Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Future Fatigue: Gary Shteyngart's Attack on the Young

SAD, TRUE; MILLENNIAL TEASINGSAt 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 "äppäräti," 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 äppärät 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.

63 Comments / Post A Comment

GiovanniGF (#224)

I'm around Gary Shteyngart's age, and even so the whole äppärät shtick sounded to me like granpa shaking his fist at Facebook. And about as funny.

Brian (#115)

But like, what's wrong with that? My grandpa's hilarious, and knows he's shaking his fist. SSTLS was a crazy water slide of a book, and yeah you're not "startled" by the pool at the bottom but. I'm super sad Miles didn't have more fun with it.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

One problem here is that Shteyngart seems insufficiently misanthropic or vicious to carry off this maneuver, and so the screed is both high-volume and half-hearted.

Brian (#115)

Ha, insufficiently misanthropic! How terrible. I think you need to lighten about about this book, it's called "Super Sad True Love Story".

propertius (#361)

Misanthropy and viciousness are exactly what Houellebecq usually gets slammed for, as if those are out of bounds or impolite. But I give him credit for trying to show how his vision of the distant future is rooted in his near future, which is to say how our beliefs will lead us there. I'm not sure he altogether succeeded in that, but it is impressive that he tried.

bobthebutcher (#6,183)

sounds like my exact problem with remainder…good review btw..

spanish bombs (#562)

Ah, recent literature, in which the book's suckiness is part of the point.

deepomega (#1,720)

Interesting. My feeling was exactly the opposite – Shteyngart takes the panic and chaos of the Great Recession and projects it into disaster, when the I expect the reality to be more sedate and boring. The economy will swing back, the US will probably still be the preeminent western power, etc. etc. SSTLS felt like it was too extreme in its panic. Like a writer during the Great Depression writing about the US becoming a Mad Max hellscape in 1955.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

Totally. And STILL that gut-deep panic is more or less obscured by a terrifically superficial kind, e.g., in the moment where New York seems to be under attack and one character is still actively streaming live websnark via her "Muffintop Hour" program even while running for her life, which, come on.

deepomega (#1,720)

Hah! As though a 1932 novel were talking about the Youngs swing dancing as the Japs invaded?

Miles Klee (#3,657)

And strongly implying a causal relationship!

keisertroll (#1,117)

Southland Tales much?

Matt (#26)

Fine, but would you characterize this as Chillwave Feminism or Witch Haus Feminism. Because we all know where I sit, as a dude, in that particular room.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

I'm sorry to have to tell you that this book is straight Twee Feminism.

Matt (#26)

Wait, but Twee like Beat Happening or "twee" like Zooey Deschanel? We really didn't solve anything that night, NOBODY'S WELCOME.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

Well the female lead is a Depressive Pixie Dream Girl?

Art Yucko (#1,321)


MikeBarthel (#1,884)

I haven't actually read this yet, so I can't really contribute, though I have intentionally put off reading it because the near-future thing seems cringy. But I will say that I really liked Absurdistan, which I think was doing some pretty similar things, but about post-Soviet republics rather than Recession-era America, and they rang true and worked for me. Maybe that just means that I am not particularly informed about post-Soviet republics, or maybe it means Gary S. is more informed about post-Soviet republics' culture than American culture. But maybe it also means that if we are too close to something, you can only see the small flaws rather than the larger truths? Or maybe that doesn't hold true in fiction, where the details are the way you charm the reader? I dunno.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Oh, I forgot to include the other possibility which is just that SSTLS is a shittier book than Absurdistan.

I've read both. And while I definitely think that Shteyngart's strength lies far more in inhabiting an Eastern European/Russian mindset (at least to an American audience), I definitely wouldn't go so far as to call SSTLS a shittier book!

Moff (#28)

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.

But by and large, science fiction isn't actually an attempt to predict the future. Most SF authors are trying to say "This is how we live now," rather than "This is how things are going to become."

I haven't read the book. But you make it sound like a pretty accurate encapsulation of a prevalent cultural attitude, and I think that sort of record is a worthwhile thing to have around.

I guess, just: Are you attributing to Shteyngart some moral stances he may not be taking, but just using as subject matter?

Miles Klee (#3,657)

I did acknowledge the whole "this future is now" gambit but here's something further: William Gibson calls his sci-fi a "freely hallucinated" vision of the day in which it is written. I'm annoyed with Shteyngart for doing basically the inverse (you know, not hallucinating and not being free about it).

