Friday, January 21, 2011

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

Random House, 2010
352 pages

Get it on
Kindle or Nook for $9.10

Gary Shteyngart has a penchant for inserting himself as a bumbling-yet-adorable literary foil in obscene worlds of satire. If you've read Absurdistan, where Misha Vainberg, son of Russia's 1,238th richest man, walks the path to self acceptance while reuniting with his true love in the South Bronx, you really don't need to read Super Sad True Love Story. As in his last book, the author projects himself into the pages of his fantasy, this time as a 39 year-old, nerdy, balding bibliophile in a post-literate satire of America, struggling again to understand himself while connecting with a much younger girlfriend.

Shteyngart's rapid-fire writing makes entertaining stand up, but it doesn't sustain energy or interest over the course of these 350+ pages. A few chapters in, I felt like the literary acrobatics were an unsatisfying cover for the scarce action of substance. Most of the book's space is devoted to describing a Jonathan Swift-inspired vision of America of the Future: text messaging taken to comic extremes ("Less Words = More Fun!"); holographically-projected Facebook streams that broadcast credit scores, personal trauma history, and "fuckability ratings"; a government sliding into dictatorship behind the public face of a cartoon otter. It's all very clever--a collage of those great high school lit assignments: Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984--but what is the story in this story?

Lenny Abramov, a stereotypically nebbish, neurotic, New York Jew in the same class as Woody Allen starts a relationship with a much younger Korean woman. Eunice Park--materialistic, shallow, and naive--plays his Soon Yi. Lenny frets about his social standing, worries about impressing her parents, agonizes over Eunice's ambivalence toward him, stresses about the appropriateness of dating someone 15 years his junior. You get the picture. She wrestles with deep-rooted father issues, torn loyalties between conformity and conscience, and alternating love and disgust for Lenny. The economic and organizational collapse of the American Restoration Authority, looming offstage since the opening pages of this book, arrives like a gang of apocalyptic horsemen and renders all their concerns moot.

The rest of the content is just creative tinsel and window dressing to underline Lenny's feelings of helplessness and inadequacy: his endangered sales career at a firm offering life extension and immortality for High Net Worth Individuals; the dollar's plummeting value; America's losing war with Venezuela; and Blackberry-like devices called äppäräti that allow fashionably younger, richer, more beautiful people to surf a website called AssLuxury and purchase TotalSurrender panties to wear under their JuicyPussy cocktail dresses. There's delicious satire in these details, but a dearth of substance to move the story forward.

A downshift in tone and some respectable introspection await the reader in the story's coda, but it doesn't excuse the egocentric rambling that comprises the core. Shteyngart is a clever guy, and we should expect more from smart writers. We should expect great ideas, twists on themes, suspense, and certainly some truth from a book that dares to put the word in the title! All of these elements are absent. At the end, we're left to sift through the detritus of jokes, puns, and pop culture references, grasping for some solid idea that would give the book meaning.

Many print reviewers loved this book. Universally, they seem entranced by the spectacle of comic dystopia. Bloggers were divided, and several expected readers might be uncomfortable or offended by the language. C'mon people, we're not prudes! I've been more entertained by more extreme writers (Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh, and others). I just think vulgarity taken out of context, repeated often enough, loses its sharp edge. Shteyngart has more to offer than a predictable love story in a Disneyland dystopia. He's capable of great writing, and people familiar with his work can sense that. I'm still waiting for that book to come out.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, by David Remnick

Alfred A. Knopf, 2010
656 pages

Buy it (used) for $6.96 at Bookbyte

Obama's 2004 to 2008 rise from barely-known state senator to President-elect stunned Americans and the world. At the time, few (not counting the extremist "birther" contingency) asked where the man had come from, and what life lessons gave him the competency to ride the swelling wave of popularity behind his campaign--almost effortlessly, it seemed. What made him tick? How did he function, and what secret thoughts ran through that calm manner, those caterpillar-like eyebrows?

