. "I was so embarrassed I just stood there and watched him read which lasted for like HALF AN HOUR," she texts a friend, "... finally he put the book down and I pretended like nothing happened."
Indeed, Shteyngart's dystopia is a truly frightening society dominated by social media, celebrity, status and fashion. Äppäräti broadcast one's age, status, income, health stats, sexual desirability rating, net worth and credit rating. All are available with a click.
True to the book's title, Lenny and Eunice's affair is already veering off the rails when the national guard cracks down on homeless camps; China pulls its backing for U.S. Treasury bonds, and mercenary guardsmen move in to clear the city of economic undesirables.
"Welcome to America 2.0: A GLOBAL Partnership."
Shteyngart delivers this preposterous tale in a lively multivoiced collage of diary entries, e-mail ramblings and cellphone chats. His imagination is either warped or prophetic; you choose. But his writing is brilliant. Somehow, amid all this, he creates vulnerable, sympathetic characters whose foibles and blunderings toward one another we recognize as universal: super sad and true.
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