BOOKS AND ARTS SEPTEMBER 2, 2010
Super Sad True Love Story
By Gary Shteyngart
(Random House, 334 pp., $26)
There was once a city in the heart of America where all life seemed to be, if not entirely in harmony with its surroundings, then at least functioning in its own kind of equilibrium. Day after day, workers repaired to skyscrapers stacked with single-person cubicles, where they sat for eight, nine, ten hours gazing into glowing screens that were at once portals to the outside world and magical mirrors reflecting their own desires. The streets below buzzed with the sound of a million simultaneous conversations, each person clutching a miniature device close to his or her ear, checking in with loved ones near and far to find out who won the game or what was for dinner.
And then, one spring, a strange blight crept over the area. Doctors were puzzled by a new kind of sickness among their patients, who were afflicted with a form of amnesia that struck whenever they picked up a book, a magazine, or a newspaper: they recognized the object, but they could no longer remember what it was or how to use it. Classrooms that once rang happily with the voices of children performing plays and reciting poetry were now nearly silent, the hush punctuated only by the tapping of little fingers on digital boxes. Meanwhile, the jagged plastic detritus of this society overflowed the city’s garbage cans and landfills. For a few miserable months, the viscous raw material of its technological trinkets bubbled unstoppably into the ocean, snuffing out the lives of sea creatures as it had stifled the brains of those on land. No witchcraft, no enemy action, was responsible for this destruction: the people had brought this on themselves.
All right, back to 2010. The apocalypse, as far as I can tell, is not yet upon us. Unlike the scenarios Rachel Carson described in her famous opening to Silent Spring, the disaster that I have depicted is fictional—mostly. But over the past few years, the horsemen’s drumbeats have become distinctly more audible. A cascade of premonitory articles in magazines and newspapers has borne grim tidings of the potential dangers that lurk in our wireless connections and our smartphones: not necessarily in the devices themselves (though a recent New York Times column asked whether radiation-emitting cell phones might be “the new cigarettes”), but in the behavior they foster. Is Google—shorthand for the unimaginably immense depository of information at our fingertips—making us stupider by absolving us of the need to remember facts, figures, quotations? Is Facebook, where anyone can “friend” anyone else by clicking a button, unschooling us in the psychological skills and emotional probities necessary to create and to maintain relationships with other human beings? Is the very phenomenon of constant connectivity a detriment to our marriages, our careers, our brain cells? The ability to “be online” (already an antiquated phrase) anywhere and anytime may ultimately be seen as the twenty-first century’s version of DDT: a technological innovation blithely presumed to be a good until its unintended consequences became impossible to ignore.
Gary Shteyngart’s novel offers a vision of the worst-case scenario, a dystopian American culture sexed up, dumbed down, and digitized ad absurdum. Super Sad True Love Story appears to take place some thirty to fifty years from now. The United States, embroiled in a losing war with Venezuela, is no longer a dominant world power. The dollar has been “devaluated” and pegged to the yuan, and the country is governed by a single “Bipartisan Party,” backed up by the American Restoration Authority (ARA, formerly known as Homeland Security). The culture of consumerism dominates, with constant streams of data flowing in and out of ubiquitous smartphones (now called, unpronounceably, “äppäräti”). With the click of a button anyone can discover anyone else’s bank balance, scrutinize their recent purchases, or look at photographs of their home, while simultaneously broadcasting one’s own statistics to anyone within range. It goes without saying that books are no longer read in this world, where a two-paragraph e-mail message constitutes a “long-form standard English text.” More than that, they are objects of disgust: when a character takes out a book on a plane, his seatmate complains that it smells bad.
Shteyngart, who emigrated to America from the Soviet Union with his parents in 1979, at the age of seven, has been celebrated as a satirist out of the Russian literary tradition of Gogol and Oblomov. His two previous novels, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, were both overstuffed farces, written in a boisterous, exuberant style and peopled with cartoonish characters, including a young dominatrix named Challah (like the bread) and a gangster who drives around in a peach-colored Cadillac. These books often showed Shteyngart to be less interested in real characters or deep meaning than in piling on episode after episode of picaresque hilarity, as if the picaresque required only shallows. He was unconcerned to raise his slapstick into the service of his fiction.
