Äppäräts and autocrats rule in Gary Shteyngart’s dystopian novel “Super Sad True Love Story.” Set in a dying, almost unrecognizable, America less than 100 years in the future, the novel is filled both with foreignness (like words riddled with umlauted a’s) and relatable, everyday humanity. Presented both through the diary entries of Lenny Abramov, a middle-aged, middle-class Jewish office worker who fears death and the text-based messages of his love, Eunice Park, a 20-something Korean girl. Shteyngart’s novel details their romance in the context of rampant societal degradation.
Shteyngart, a Russian immigrant and Stuyvesant alumnus (’91), will be speaking at Stuyvesant’s graduation later this year. His search for reconciliation between his immigrant status and the “degenerative” influence of pop-culture adds sprigs of self-reflection to a novel already laced with lust, tyranny and death.
At its heart, “Super Sad True Love Story” is a tale of romance and survival. Though sections of the novel center around the oppressive government of Rubinstein, a former Secretary of Defense turned dictator, the personal sagas of its characters are what truly drive the work. Abramov begins the book saying, “I am never going to die,” and spends much of the rest of his time searching for eternal youth through a promising genetic-reconstruction program for which he is too old, too weak, and too poor to qualify. His relationship with Park, who is brimming with vibrancy and youth, is also part of his self-centered quest for immortality. But even so, their love still rings true to any reader who has heartstrings to pull. The unlikelihood of their pairing, and the degeneracy of the world around them, is Shteygart’s way of conveying the message that the truest love is born of extreme circumstances.
Shteygart, throwing his hat in the ring with Orwell and countless other dystopian masters, depicts a believably extreme American culture and society in the centuries to come. Like the Smartphones of our time, äppäräts – small, pebble-shaped multi-media and communication devices – in this novel are one-stop shops for everything in one’s life: video, television, social networking, conversation, and the like. Hypersexuality is also a huge factor of social life in this future, with someone’s “fuckability” rating (among others) readily available for the world to see. Women wear OnionSkin (see-through) jeans and nippleless bras. The video broadcasts people stream are banal and usually related to losing weight. People go to parties and stay solely connected to their phones. It is like our current, skin-deep society, expounded and on steroids.
The politics of the novel are even more disconcertingly familiar. Paradoxically, in a sexually open world, peoples’ lives are generally stifled. As Rubenstein enters into a misguided war in Venezuela (this book’s Vietnam), martial law is enforced across America. The dollar becomes worthless, and China comes to basically owns the nation. Society is split decisively across class lines based on credit ratings. A few, eclectically amalgamated companies like LandO’LakesGMFordCredit, rule the economy.
Through all this, Shteyngart still keeps mastery over his biting wit and page-turning prose. He compellingly writes in the voice of Park, with her street-talky texts usually beginning with some variation on “What’s up, twat?” And, equally as compelling, he writes as Abramov, whose verbose diary entries employ powerful imagery, like when he describes himself as having “a sunken battleship of a face.” Park’s struggles to deal with her Korean, Christian heritage and her duty to a family which includes an abusive father are not distinctive to them as characters in the novel. However, as their complex relationship is intricately meshed with their own personal issues, a compelling, unique storyline emerges. From violent parents to bloody protests, to poverty, and to death, Shteyngart successfully creates a complex world where simple romances become convoluted relationships, and a small love story can coincide with the end of an empire, and at times, be the more compelling, intricate and super sad tale of the two.