Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan was a tincture of its times, a distillation of a particular culture (recent Russian-American) with a heavy scent of satire. His latest, Super Sad True Love Story travels into the future of, as the jacket states, “say next Tuesday,” to further concentrate its contemporary satire. As with all satire, there’s an implied scolding: See America? This is what you’re headed for if you’re not careful.
Those on the right and the left will feel a certain discomfort (as will the wired, socially connected crowd) as they read through accounts of yuan-pegged dollar, the now truly-national National Guard and mega-merger corporations including (and we do mean including) AlliedWasteCVSCitigroupCredit.
Actually, right and left no longer matter. The Bipartisan Party, led by Defense Secretary Rubenstein — its slogan, “Together We’ll Surprise the World!” is even more cynical than “We Will Win the Future” — is in control in partnership with the “American Restoration Authority ” (ARA). The National Guard, fresh back from a disastrous action in Venezuela are reluctantly cooperating. Thanks to budget cuts (the Chinese are threatening to foreclose and the IMF is demanding change), the Guard isn’t getting what they’ve been promised. Sure, you have your choice between FoxNews-Prime and FoxLiberty-Ultra, networks that still focuses on gay marriage even as forced relocation turns violent. But the networks don’t seem to care that a lot of Americans have suddenly become disposable. Sound familiar?
It depends on your classification, “High Net Worth Individuals” (HNWI) or “Low NetWorth Individuals” (LNWI), usually corresponding to your category of employment — “credit,” media” or “retail”— or lack of one. Credit ratings reign and people use their apparat to constantly monitor that as well as the “Personality” and “Fuckability” ratings of themselves and those around them. Mostly, people are judged mostly by the classic: young and old.
Young is where it’s at. Everyone’s plugged into their own apparati, constantly “teening” and ordering the latest fashions from AssLuxury. Or finding out absolutely everything about everybody, constantly churning data, privacy be damned. Or streaming their own media — anyone can be a star! — say from the barroom where they happen to be located. The young are extremely beautiful and intend to stay that ways thanks to new creams and emollients, vitamins and tiny blood-traveling robots (“smart blood”) sent on an oxidant search-and-destroy mission.
Like Huxley’s After Many A Summer Dies the Swan, Sad True frames itself around questions of mortality even as it uses the space inside to address a wider range of cultural and political issues. Shtengart’s framing is precise to the times yet timeless. Everyone knows it’s youth that counts. Bring on the quacks.
Our hero, Lenny Abramov, a 39-year-old slug taking sabbatical in Rome, is too morose to pursue his own youthification even though he works as “Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator of Post-Human Services” for the security-pharmaceutical company Staatling-Wapachung Corporation, a sort of KBR for next Tuesday. An aspiring HNWI and overweight (by next Tuesday’s standards), Lenny practices a sort of nostalgia that is disgusting to nearly everyone: he reads books.
And then he falls in love. Euncie is beautiful, Korean, incredibly but not illegally young and carries a degree in Image and a minor in Assertiveness. But somehow she’s attracted to Lenny’s sincerity and his books. It gives Lenny a reason to live, to delude himself: “I’m never going to die,” he declares, believing that the technology exists to make good on the promise.
For Lenny, there’s no choice between Eunice, “a nano sized woman who had likely never known the tickle of her own pubic hair…who existed as easily on an apparat screen as on the street before me,” and his Italian fling Fabrizia, “her body counquered by small armies of hair, her curves fixed by carbohydrates, nothing but the Old World and its dying nonelectronic corporeality.”
While Lenny’s larger issues with love, individualism and acceptance of mortality are the book’s central theme, its take on America is what propels it. Shteyngart doesn’t like the direction. Well before the end, before New York is turned into a “Lifestyle Hub,” we see Sad True’s parable, stated as Lenny witnesses two men being taken away after their apparati and everyone’s is checked by “angrier and more sunburned than usual” National Guardsmen. The racial and class distinctions at play in the scene, coupled with the brute enforcement of search preludes the book’s biggest scolding: “the looks on the faces of my countrymen—passive heads bent, arms at their trousers, everyone guilty of not being their best, of not earning their daily bread, the kind of docility I had never expected from Americans, ever after so many years of our decline. Here was the tiredness of failure imposed on a country that believed only in its opposite.”
All The Onion-like, satiric cleverness—and we’ve only touched its ironic surface—extends down to each chosen word. Past reviews of made much of Shteyngart’s amazing turn of phrase and they’re still accurate here. The book is presented in Lenny’s diary entries (another of his nostalgic weaknesses, even if electronic) and Eunice’s texting and “teening.” Only Lenny and one of his few friends have much interest in lengthy “verballing,” all but a lost art.
While at its base Sad True is two-thirds of the traditional love story–boy-meets-girl, boy-get-girl, boy-lose-girl to HNWI-boss– it’s propelled by its larger social, political and sexual themes. It’s a fictional characterization of the Shock Doctrine, as applied to contemporary America. Elderly LNWIs are evicted and camps of unemployed squatters are liquidated in flames, all set to the oblivious rhythms of the uber-connected masses. The rise of financial institutions, the divide between rich and poor, the loss of attention as technology consumes it and our country’s indebtedness, especially to China, are all taken to not-so distant extremes. That’s why the book makes us feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s also why we couldn’t put it down.–Cabbage Rabbit