As for the question of moral stances, SSTLS is built and billed as a straight satire/social critique. It's basically screaming at you about the vacuity of digital culture on every page. I'm willing to toy with the notion that this is itself a comment on the overreaction of the olds, except, well, (SPOILER ALERT) America is actually annexed and divided by sovereign wealth funds … so … uh …

blily (#1,411)

Yup, I read it as straight satire, which is why it didn't work for me — I didn't agree with the social criticism. The most ham-fisted example, I thought, was the trope about books being uncool and smelly. I mean, I think he successfully identified several points of cultural… turbulence, but I think he consistently got the significance and emphasis wrong.

michaelframe (#3,760)

If only it was Hard SciFi

propertius (#361)

Somewhat, the book described (which I haven't read) reminds me of Houellebecq's La possibilite d'une ile, except H.'s mindset is Schopenhauerean and he ranges from the near future out to the distant future. And there isn't anything remotely romantic, silly or comedic in it. In fact it's relentlessly depressing and numbing, which is its thesis made aesthetically, I guess.

Jacques Day (#5,697)

Philip K. Dick could've written Shteyngart's lame little book in a week. And PKD's version would be twice as much fun to read.

But hey, Shteyngart gets along really well with his publisher's marketing dept. and James Franco says the book is great!

alexanderbasek (#4,534)

Despite telling friends it "gets better" (that was wrong) I was more disappointed than anything else with SSTLS. Great idea. Alas, the "future" of the book suggested a whole lot of funny, interesting ideas to come, for the most part, refused to sketch them out further, all the way through. That's what I like about SciFi (or disaster) books, and without an interesting love story to bolster the lack of detail, I was left wanting more and (while feeling like I'd had enough of the allusions to something clever he was holding back).

scrooge (#2,697)

"I was more disappointed than anything else with SSTLS… I was left wanting more".

Sounds like that Woody Allen joke: "The food was terrible! And such small portions!"

alexanderbasek (#4,534)

Taste this, it's awful!

But, but. AssLuxury! Onionskin jeans!!
C'mon, Miles!

Maybe it's just that I'm essentially a female Shteyngart, biographically, but I really, really enjoyed it. Though I may have been disappointed by the epigraph? Why no mention of that, Milesy?

Miles Klee (#3,657)

Oh Jesus, yeah, well, when you finally finish creepily obsessing over the young and their accessories and get back in touch with your oldish ways, it's only natural that you would publish your diary as a novel (the novel we were already reading, whoa!) and thereby help SAVE LITERATURE AS WE KNOW IT.

Yes, the twist end of SSTLS is that SSTLS heralds a beautiful renaissance of fiction and makes everyone remember how great reading is.

Brian (#115)

GlobalTeens isn't just another moniker for Facebook, it's the whole freaking internet. Word on the epigraph, it was a weird landing but such a fun ride.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

No, exactly-in Shteyngart's future, Facebook is the whole internet.

Not too convinced.

Brian (#115)

Or in Shteyngart's future, everyone acts like a Global Teen on the internet. I don't know man! Disagree to agree.

It was a totally weird landing (we shall discuss it tonight!), but my take-away from it was definitely different from Miles's. Didn't dude make a point [SPOILER ALERT] [requisite] that it was actually someone/thing else that was responsible for the publication? I mean, at least initially? That weird timeline of, well someone hacked our GlobalTeens accounts or whatever, but then I had to, what, republish the thing myself so that I could explain it?, took me out of the story a lot.

But I still enjoyed the story, Milesy! (So there!)

scrooge (#2,697)

There was an interview with him in the FT last weekend. He does sound like a man with more enthusiasm than wit, really. And, oddly enough, he's apparently addicted to his iPhone; when he wants to work he takes off for upstate where the coverage sucks.

But, MK, don't beat yourself up with comparisons. Writing shouldn't be a competitive sport. Good luck with yours!

"wit"=humor, or "wit"=intellect?
(Not making any judgment calls on either, just curious how it came across to you.)

scrooge (#2,697)

Both, really… Not suggesting he's dim-witted, just that his observations don't seem particularly perceptive and his conversation more dependent on energy than elegance. eg:

'Should we [the interviewer asks] invent a fake feminist critic [to object to his work]?

"Yes!" he says. "That would be amazing. God, I want to be denounced so bad!"

