Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story": Book Review

I like dystopias. Or I like books about them. I don't like smartphones. But I feel it's inevitable that I must use one and that will draw me away from reading print into scanning not even text-bits but bytes and images. In turn, this may shift a dystopia where nobody's not connected-- via a smartphone on steroids-- from speculation to reality. This direction, extrapolated into the near future, expands into this ambitious, readable, satirical yet philosophical novel.

America's "president and his pretty wife" grovel before the Chinese Central Banker. The dollar's tied to the yuan. Bipartisans, a one-party government, run with military surveillance and the National Guard the cowed nation. Its credit-challenged, morally bereft people, even those in the Media & Credit elite, fear losing their jobs and homes. Troops flail in a doomed Venezuelan invasion.

Everyone's using an apparat, which makes the iPhone look like a transistor radio. This transmits credit ratings, sex appeal, and intimate details of those you beam it at. They point their devices back at you. Lenny Abramov, 39, works for a firm selling immortality technologies to a few chosen wealthy applicants who High Net Worth Individuals. Of course, he cannot afford the "dechronification" treatments.

Returning from a failed business stint in Rome, he falls into debt to his employers. He's forced to claw his way back up a brutal corporate hierarchy. He's fallen in love with a Korean American fifteen years younger, Eunice Park. Her appeal may baffle you. Downstairs she's attractive, with freckles even. But upstairs, as I suppose for all of her generation, she's been raised without reading anything longer than a text-message. This despite what once might have passed for a liberal-arts education, so she's pretty vacant. That's a slight stumbling block for me in this plot.

The tone can be uneven as the story shifts from dystopian send-ups to the dynamics of tyrannical immigrant families. Eunice, caught in her own cultural transitions, struggles. She yearns for empathy, and learns the comforts of her nebbish, "tuna brain" Lenny, but her character's lack of articulation does make her lighter in density than her bookish lover. Her hypersexualized banter, however, conveys convincingly via her device her own shallow literacy and the lack of meaning in her life. So, when looming, flabby Lenny courts her, she succumbs despite his unattractiveness.

Thus the clunky title-- that's about as eloquent as Eunice and her pals might be able to express the narrative that Shteyngart unfolds. Her reality-show diction intersperses with entries made by Lenny, in a more conventional novelistic tone. Their messages become this book. He still reads Tolstoy and Chekhov in a world where nobody else seems to open a smelly book.

He wanders a New York where campsites of the homeless spread from Central Park. It's as if the Bonus Army in the Hoovervilles of the Depression's inverted into Aziz's Army, rallied against the Retail & Media & Credit & military elites. Soon the Harm Reduction cleansing of the homeless away from the motorcade for the Chinese banker's visit will spark riots. This leads to The Rupture.

This brings them, in dystopian fashion, into a chaotic scenario that accelerates away from the character study of the first half of this ambitious novel. As with many Jewish protagonists, Lenny, despite his assimilation and distance from his Soviet-era immigrant parents, struggles with what they and his genes seem to have left him: the feeling of being an outsider, watched by his betters and always found wanting.

"I saw one possible end to my life: alone, in a bag, in my own apartment building, hunched over in a wheelchair, praying to a God I never believed in." Against this despair, he wants to "remind myself of the primacy of the living animal, of my time amongst the Romans." This book can be frank. It's a society that does not hold back its desires, its lusts, its wares. It's all ranked, rated, and shared. "How desperately I wanted to forsake these facts, to open a smelly old book or to go down on a pretty girl instead. Why couldn't I have been born to a better world?" It's the same old lament, that of any sensitive observer of the madness around us.

His boss, ever younger, tells him of his co-workers that Lenny reminds "them of a different, earlier version of our species. Don't get pissed at me, now. Remember, I started out just like you. Acting. The humanities. It's the Fallacy of Merely Existing. FME. There'll be plenty of time to ponder and write and act out later, Right now you've got to 'sell to live.'" And Lenny can't afford what he sells--- the promise of eternal life.

As with many predecessors, Shteyngart gives us an outsider who's a native of this megalopolis. But he also shows us a possible future that does not seem that exaggerated. Little by little, the more we channel ourselves into networks, the more we may lose our souls. Latinos are exhorted by the government to save, Chinese are told to spend. Everyone's searched and monitored, with no downtime to ponder, to wander, to wonder. Instead, the author takes his hero and his beloved through hellfire sermons, riots in the crumbling streets, tanks at the rail stations, and into the heart of post-American darkness. That's the world they've been given, and the one that they've made, by slow steps once called progress.(Posted to Amazon US--where it could use some positive reviews after the initial negative ones--& 7-27-10)

P.S. Gary Shteyngart's essay expands his reflections on the online addiction: "Only Disconnect" and his interview with Deborah Solomon in the NY Times the same issue. His book also got reviewed there! The press copy I have promises lots of online promotion along with TV and book tours. I guess I did my duty; I earned two negative ratings instantly. Most of those reviews already up for SSTLS have at least one, all but the most gushing. I wonder who's behind this? We all endure surveillance.

1 comment:

tamerlane said...

"...praying to a God I never believed in."

And wounded soldiers all cry out for their mommies. It can't be helped.