Calling your novel Super Sad True Love Story could be seen as a risky strategy. You’ve created your own hype before a page has been read.
This super, sad, true love story is set in a futuristic New York, where the dollar is plummeting, the streets are filled with soldiers and China has the upper hand. On top of that, the worst of today’s culture is now the norm. The information age has taken over. The cool jobs are in Retail and Media. Everyone wears a scarily smart phone (think the iPhone as designed by Orwell) called an apparat, that constantly streams your personal information, most importantly your credit rating and your fuckability score. Women wear see-through OnionSkin jeans, TotalSurrender pants and shop at AssLuxury. No one talks, or ‘verbals’, anymore and no one reads. The main email system is called GlobalTeens and the search is on for the answer to eternal life.
They didn’t care. The world they needed was right around them, flickering and beeping and it demanded very bit of strength and attention they could spare.
Vacuity, pornography, youth and consumerism rule.
It’s a nice set-up and it’s cleverly done, but as dystopian future’s go it’s not too much of a stretch and although recognisable, is not as compelling as the world created by Margaret Atwood in Oryx and Crake.
Against this amusing, yet frightening backdrop, we meet 39-year-old Russian-American Lenny Abramov who works in Indefinite Life Extension who thinks he will literally be able to live forever if he can just persuade Eunice Park, a 24-year-old Korean-American, to fall in love with him. Eunice is beautiful and damaged and realises that Lenny may just be able to provide her with the love and care she has been missing at home at the hands of her abusive father. Over the next few months, through Lenny’s diaries and Eunice’s emails, the rise and inevitable fall of this dysfunctional, deluded love story is played out in what appears to be a world gone mad.
Smart as the book is, I had problems with it. Lenny and Eunice never really come across as a real couple, or for that matter real people. The love story part of Super Sad True Love Story is neither particularly sad, nor does it ring particularly true. The novel really drags once their relationship picks up pace and it feels a little scatterbrain and overly long. The passages detailing Lenny and Eunice’s immigrant parents seem to serve little purpose and don’t mesh well with the satire of what America has become.
For me, there are several books here, all vying for attention.
Is it a satire on consumer society and the dumbing-down of the populace? Is it an examination of getting old, and the lengths we’ll go to stay young? Is it a diatribe against America’s foreign policy and a warning to us that a totalitarian state is closer than we think? Is it an exploration of second generation immigrants and what it means to be outsider in your own country and a foreigner even with those you love?
The answer to all these questions is yes. It is all of these things. I get it. I couldn’t really miss it, as these issues are not dealt with in a particularly subtle or perceptive way. Dave Eggers did this sort of thing better in The Circle, mainly by keeping his focus narrow and his characters believable.
Unfortunately for me this was neither super nor sad and the love story was unconvincing. To give Shteyngart his due, there is some great imagination and skilled writing on display here and some fun set pieces, but the novel never becomes anything more than the sum of its very diverse parts.
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