At the end of Gary Shteyngart’s near-future satire Super Sad True Love Story, I sank into a curious exhaustion. I had impulsively bought the discounted hardcover while battling a poisoned haze of emotions-an agent is peddling my own near-future novel to publishers; I wanted to demonstrate the commercial viability of near-future-based literature; I wanted assurance that what I’ve written and rewritten over the past few years had not been made redundant overnight. I was afraid to discover better, streamlined permutations of my own ideas, and I was further afraid that Shteyngart’s rich voice would alert me to the holes in my not-as-meticulous alternative universe. I came into the thing with competing biases, breaking my pledge to avoid books that the New York Times reviews twice, hoping for transcendence, praying for a flop.
Quickly now, what I got: ultra-capitalist, crumbling New York City, soon to be repossessed by Chinese/Saudi/Norwegian creditors and renovated as a luxury-class Valhalla, described in alternately terrified and nostalgic terms by the diary of Lenny Abramov, a schlubby-neurotic 39-year-old employee at a life-lengthening firm that caters to the obscenely wealthy-a clientele he aspires to join through mere diligence. Lenny is infatuated with Eunice Park, a sleek, androgynously beautiful 24-year-old riding a post-college malaise defined by shopping binges and angst over her dysfunctional Korean immigrant family: her half of the novel is related in deliberately vapid messages to friends and relatives on a Facebook analogue called GlobalTeens.
Their wobbly courtship may carry them through the collapse of an overextended, authoritarian United States; then again, the stress of the national endgame will surely destroy it. Lenny and Eunice’s struggle to smooth each other’s failings is paralleled by an erosion of their denial concerning the country’s slide into an acultural cesspool of insolvency and chaos.
That cesspool is Shteyngart’s sandbox of choice, the only place he wants to play-that’s where he derives the promised comedy, comedy that can be nutshelled as Orwell filtered through an iPhone, comedy that in its nagging cleverness supersaturates the page where a tint of color would have done wonders. Eunice’s college major was “Images,” her minor “Assertiveness.” Most people find printed books smelly and baffling, choosing instead to “caress” bits of web data from hand-held, holograph-throwing “Ã¤ppÃ¤rÃ¤ti,” which also enable the user to rate strangers’ “Personality” and “Fuckability” levels, as well as download entire financial histories. Women’s fashion is vectoring toward nudity, with brands like “JuicyPussy” dominating the market; there is also “JuicyPussy4Men,” in case you’re not adequately repulsed by the flagship label. The hobbled state can still afford to erect fixtures that menacingly flash the credit scores of passersby on every Manhattan street corner. The United States, a producer of nothing, offers careers in Retail, Credit or Media-with your typical Media Ã¤ppÃ¤rÃ¤t stream being a string of White House press clips punctuated by close-ups of live gay sex on a yacht. We’ve invaded Venezuela, just for the sake of a quagmire grace note. A cartoon otter interrogates you at passport control. Russia is now HolyPetroRussia, London styled HSBC-London, these geopolitical barbs more facile than damning. Things are really bad in the Midwest; no one will even talk about it
This all scans as comedy of a broad stripe, labored in its bid for scary silliness even as it tackles low-hanging fruit, as addictive and disposable as the entertainments it lampoons. It is seasoned heavily with Lenny’s pervasive fear of change-this typically middle-age bias compromising whatever laughs we want to enjoy at the expense of tomorrow’s clueless adults, i.e., the jacked-in 9-year-olds of today. (Moreover, this fissure openly correlates to an ongoing snipe-fest between Shyengart’s generation [late-30s] and mine [mid-20s], a dialogue he is happy to keep relatively one-sided, and not only via page count ratio.) The economic and political tribulations are either turbocharged or Mad-Libbed versions of the catastrophes we sadly accept every day, with Eunice and Lenny-both born to immigrants who escaped despotic regimes-retaining a privileged, wildly exaggerated understanding of what it means for a nation to succumb to its worst instincts. But worse than any of that was this: I could sense the jokes growing stale in my hands. Super Sad Love Story was dated before I got halfway though it.