But a person who bangs on a piano long enough will start to hit the right notes. Super Sad True Love Story is a satire that strikes painfully at many of our culture’s weakest spots, particularly its pornographic obsession with sex and its nonchalance about Internet privacy, or what remains of it. (The Big Brother-esque policies of Facebook, which has become notorious for allowing advertisers and others access to its subscribers’ personal information without their explicit consent, are an obvious corollary to the constant involuntary “streaming” of data in Shteyngart’s novel.) If the book’s cumulative effect is thinner than the paper (or screen) on which it is read, this may be by Shteyngart’s design. The future will have no room for everything-but-the-kitchen-sink extravaganzas like his previous novels—or, for that matter, the historical and psychological investigations of Tolstoy or Chekhov, to which this book explicitly bids farewell. The novel of the future, like the love object who is here the center of obsession, will be a “sleek digital creature,” buzzing with information and fun to play with but in the end perfunctory.
When we first meet Lenny Abramov, the latest of Shteyngart’s Russian-expat protagonists, he is on his way back to New York after a year spent unprofitably in Italy. Lenny is the Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator of the Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation. This thoroughly postmodern company is engaged in that most ancient of tasks, the search for eternal life. “The technology is almost here,” Lenny writes in his diary, which forms the novel’s backbone. (In a gesture of canny irony, Shteyngart’s futuristic book is styled as part epistolary novel, part pseudodiary—two of the most antiquated literary forms.) Those who can pay for “dechronification treatments”—in the parlance of the novel, they are known as High Net-Worth Individuals, or HNWIs—will be able to use technological innovations, such as something called “smart blood,” to counteract the effects of aging. Lenny’s boss, a nearly seventy-year-old man who appears to be in his mid-twenties and goes by the infantilized name of Joshie, is the guinea pig.
Lenny’s job is to search out HNWIs and sign them up as clients: “I work in the creative economy.... Indefinite Life Extension,” he declares. But he spent most of his time in Italy indulging in local food and women, with the predictable negative effects on his future with the company, which rates the success of its employees as much by their blood count (overdosing on carbs raises glucose levels) as by their productivity. At the company’s headquarters, located in a building on Park Avenue that once was a synagogue, before “the congregation folded after being bamboozled by some kind of Jewish pyramid scheme years ago”—Shteyngart’s touch is not light—the results of the employees’ physicals are displayed on a giant flip-board like the kind once used in train stations: “our methylation and homocysteine levels, our testosterone and estrogen, our fasting insulin and triglycerides, and, most important, our ‘mood and stress indicators,’ which were always supposed to read ‘positive/playful/ready to contribute’ but which, with enough input from competitive co-workers, could be changed to ‘one moody betch today’ or ‘not a team playa this month.’” Co-workers greet each other with lines such as “I’m going to make you a plate of cruciferous vegetables, baby” and hang out in an Eternity Lounge, where they can pat anti-aging serum under their eyes, drink green tea, and take fish-oil supplements.
But on Lenny’s last night abroad he encounters a more traditional elixir of immortality, at least as far as middle-aged men are concerned. A just-out-of-college Korean woman named Eunice Park, she has “full shiny lips and a lovely if incongruous splash of freckles across her nose.” After an evening together that ends with a clumsy sexual encounter, Lenny is infatuated. But she is unimpressed by his age (thirty-nine), his appearance (pudgy and balding), and the piles of books in his apartment, which, she informs him, her “text-major friends” call “doorstops.” “You’re old, Len,” she tells him in the morning.
So why, then, does she follow him to New York? The reason, so far as it can be discerned from Eunice’s e-mails to her friends and family members and the transcripts of her instant-message chats, has little to do with love. (E-mail is now controlled by an outfit called GlobalTeens, so that e-mailing becomes “teening,” and talking is “verballing.”) Like Yulia Sergeyevna, the young woman who decides to marry the much older Laptev in Chekhov’s novella Three Years (which Shteyngart’s novel invokes explicitly and implicitly), she desires security and stability. But she is also drawn to Lenny’s aura of analog authenticity, which is an anomaly in her world of hyperdigital isolation. Bliss with a previous boyfriend was, for her, sitting on the couch side by side, each absorbed in their own äppärät. Watching Lenny talk—actually engage in the process of carrying on a conversation with another person, complete with spittle on the lips—she thinks, “Wow, you’re kind of beautiful, Lenny. You’re like what Prof Margaux in Assertiveness Class used to call a ‘real human being.’”