Presidencies are better understood in retrospect, but few leaders' characters have been as hard to pin down as Barack Obama's. David Remnick's authoritative biography of the 44th president avoids amplifying partisan perspectives by reserving judgment, and delves deep into Obama's history and his many transformations: the child, the scholar, the Chicago transplant, and the candidate. It starts well before Obama's birth in Hawaii, with the stories of his Kenyan and Kansan grandfathers: Hussein Onyango Obama, a village elder and cook for British colonialist forces; and Stanley Armour Dunham, who as a boy discovered his mother's suicide, and later served in European theater of WWII. There is no shortage of research or detail, and the result is an objective, dispassionate inventory of Obama's entire known history, illustrated with accounts from relatives, friends, allies and enemies, former teachers, students, and anyone who had the slightest contact with Obama at any stage in his life. The narrative is as even-tempered as the president himself.

Before you dig in, be warned that this is also a tome that challenges the light reader. Just try finding a review that doesn't describe this work as "exhaustively researched." The information contained within is rich and rewarding, if you can objectively appreciate Obama's story and suspend your opinion of his work and ethics. It's a chore to read, but a nice change for those of us who hear the President's voice filtered through the perspective of Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope. Writing in the Washington Post, Gwen Ifill describes how Remnick's investigation strips the gloss from Obama's own memoir: where Obama was able to wax introspectively about the lost connection to his father and Africa, Remnick traces the old man's decline following the return to Kenya: his slip into alcoholism, womanizing, abuse, and political irrelevance. Also present are the strained ties between Obama and his mother, the subtle classism and racism at the prestigious Punahou School. Much has been made of Obama's murky racial identity--black, but without the cultural stamp that marks many African Americans raised in the continental United States. Remnick examines the period of Obama's cultural awakening: his connections to people who challenged him in Hawaii, to the social cliques at universities in California and Massachusetts, and how he navigated the challenges to define himself.

There are some really interesting bits in this book. I was struck repeatedly at Obama's faith in his greater destiny. Here was a man without any great birthright of money or prestige. Leaving Harvard Law School (and the President of the Harvard Law Review, to boot), he could have walked into any number of firms and made a fortune. Instead he shunned the path to riches, deliberately entered the frustrating arena of community organizing, in a strange town where he was completely unknown, to earn under $30,000. He led an austere and ascetic life, and gained respect within prestigious circles for his intellect and ability to critically listen, but eschewed security and countless opportunity for the right opportunity. Remnick gives the impression that from early on, Obama knew he was destined for politics, but only when the time was right. One of my favorite moments in the biography is when Obama walks away from an offer to chair the Joyce Foundation, a non-profit that distributed $50 million a year in grants.
"It was a sweet job—around a million a year, two country-club memberships, and I thought, Here it is, finally the day that all our hard work would pay off," said Dan Shomon, who imagined working as Obama's chief aide at the foundation. "Barack could have given out money to all kinds of good, progressive groups. He went into the interview, though, and his hands were shaking for fear that he would get the job. He knew that if he got it, that was it—he would be out of the game, out of politics."
Time and again, Obama rejected opportunities that would've made him a rich, comfortable, and respected man. Reading the book, my hunch is that he walked away from tasks he felt were beneath his intellectual curiosity. He wanted to work on behalf of the public good, but to do that work in a capacity that matched a cocksure faith in his ability.

The Bridge leads right up to Obama's election to the Presidency, an ascendancy without parallel in US history. In 2000, he was beaten black and blue in the race for US Representative against former Black Panther Bobby Rush. Four years later, he was giving the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, and four years past that he emerged as the dark horse upset in the democratic primary and winner of the general election. Remnick's account of this history is dense, but clear and easy to follow, and turns often to the themes of self-confidence, intelligence, and the sheer luck of circumstance.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Should You Read I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson?

No, you should not.

Tor Books (this edition, including 10 additional short stories)

317 pages
From $5.98 on Amazon

Behold the terrors of the near future--1976! Hootchie lady vampires in skimpy dresses wander the streets, and the last man on earth barricades himself at home with a supply of good scotch, pipe tobacco, and Rachmaninov records. The horror!

