Friday, March 23, 2012

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

Oh, it was super sad. Absolutely. Although the saddest part of this satire was the disintegration of American society. The love story was sad, too, though more in a disturbing, pathetic train-wreck-of-a-relationship kind of way than a star-crossed-lovers sort of way.

Lenny loves Eunice. Lenny does not know Eunice, but loves her desperately nonetheless. Eunice loves Lenny, but does not find him particularly attractive or compelling. Doomed to failure, you say? Oh, let me count the ways. So here we have the love story, which is tragic because each of the partners is so obviously damaged, so clearly unable to even attempt a healthy, satisfying relationship. But this is only a small part of the story. The really interesting thing is the background, the falling-apart America they inhabit.

This book is set in that sort of sci-fi present/future, different from our own time but eerily close. The next iteration of personal electronic device has become even more ubiquitous than the iPhone. Americans not only do all of their communicating via text, they are constantly and publicly rated (on personality, attractiveness, wealth, etc.) and tracked. New York, the setting of most of the novel's action, sports neighborhoods even more ethnically segmented than the present. Interestingly, the economically disadvantaged still retain the trappings of community while the rich have become isolated through their use of technology. Sound familiar?

Lenny works for Post Human Services, the branch of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation devoted to keeping people alive forever. At a price, of course. His boss, the charismatic Joshie, is like a second father to him, while his real parents, Russian immigrants who live in the suburbs, are as unreal as the characters of his beloved collection of anachronistic books. Wanting one thing while pursuing another is a central subject of this book, as is the inability to want what is right in front of you. A chorus of Crosby, Stills and Nash, anyone?

Eunice embodies the self-hatred of many young women. A childhood spent at the mercy of an abusive father has done nothing to help either her self-image or her ability to form meaningful relationships with the many men who court her. She spends most of her time shopping via mobile device, all the time wishing she were smarter, thinner, more successful. Both Lenny and Eunice are the children of immigrants; her parents came from Korea during its decline, and are now experiencing the rapid demise of their new country. This second-generation identity crisis just intensifies each one's inability to connect with one another or the world around them.

These shifting and combining themes of alienation, along with the beautifully realized dystopia of the almost-now, are deeply affecting, and at times very funny. Lenny, at 39, is an unwilling denizen of the 21st century, while Eunice, at 24, is the embodiment of her times. Watching them try to negotiate one another and their own demons is, indeed, super sad.

Check this out - a collection of Shteyngart's book blurbs. Great idea, especially from a satirist.

Here's the book's youtube 'trailer', which features several other literary luminaries.

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