Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There was a point in time when the vast majority of the arts were made to decorate the homes of patrons, and literature was supposed to edify. Whether the form was a painting, a sculpture, a play, or a novel, the purpose was generally to bring honor or reverence to the subject, or to provide moral instruction to the viewer/reader.
The rock that shattered the placid calm of this idea was thrown by Jonathan Swift. His essay "A Modest Proposal" and novel "Gulliver's Travels" took the propriety that had been associated with writing and turned it on its head. Showing the greed of the upper classes and the government of Great Britain for what it was by writing the first sarcastic essay to reach wide publication, Swift showed that cultivating the infants of the poor for a year and then feeding them to the rich may not have been as cruel as the fate that awaited those children in an unjust society.
Writing out of anger still remained the exception rather than the rule for several centuries after Swift, but it emerged with a roar in the aftermath of the two world wars in the twentieth century. The years between 1915 and 1945 brought the world mustard gas, trench warfare, a global influenza epidemic, a worldwide economic depression, the slaughter of millions at the hands of Hitler and Stalin, both of whom used their governmental structures to create networks of terror in which people lost the ability to trust one another, and (if all of that weren't enough), nuclear holocaust.
Many of the world's writers split into one of two camps during this time period: a lifestyle of dissipation (see: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, and the rest of the Lost Generation) or a belief in despair (see: Orwell, Huxley, Atwood, and their imitators). The second group converted dystopia from a vehicle for shock value into the backdrop for modern society.
The power of "1984" comes from the fact that there is absolutely nothing that Winston can do to escape his situation. The beautiful red diary, the gorgeous woman, the enticing Brotherhood -- all were placed before him by the government, to trap him. They had anticipated his every move.
Once the media stopped serving as a public relations arm of the government and took a more adversarial role after the Vietnam War and the resignation of President Nixon, stories came out about our own government: secret testing programs, monitoring of citizens, and so on, that made "1984" seem less like fantasy and more like reality. Even now, as Facebook and Google tell us that they can track everything we do on our computers, we glibly keep posting status updates and accepting cookies, left and right.
And so we can rise up, or we can bitterly laugh and move on. Because a world of constant monitoring no longer provides shock value, today's dystopian writers must add humor to the situation. Michael Chabon is one gifted writer in this genre (see: The Yiddish Policeman's Union); another is Gary Shteyngart, whose first two novels, Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook, take on the disintegration happening on the other side of the planet.
Super Sad True Love Story, though, takes us about, oh, four years into the future and imagines what would happen if the debt actually did cripple our economy. Imagine being forced to carry a smartphone (we don't feel forced now, of course -- we feel privileged instead) that would broadcast your up-to-the-second credit score on nearby poles when you walked by them. These phones would broadcast information about you, including a "sustainability" score to those around you, based on your looks and economic prospects.
If you think that it's kind of silly now, when you go to the bowling alley or the baseball game or your child's recital and see everyone playing with their iPhones and iPads and Androids instead of interacting with the people inches from them, imagine a world in which people walk along, constantly punching their next status update, ignoring the world around them. (Maybe that's not so hard).
Now imagine the prospect of China's impending foreclosure on all of the United States. In the middle of this, 39-year-old Len Abramov, the last believer in real, printed books, the last owner of a diary, is fighting for his job in a nebulous marketing company while wooing 24-year-old Eunice Park. He still believes in love that lasts forever, despite the country crumbling around him; she believes that nothing lasts longer than a status posting on Facebook. As much as the story is about the wobbly American Empire, it is also about their love. If Len is Orwell's Winston, brought forward through time, Eunice would be Orwell's Julia, confident in things sensual but skeptical of stability.
The best parts about this story are the comic touches -- the unforeseen destruction of a corner store, told wryly rather than graphically -- and the shifts in format, from narration to email to text message to posting. Shteyngart has nailed the way that we communicate now -- and will be communicating soon, when we no longer look at each other. The shabby future, through Len Abramov's eyes, is far too easy to visualize.
The best sign that dystopian novels were serving their purpose would be that the world would move away from the trends that they prophesy. It would be wonderful if more of the real-world stories that fascinate us ended like, say, Elizabeth Bennet's and Ebenezer Scrooge's. Instead, our channels bombard us with our own time's Ahabs, Winstons and Handmaids.
View all my reviews