I'm not the first person who thought they could trace the roots of zombie fiction back to Richard Matheson's 1954 story of Robert Neville, a California factory foreman reflecting on a world overrun by the undead. Though they swarm and surround his house, Matheson's antagonists aren't zombies; they're vampires craving after human blood, converted from the living by an airborne pathogen. Robert Neville, the steely-eyed survivor holed-up at home, is the world's last living man. Reader, beware: the manuscript bears no further resemblance to the eponymous 2007 film starring Will Smith.

This was the first time I'd read anything by Matheson, though I had very high hopes. I'm a pretty big buff of writers of the 50's and 60's: Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were producing some of their best material around this period, and the sci-fi world saw Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes and John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos (later filmed as Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Matheson might not have a household name, but he's left an indelible legacy of creepy tales that continue to surface in television and film. In addition to writing The (Incredible) Shrinking Man and What Dreams May Come, Matheson was a contributing writer on some creative juggernauts; eight of his short stories were adapted for the Twilight Zone, including the famous episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." Stephen King raves about Matheson in his 1981 non-fiction Danse Macabre, an online AMC FilmCritic interview with Frank Darabont, and in his introduction to Legend's 2006 re-release. Blogger critics have praised this book in particular as mesmerizing and timeless.

I had so many problems reading this book, I don't know where to begin the autopsy. Robert Neville's machismo overpowers his pragmatism, fear, and isolation in every instance of character development, and the book clunks awkwardly and aimlessly at one hyperactive speed until it runs out of avenues to explore, then resolves through implosion. Pseudo-science takes up a large portion of the story, and the author's need to bring logic to the plague detracts from the flow. The book barely sustains itself through seriously wide plot holes. Woven throughout this mess are strands of profound sexism and vague racism.

I don't understand why Matheson turns so much of the book over to the hero's search to understand the pathogen that en-vampires the world. Maybe readers in the 1953 were more entranced by the distinctions between germ, bacteria, and virus? I couldn't care less. Through careful hours poring over works in an abandoned library, Neville discovers the germ responsible for reanimating the dead and infecting blood-lust in the living. That same germ causes susceptibility to sunlight and garlic, and creates a subcutaneous, bullet-proof membrane in the infected, which is why vampires are impervious to the bullets from Neville Roberts' gun.

But where did Neville get this gun? Perhaps from the same stock where he loots his cigars, wine, lamb chops, and steaks--three years after the rest of the world has died off. Writing in the first person, Neville alludes to a generator in his garage, but never explains how he has running water, or how the tobacco never goes stale.

I can't bother going into how this book resolves; the end is just too tedious and stupid. There are a few standout elements that merit some attention: Neville's character is a pretty stark portrait of paranoia and rage in an otherwise very silly universe; and the brief appearance of a dying dog late in the book inspires empathy for the character's isolation and loneliness. praised this work for the internal tension, writing that "Neville's fight is as much against himself as against the vampires."

Still unaddressed are I Am Legend's uncomfortable undercurrents of racism and sexism. In one episode of inebriated ranting, Neville equates the vampire search for life-sustaining blood with African Americans' struggle for civil rights. I'm sure I wasn't the only reader to do a double-take when the protagonist drunkenly asks himself, "Sure, sure, but would you let your sister marry one?" Mikhail Lyubansky wrote a lengthy piece on this topic for Psychology Today, but I think he gives Matheson more credit than he deserves for being clever, and less than he deserves for being obnoxious.

The sexism is way more of a problem, both in severity and frequency. When a female survivor appears one day, Neville kidnaps her and later that night contemplates raping her. "Prey," a later story which follows I Am Legend, overtly sexualizes the physical struggle of a single woman battling an African doll called "He Who Hunts":

She cried out as the knife was jabbed beneath the door, its sharp point sticking into one of her toes. She shuffled back, shifting her grip on the knob. Her robe hung open. She could feel a trickle of blood between her breasts. Her legs felt numb with pain. She closed her eyes.

Wow! Anyone got a cigarette?

I thought this book was gross, and maybe a poor introduction to an otherwise great author's substantial oeuvre. If you had another take on it or can suggest works that better represent this writer, please recommend them here!