Friday, January 21, 2011

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

Random House, 2010
352 pages

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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.

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