Gary Shteyngart is worried about the future. He is worried about the failure of democracy, about the degradation of language, and about our increasing enslavement to technology. He is worried about money. He is worried about death. For anybody who has read his earlier novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, this state of heightened anxiety probably won’t come as a surprise. Shteyngart writes in an ironic register that, for all its antic humor, belongs to the long tradition of Russian melancholia. It’s fitting that with his new novel, Super Sad True Love Story, Shteyngart has devoted himself more fully to his adopted homeland than in either of his previous books. He tends to traffic in provincial nations staving off collapse, and here that role falls to the United States. Lenny Abramov, our hero, is a weak-willed, first-generation American, the son of Russian immigrants with an unwavering faith in their new motherland despite its increasing resemblance to the authoritarian oligarchy they left behind.
Shteyngart specializes in places slightly askance of the real—the Prague-like Prava of his debut, the hapless post-Soviet state of Absurdistan. This time we are in New York, but a New York some untold years hence, an amped-up version of today’s city. Wall Street has consolidated into a small handful of corporate monoliths like LandO’LakesGMFordCredit; America’s ruling Bipartisan Party, mired in debt to China, enforces its power with Halliburton-like military contractors; books, now antique objects, draw distaste less for their highfalutin obscurity than for their peculiar smell; and all aspects of life are governed by all-knowing äppäräti. (Think fancier iPhone, but with exponentially higher power and needless umlauts.) The details of Shteyngart’s futuristic universe are at once overwhelming and disconcertingly familiar. For better or worse, it’s not all that hard to imagine.
Perhaps to offset the descriptive overdrive of Shteyngart’s dystopian vision, Super Sad True Love Story traces the classical arc promised by its title. Narrated in alternating chapters by Lenny and Eunice Park—Lenny’s in diary entries that fall somewhere between retro and archaic, Eunice’s via an online social network called GlobalTeens that makes Facebook look as benign and well-meaning as the milkman—the novel follows the flowering of their unlikely romance. Lenny, on the brink of forty, works for a company that promises eternal life to “High Net Worth Individuals”; Eunice, some fifteen years his junior, is a full-fledged citizen of the new world order. She speaks in acronyms and scrolls through her äppärät for deals on sheer pop-off panties.
As our Virgilian guide to this hyper-modern future, Lenny has too much information to relay to sound authentic—at least at first. As in his previous work, Shteyngart has trouble knowing when to stop; not every detail of New York in 2030, or whenever it is, needs its moment before the lens for us to understand how this civilization bears up against our present. His failure to filter leaves some jokes that are too easy: a gentrified Staten Island is imaginative, a channel called FoxLiberty-Ultra virtually a given. An old soul wide-eyed at the world he has inherited, Lenny maintains a naïveté that allows Shteyngart to set his stage. Even his friends treat him like a relic, as when one explains the elaborate art of picking up women: “The personality score depends on how ‘extro’ she is…Check it out. This girl done got three thousand-plus Images, eight hundred streams, and a long multimedia thing on how her father abused her. Your äppärät runs that against the stuff you’ve downloaded about yourself and then it comes up with a score. Like, you’ve dated a lot of abused girls, so it knows you’re into that shit.” It’s a narrative convenience, how little Lenny takes for granted.
Shteyngart paints his scenery vividly, but it’s the smaller moments that jolt. A lover’s “muscles stirring somewhere deep beneath her skin like phantom gears.” Eunice taking up a book for the first time, “massaging the book’s back, maybe even enjoying its thickness and unusual weight, its relative quiet and meekness.” An elephant in the zoo “slowly flick[ing] back one massive ear, like a Galician shopkeeper of a century ago spreading his arms as if to say, ‘Yes, this is all there is.'” Shteyngart’s eye for the lingering humanity within this sterile world of media and machines is what makes the excessive exposition worth working through, and why his entry into the crowded field of dystopian fiction ranks several cuts above. The novel’s transition from knee-jerk satire to something deeper is almost imperceptibly subtle. I first noticed it almost 150 pages in, when Eunice describes a man as “actually quite handsome, tall and Germanic looking.” It’s a small detail, but “Germanic” is not an adjective I expected from a character whose first words in the novel were “What’s up, twat? Missing your ‘tard?'”
Eunice, whose chapters initially seem a facile case study in the numbing effects of technology, gradually emerges as the first genuinely complicated female character Shteyngart has written. The child of an abusive Korean immigrant father and zealously religious mother, Eunice is somebody for whom the diversions of the modern world provide useful, even necessary, cover. Shteyngart’s patience in letting her character slowly crystallize is his most remarkable feat. The awakening of her consciousness owes itself, at least in part, to Lenny, a man-child in the vein of Shteyngart’s earlier protagonists. For all his anachronism—or more likely, because of his anachronism—Lenny is able to provide Eunice with an unquestioning love that re-humanizes her. In the wake of the sudden collapse of the Bipartisan government, a murky political event called “The Rupture” that kills one of Lenny’s best friends, Lenny suddenly realizes the extent of her metamorphosis:
She wailed from a place so deep that I could only connect it with somewhere across the seas, and from a time when our nations were barely formed. For the first time since we’ve met, I realized that Eunice Park, unlike others of her generation, was not completely ahistorical.
In the end, Shteyngart is proven right: we, as readers, need Lenny’s nostalgia, and it turns out Eunice does too. His sense of past, and the sense of past he imparts to her, are what give the novel its stakes—otherwise, the future wouldn’t look so terrifying.
The quiet care with which Shteyngart lets his story build on its own terms is what makes it so frustrating when he ends on a cheap note. The novel concludes with an epilogue by Lenny to what turns out to be the published version of his diaries, interspersed with Eunice’s correspondence. We have been reading a curated version of their past. (Why books are suddenly fashionable again is not addressed.) “Since the first edition of my diaries and Eunice’s messages was published in Beijing and New York two years ago, I have been accused of writing my passages with the hope of eventual publication, while even less kind souls have accused me of slavish emulation of the final generation of American ‘literary’ writers,” Lenny reflects. The reality is, Shteyngart could stand in their company if he would allow himself, instead of giving in to his tendency to burden his novels with increasingly outlandish plots. So why the cop out? After writing what, for all its futurism, is essentially a tragedy in the classic mold, did Shteyngart feel he needed a gesture of deference to that most alluring of contemporary commodities—hope? Or is he issuing an apologia for the minor flaws of his novel?
Nonetheless, Super Sad True Love Story is an achievement. The author manages at once to satirize the grotesqueries of our era, our hubris and our excess, while sustaining an intense pathos for the individuals forced to bear the fallout, as the best satires do. Shteyngart is a great writer, but only a very good novelist, and one hopes he will soon get the broad architecture of his novels to match the sophistication of the characters who populate them.