Lenny, an aging Luddite in comparison with Eunice’s generation of tuned-in, turned-on dropouts, finds himself both tortured and captivated by the phenomenon of eternal connectivity. When Joshie gives him a new pebble-sized äppärät to replace his clunky outdated one—“What is this, an iPhone?” the boss sneers—his feelings for it are akin to “worship”: “the colorful pulsating mosaic of it, the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.” And his internal monologue is already steeped in the vocabulary of digital culture. Sitting across from Eunice at the dinner table, “we locked eyes for a millisecond, but it was enough time to download a million bits of sympathy.” After they first meet, he searches on social-networking sites for photos of her to add to his mind’s “burgeoning Eunice archive.” In a touching moment of real empathy, he notices a blemish on her face in one of the images. Zooming in, he can see that it is the mark of a slap. The screen, then, does have an advantage over real life: it allows access to moments of personal history that go unspoken but remain forever in the digital memory bank.
The fundamental premise of every dystopian fantasy is that to a certain extent it is already true. Shteyngart’s often very funny novel derives much of its humor from the fact that the journey from our world to his requires only a minor tweak. There are two right-wing news channels, “Fox Liberty-Prime” and “Fox Liberty-Ultra.” A friend of Lenny’s has become a media star by “streaming” for hours a day about her weight problems. (The tweeting at the end of days.) More sinisterly, the ARA operates under the Cheneyesque policy of “deny and imply”: a typical placard by a security checkpoint reads, “It is forbidden to acknowledge the existence of this checkpoint (‘the object’). By reading this sign you have denied existence of the object and implied consent.” The novel’s greatest departure from the New York City of 2010 might be that hipsters, having given up Williamsburg, now congregate in bars with one-word names on Staten Island.
But it is the vulgarity of Shteyngart’s world, which happens also to be its defining characteristic, that most closely resembles our own. Women wear transparent “Onionskin” jeans and “TotalSurrender” panties that pop off at the click of a button; an Internet shopping site is named AssLuxury. The “EmotePad” on an äppärät can pick up a change in the wearer’s blood pressure when he looks at a woman, and the device offers statistics for “fuckability,” “personality,” and “anal/oral/vaginal preference.” Eunice and her best friend, in their e-mail messages, address each other as “bitch” and “slut”; when her friend is depressed, her boyfriend comforts her by telling her that she looks “slutty” and that her “fuckability was 800+.” (The friend is identified throughout only by her e-mail moniker, “Grillbitch”; we do not learn her real name until the end of the novel.) All this is exaggerated for effect, of course. But try to recall what a shock it would have been, twenty-five years ago, to be told that the pornography once sold in plain wrappers at newsstands would be accessible to anyone at any time on the Web—for free!—and that women would regularly get Brazilian bikini waxes at their neighborhood salons.
Eunice’s mother, in the old-fashioned terms of the immigrant, warns her to withhold herself sexually: “Do not give away mystery.” But such a caution is absurd in a world in which sex itself has lost its power to cut through the fog of social isolation that surrounds these characters. Eunice’s best friend, in a telling phrase, complains about her own inability to connect in person with another human being: “It’s like I’m floating around and the moment anyone gets near me or I get near anyone there’s just this STATIC.” Lenny, reporting to his diary on his first sexual encounter with Eunice, writes that “we kissed, lazily, like it was nothing, then roughly, like we meant it.” Both descriptions frame the act as an act: they are putting on a show, like performers in a porn video. It’s not nothing, but they don’t mean it, either. Eunice herself appears to Lenny as more avatar than person, “a nano-sized woman who had likely never known the tickle of her own pubic hair, who lacked both breast and scent, who existed as easily on an äppärät screen as on the street before me.”
