September 2010

Elsbeth Pancrazi


Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Maybe its because I live in New York. Maybe its because I’m out of work and living beyond my means. Either way, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story hit me like a padded drumstick swung towards a large gong. A day later, I’m still resounding from my center.

Besides being a love story between a hapless older man and an even more hapless young woman, Shteyngart’s third novel is the story of a love for the past during a period obsessed with the idea of an eternal future. “Dear Diary,” the book’s protagonist, Lenny Abramov, writes,

I hate the fourth of July. The early middle of summer. Everything is alive and kicking for now, but the eventual decline into fall has already set itself in motion. Some of the lesser shrubs and bushes, seared by the heat, are starting to resemble a bad peroxide job. The heat reaches a blazing peak, but summer is lying to itself, burning out like some alcoholic genius.

Despite the natural imagery, Shteyngart’s dystopian New York depends on technology. All communication happens via äppäräti -- super-evolved computer/smartphone/ID hybrids -- which recognize and communicate with one another, mostly via images and ratings. “Verballing” is rare. Spelling is flexible, reading an unhealthy habit. Media is video -- real-time, unedited, but heavily censored and corporate-sponsored. Youth is worshipped, emulated, dumbed-down-to. And in the midst of this enters Lenny, the book’s protagonist. Lenny is almost 40, and among his lesser qualities, he remembers, owns, and loves books.

Watching his younger beloved, who spurns reading in favor of shopping and downloads of flirtatious information, Lenny ruminates verbosely:

Eunice ignored me and set about her task. She did some äppärät work to get a sense of how things were selling around the world. Then she went over to a circle of black identical-looking dresses and started clicking through them. Click, click, click, each hanger hitting the preceding one, making the sound of an abacus… Here was the anxiety of choice, the pain of living without history, the pain of some higher need. I felt humbled by this world, awed by its religiosity, the attempt to extract meaning from an artifact that contained mostly thread… If only a nippleless bra could make it all work.

In this novel about tradition, it doesn’t come off as heavy-handed that the book should contain a vision its own extinction; instead, it seems a well-executed step in a beloved direction, a familiar but powerful proof of the form’s power. Lenny recalls

reading the Times in the subway, folding it awkwardly while leaning against the door, caught up in the worlds, worried about crashing to the floor or tripping over some lightly clad beauty (there was always at least one), 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.

When the brilliant, silent lonesomeness of reading threatens to separate him from his love, he tries to disown it, imploring Eunice, “Reading is difficult. People just aren’t meant to read any more. We’re in a post literate age. You know, a visual age.” But the person holding the novel remains deviantly unconvinced.

Maybe it’s because I just got turned down for an internship at a "fast-growing, well-known website” that I relate to Lenny -- feel like I’m being asked to navigate a world I was not prepared for in my Honors high-school classes, or at the private colleges I attended, first for my Bachelors, then for a graduate degree. In fact, I’m not sure why I need to burble with ideas and sell myself as a self-starter for an entry-level job. How will this qualify me for editing text or inputing data? Is there something reprehensible or weak about a person who would choose the traditionally structured relationship to work, rather than the live-in offices, boasting ping-pong tables and beanbag lounges, which are now so cutting edge?

In Shteyngart’s novel, the United States sits on the edge of fiscal collapse. At the headquarters of the fast-growing, well-known website, I sat balanced on a hand-made stool. Not wanting to seem distracted, I left Shteyngart’s book in my purse and gazed uneasily at a huge heap of bikes as I waited to be called for my interview in the octagonal glass conference room at the center of the fashionable loft office. Kids who looked younger than me strolled around, presumably busy out-idea-ing one another, talking in Code. If you sympathize with my position, be careful. You may be affected by Super Sad True Love Story.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Random House
ISBN: 1400066409
352 Pages