How do you review a book that makes you laugh about topics that make you cry? How can a book cause short rushes of fear while simultaneously provide breaths of relief? Trying to write about Super Sad True Love Story is just as problematic as reading it—you shake in frustration. You can’t decidedly feel one way or the other. You can’t pinpoint a thesis, a point, or a goal. Instead, you stay up all night, let go of what you want the novel to be about, and accept the brilliance of Shteyngart’s ability to piss you off while you laugh with sad tears.
I decided to read Super Sad True Love Story when I came across the following satiric video of Shteyngart. Watch it. You will fall in love with his weirdness, and you will fall in love with the fact that he is a Columbia professor whom in no way plays the part. (And, you get to see James Franco for a short minute…always worth a look).
Like in the video, in his novel Shteyngart clears the flem out of his throat in order to delude and explicate America’s probable future. Lenny Abramov (Abraham?) is the son of angry Russian immigrants and works at Post-Human Services trying to provide immortality to the wealthiest in New York City. Lenny himself, however, is quickly aging while he enjoys books in an ever-growing illiterate country and feels, as any “ancient dork” would, a need for life outside of electronic apparati, credit reports, and an overwhelming consumerist society. The “True Love Story” part is that Lenny falls in love with Eunice Park, a young Korean American girl whose main goal in life is to work retail and whose own search for love in an America of un-privacy and overt judgment will forever be unattainable.
The “Super Sad” part is, well, everything. No one is safe, especially those with low credit reports, wisdom and intellect will only lower your desirability level, and your ability to live a private life has become obsolete. So what makes this novel different from every other “America is dying” novel, article, or essay? Again, everything.
The narrative itself has taken on a post-2010 style with excerpts from characters’ “Global Teens Accounts” (instant messenger) to e-mail-like passages to Lenny’s “old-fashion” diary. The narrative is what a particular character makes of it and is a reflection of each character’s unconscious investment in this future American culture. Although I am no narratologist, it is clear that Shteyngart’s strategic hodge-podge narrative is breaking literary traditions. I look forward to reading how narratologists describe his style (and I will leave it to them to do so).
For me, as an approaching-30 year old whose hair is starting to grey, Shteyngart’s novel details my daily life of e-mail addiction and social networking in contradiction to my desire to reject electronic books and to hoard the smell of old, leather-bound pieces of literature. (Like Lenny, I love me a good, old book). He exposes my personal paradox of attempting to fight a consumerist society while I simultaneously purchase my MacBook. And even more so, he illuminates my fear for my (future) children, as I want them to live a minimalist life of self-sustainability and community-sharing while also receiving an exceptional education and becoming leaders. The novel exposes us for what we are and who we have become amidst an unsure economy. To be a bit cliché, it forces us to check ourselves not just as a collective culture but also as individuals in a world of no-individuality.
And Shteyngart does it with humor. In an un-private world obsessed with sex, image, and media, Lenny often finds himself with a low “f-ability” score flashing on people’s apparati when he walks into a room and a “personality” ranking quickly decreasing as he reads more and more books. Shteyngart satirizes everything from clothing to love to government to death to age to race to the hair on Lenny’s head. And it is his satirizing that makes this novel so sad. It is a satire that perhaps someday will no longer be a satire. It is super sad and super true, and the love story just makes it all the more impossible to distinguish your feelings of love, hate, anger, joy, and frustration. Read it. Love it. Hate it. And pass it along.