“What if Eunice and I just said ‘no’ to all this,” Lenny muses over drinks at the Staten Island bar. “What if we just went home and read books to each other?” “Oh God,” groans one of his friends, who is streaming the conversation. “You just halved my viewer load.” But soon they will have to collapse back into reading books. A full-scale rebellion breaks out among veterans of the Venezuela war and Low Net Worth Individuals (LNWIs), otherwise known as homeless people, angry about the government’s broken promises. The ARA crushes it with violence, and the result comes to be called “the Rupture”: a total information blackout. Lenny and Eunice are forced to hole up in his apartment, afraid to venture into the lawless city streets, the electricity out. At one point during these dark bibliophilic days, he catches her glancing over his old copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “her index fingers raised above the book as if ready to tap at the BUY ME NOW symbol on her äppärät, her other fingers massaging the book’s back, maybe even enjoying its thickness and unusual weight, its relative quiet and meekness.”
Encouraged, Lenny reads to her; but the book is quite literally written in a language that she doesn’t understand. It is “a novel of ideas set in a country that meant nothing to her, set in a time ... that might as well not have existed.” He, too, barely recognizes it. (There are a few signs that even Lenny, who is called the “last reader on earth,” was never as much of an intellectual as he thought he was: Eunice at one point discovers him moving a ruler down the page and whispering aloud to himself.) “What had happened to all these publications?” he wonders, looking at the blurbs inside the novel’s cover. “I remember reading the Times in the subway, folding it awkwardly while leaning against the door, caught up in the words, worried about crashing to the floor or tripping over some lightly clad beauty ... but even more afraid to lose the thread of the article in front of me, my spine banging against the train door, the clatter and drone of the massive machine around me, and me, with my words, brilliantly alone.” Frustrated, Eunice goes back to her nonfunctional äppärät and pulls up the last Web page she had been looking at before the Rupture—a shopping site, naturally. “I can’t buy anything,” she moans.
Is this part of Shteyngart’s comedy of horrors—the death of the book—also already true? In one way, of course, the very presence of the artifact in our hands, even if we might be reading it on an iPhone, offers a counter to Eunice’s declaration that “we’re in a post-literate age.” But on another level Shteyngart’s book seems to prove, or at least to desire, its own non-existence. At the end we learn that someone hacked into Lenny’s and Eunice’s GlobalTeens accounts and edited the contents into the book we are reading—or, as Lenny calls it, “the text you see on your screen.” Is this a shout-out to all the Kindle and iPad readers out there? Or could it be that the book itself, embarrassed by its pre-digital ways, pretends that it does not exist? “By reading this sign you have denied existence of the object and implied consent.”
Lenny insists he never intended to publish his diaries. “It never occurred to me that any text would ever find a new generation of readers,” he says. And yet not only are there still readers, there are even book reviewers, though not particularly discerning ones. They unanimously agree that Eunice’s entries are “the gems in the text.” In the distinguished literary magazine whorefuckrevu, one of them writes that “she is not a born writer, as befits a generation reared on Images and Retail, but her writing is more interesting and more alive than anything else I have read from that illiterate period.” This is a joke, of course. Eunice’s “writing”—her e-mail messages and her chat transcripts—is neither interesting nor alive. It could not be so: she has no life experience, no education, no ambition. She writes in the superficial voice of a moderately profane post-teenage girl.
But in the end the joke is on us, the readers of this absurd novel that is finally neither super sad nor true nor actually about love. (Whose language is the title in?) To criticize Shteyngart’s book for its emotionally stunted prose is beside the point. One has only to contrast it with the capaciousness of Three Years, the Chekhov novella of May-December love that Lenny admires, to understand that a real love story simply cannot be told in such a debased style, even in a joke. The form mortally reduces the text. Eunice is a digital creature to her core, her mind little more than a pastiche of advertising images: how could she be expected to express an authentic emotion? Lenny is a little more of a rounded human being, but even he is at the mercy of the buzzwords and the slogans that constantly jangle through his head. Love cannot exist between two such virtual people. And if it could, their language is inadequate to the task of describing it. A robot might just as well try to transform itself into a poet.
A dystopia whose main feature is the corruption of language must be particularly frightening for a writer such as Shteyngart, whose novels traffic not in emotions or ideas, but in the blustering exuberance of their own expression. There is a certain optimism in the fact that, even in the post-literate age, people are still reading. The trouble is that what they are reading is rubbish: intentional, funny, clever rubbish, but rubbish all the same. Lenny writes that some critics have accused him of “slavish emulation of the final generation of American ‘literary’ writers.” That “literary,” skulking behind quotation marks, might be the saddest word in this finally unmoving novel.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article ran in the September 23, 2010 issue of the magazine.