You can feel he would be fun to be around but you wouldn't exactly be falling over laughing at his bon mots.

scrooge (#2,697)

Sorry, bons mots

Screen Name (#2,416)

Did you notice in that interview that they only had two glasses of wine apiece? That's the only part I remember about it. I remember that he had the opportunity to get a free third glass of wine on the FT tab and failed to capitalize on it. He failed.

scrooge (#2,697)

Yeah, that's what I mean — all talk!

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Thanks for saving me from reading this book, but I wish you had saved me from reading Freedom instead.

Joey Camire (#6,325)

I just like that Miles was involved in most of the discussion threads. Is that me reaching for a connection to an author in this tangled world wide web we've weaved? searching out for a real connection among the trillions of frail digital connections? Or do I just like group participation?

Annie K. (#3,563)

Both the above, I'm sure, young Joey. For myself I wouldn't say it the first way but I'd definitely say it the second.

Joey Camire (#6,325)

Annie, you've peered in to my soul.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

I'm definitely in favor of conversation! If I don't get into the comments with y'awl it feels like I just ranted in the general direction of the internet and popped in earplugs as soon as anyone else had a chance to get a word in edgewise.

Aatom (#74)

I haven't read this, but I have a feeling you could talk me out of reading most anything. Which is to say: your writing is a joy to read.

joeclark (#651)

Mm, not sure I'll be wanting to read your book, young fella.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

Most people won't.

I both loved and was disappointed by this book. The female protagonist is unforgivably shallow and feeble, the love story thinner and more transparent than onionskin jeans. And yet! I loved the hamfisted fakefuture details. The casual atmospheric anxiety cultivated by this book is palpable, and it occasionally engendered real anxiety in me.
I'm far closer to Shteyngart's (and his protagonists') age than the author of this critique, and I do think he's a bit unfair to the youngs. But his meanness is equal parts envy and fear, with a heavy dose of regret, and it's a cocktail I'm familiar with every time I hang out with a bunch of twentysomething friends (each and every one of whom is a gleaming angel).

keisertroll (#1,117)

Are there jeggings in this futuristic dystopia?

No — denim is way too opaque.

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

I enjoyed this review AND (despite the criticisms) it made me want to read the book, so I think that's probably success on all counts!

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

I suppose I've spent too many years on the Inzertnet where it's part collaborative (called plagiarism in books) and part trying to outdo each other by starting new genres (also could be called memes)…or was classically trained in journalism trying to get that huge scoop…

But when I'm working on a project, I've found that the way to derail or delay that project is to read or experience works from the similar vein. Either it tends to make you second guess or become more formulaic.

Go west young man and explore!

Barea giving both topical and (dare I say?) constructive comments? Strange and bizarre future indeed!

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

There's an old secret NYC taught when it was wild and crazy.

When you're up against a dangerous opponent (be it mugger, cultist, etc.) it helps to come across as crazier than they are. Scares the bejeesus out of them.

rowe (#6,888)

I enjoyed this review, and it brings up a worry (at least to me) that every piece of jittery sci-fi-tinged sarcasm seems to bring up:

"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."

How to get over the attraction of this kind of low-hanging fruit?

Sometimes I want to read only about cloned fast food employees and different kinds of neural iPhone apps, but other times I think the opening paragraph of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash pretty much wrapped it up and finished off the genre.

cheveux (#2,081)

Miles, thanks for summing up why I was so displeased by the excerpt I read in the New Yorker and why I was even more displeased when I realized there was a whole novel of it to come. Good luck with your book; as a fellow Young impressed by your critique, I would definitely be interested in seeing your approach to the near future.

scrooge (#2,697)

I suspect Youngs are not very good at predicting the future, because they don't have a past. Prove me wrong, though, please.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

Seems to me the trick is in inhabiting, rather than feverishly speculating and maniacally overdescribing, the fiction's slanted world. I'd love to be able to link to an Amazon page for pre-ordering my currently limbo'd book, but I guess if I want to put my money where my mouth is, there's always this short story of mine that Choire linked to a few weeks back.

alexanderchee (#3,995)

As I read this I kept thinking that it could have been better if it were more in the spirit of Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. The best dystopic novel I've read recently is Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital, which I think does an amazing job of showing us the world we live in now through its destruction. Anyway, fantastic job with this.

SO GALD you brought up "Infernal Desire Machines"! A weird old hippie gave it to me to read while killing time in Berlin and the whole thing is like the dream you have after risking your life in some half-baked adventure.

SO GLAD typing is hard

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