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Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

July 1, 2012
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They say never judge a book by its cover but that is invariably how I find most of my books. It’s how I discovered the erudite and entertaining Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. It was also how I was drawn to Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.

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It’s hard to say what this book is about. In the style of The Catcher in the Rye and others like it, this book is more about the development of characters than the advancement of the plot. In an unspecified near-future New York, 39 year old Lenny Abramov attempts to love beautiful and fickle Eunice Park, nearly two decades his junior. In the background to this approximation of romance, a financially and morally bankrupt America crumbles as its Chinese creditors foreclose on the treasury.

Rich in speculation of all kinds, this book is firmly entrenched in science fiction. On every page, characters chatter away on their äppäräti, a streamlined, holographic successor to the iPhone. Meanwhile, Lenny works in the business of immortality, in at least two steps. Firstly, eating and doing everything right to live as long as possible (think superfoods and anti-oxidants). Secondly, dechronification treatments (magic with nanotechnology) can be bought for exorbitant fees. The futurist presence of Ray Kurzweil is palpable throughout the book.

Meanwhile, America appears to be playing Great Depression era politics like isolationism and anti-immigrant policies. The Bipartisan Party and the American Restoration Authority throw out incomprehensible politik while increasingly relying on martial law through the privatised National Guard. In spite of this, veterans of the unexplained and disastrous Venezuelan war, cheated on pay, and other LNWIs – Low Net Worth Individuals – gather in a neo-Hooverville in Central Park.

Lastly, permanently interacting on their äppäräti, America’s youth, like Eunice, are little more than vapid, lustful creatures, constantly shopping for transparent jeans and nippleless bras, or debauching themselves at drunken parties. Those of Lenny’s age instead vlog themselves insistently, narcissistically, oh-so-shallowly. Like Winston in 1984, Lenny keeps an anachronism of a diary.

Shteyngart succeeds in visualising a possible future, a more incisive Ben Elton. Furthermore, though the reader wants to know more about this augury, it is kept mostly to the background as the book is related alternately by Lenny’s (his diary) and Eunice’s (her email) first-person narratives. There is a stark contrast between their two narratives. Beyond the obvious differing interpretations of common events, their two styles are irreconcilably distinct. Lenny is more prosaic and thoughtful, detailing the main bulk of the narrative, while Eunice is more informal and neurotic, riddled with spelling mistakes and grammar errors.

Since the book is told in this format, its strength lies squarely on the shoulders of the two main characters. I found Lenny engaging, lovably pathetic, even if his love of Eunice Park doesn’t truly move beyond the language of infatuation. However, I despaired of Eunice. While the online emoting of a directionless twenty-something was highly readable, Eunice’s character just irritated me. Whether because of abuse at home or vacuous advice from her friends, she is simply not prepared for an adult relationship. Her opinion on Lenny, and several other men she meets, changes direction more time than a broken compass. Though Lenny et al describe her as different from the rest of her generation, I fail to see it. The conclusion to their romantic interlude was apparent from the start, reducing the importance of everything in between.

In the end, one of the enduring themes of the book is the relationship with one’s parents, doubly explored through Lenny and Eunice’s families. The message may be to love them, accept them, break free of them, take responsibility for them or maybe all of the above. The consistency of that theme makes up for the weak romantic plot, and the wildly imaginative world more than compensates for the few plot threads left dangling. I don’t think much of Super Sad True Love Story‘s story but I do believe I enjoyed the book as a whole. From start to finish, Gary Shteyngart writes with a clear and superb style.

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