Most near-future lit or “soft” science fiction is attempting to diagnose an extant social pathology, something already happening. In Super Sad‘s case, that means addressing a perceived shallowness of experience, technological addictions, the destructive passion for eternal youth, personal branding, obsession with quantifiable popularity, the viral sensibility, mass financial delusion, willful illiteracy, ruined education systems and national infrastructure, expanded executive power, content-free media, evaporating privacy, opaque and exclusionist slang, and the navel-gazing endemic to our text messages and blog posts, to name but a few fish in Shteyngart’s overstuffed barrel. I’d wager that Super Sad has more “the way we live now” commentary per sentence than Jonathan Franzen’s present-set Freedom does, because it needs to plow through as formidable a laundry list of grievances as any manifesto could muster and create redundant prophecy based on those complaints, all while kicking a doomed-romance subplot along like some crumpled beer can that happened to be in its path.
It’s not that the love story lacks warmth or complexity; it’s that it appears faint and irrelevant amid the candied lightning of all that 2010-on-steroids environmental detail. Which may be sort of the point: that amorous involvement, the delicacy of attachment as depicted by the Russian masters who claim the lion’s share of Super Sad‘s literary allusions, requires a bit more silence than a digitized globe allows. But when Shteyngart’s awful ear for acronym-spangled youthspeak or his gift for inhabiting 21st-century shame (bodily or moral) blurs the contours of this entanglement, it’s hard to suss out whether the interrupted mating dance had any grand potential. Are these proper soul mates, unfairly divided by screens of grime and neon-or is their acquaintance itself spurred by this atmosphere, its hazardous endurance a symptom of the ill empire? Since the white noise enveloping the reader is indistinguishable from the shit that clouds our daily efforts to live, is it any wonder that I ultimately don’t care? The Chekhovian impulses flaring out from the book’s fat, tender heart are allowed no oxygen, suffocated by a world that I learned to dread long before Shteyngart sought to painstakingly construct it.
Which is to say that beyond the more typically failed task of trying to wring darkly emotional resonance from antic satire, there lies a failure of imagination. Super Sad is rightly praised as “all too real” and “frighteningly accurate” precisely because it refuses to project anything more than the most predictable outcomes of today’s popular follies-the road from here to there is unnaturally straight, inflexible. None of history’s usual shocks intervene; no hint of mystery or chance attends the thoroughly plausible endpoint. For a story sold as “absurd,” there’s precious little of the unswervingly weird. It’s too much about our own moment (one that rarely sits still long enough to be satisfyingly skewered, I might add) and not the next. The May-December couple is transplanted from this very instant, flung forward to stoke our most banal and talked-about anxieties, their division mapped exactly by the same cultural gulf that will always separate mid-20s “underachievers” and late-30s “middle management types.” Tellingly, there is an epiphany from the more aged half that his younger companion does not presume herself to be special-unlike the rest of her generation, he is compelled to note. Is this calibration a jab at millennial self-worship or at civilization’s habit of generalizing the next wave of humans? I’d like to say the latter, but the comment comes from a place of hard-won wisdom toward the end of the book, with nothing to support the reading of a tongue-in-cheek tone. It stares at you like the dull reflection of a million cross-eyed trend pieces.
You could claim that I’m just projecting my own generational or writerly neuroses. You could argue that I’m a hypocrite, or that I’m pushing for a more escapist type of fiction, or attacking a genre’s very foundation, the now-future concept being virtually sacrosanct. I’ll accept all that and yet I can’t shake the inkling that we should demand more than a well-polished fun mirror when it comes to social critique. I want some surprising membrane: warped, restless and permeable. I need, more than anything, to be startled.
Miles Klee is a young reader.