“There has to be a compelling reason these days for someone to decide to pick up a smelly book,” says satirist Gary Shteyngart, the 38-year-old author whose novel “Super Sad True Love Story,” a dystopian romance, has earned critical raves.
By “smelly,” Shteyngart is referring to the running gag of the plot — that books stink of dirty feet. Set in the near future — “oh, next Tuesday,” Shteyngart jokes in a recent interview — the story details the development and collapse of a society that ridicules “printed bound media artifacts” and, in fact, anything that requires deep thinking. Instead, people view the world through a device called the äppärät, an iPhone-like multi-purpose gadget that monitors one’s health, ranks each passerby’s “hotness” and offers access to the World Wide Web. More important, it has replaced books.
Readers must have found plenty of motives to pick up the new novel. Released July 27, the book is already in its fourth printing and is expected to hit the New York Times bestseller list Sunday.
Shteyngart will read and discuss “Super Sad True Love Story” at Vroman’s Bookstore on Monday and at the Skirball Museum on Tuesday. The novel follows in the tradition of dystopias such as George Orwell’s “1984,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” All emphasize concern about the future of reading and thinking.
Yet, decades after their publication dates, books still thrive. But many writers, like Shteyngart, question whether advanced technology threatens the future of books and literature.
Shteyngart, whose previous novels, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” and “Absurdistan,” won him a devoted cult following, says he doesn’t put “moral packages” in his books. As he jokingly puts it, “My goal is to entertain readers, maybe with thoughts behind it.” But the story’s message is obvious: A future world that devalues reading, literature and deep thinking is headed for ruin.
Shteyngart is no stranger to new worlds.
He was born in communist-governed Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and immigrated at age 7 to New York City, which is still his home. His first books drew on his personal history to describe the experience of settling in America.
With “Super Sad True Love Story,” he readjusts his focus to reflect his interest in the future of the United States. “I’m trying to step aside from themes like Russia and finding one’s identity. The important difference with Lenny, the protagonist, is that he was born in the U.S. With this book I wanted to take a larger view and widen my lens.”
When he began the project in 2006, Shteyngart planned to write a science-fiction story set at the time of the collapse of the United States. But as he penned fictional disaster scenarios, many of them actually happened. He discovered that “we live in such a fast-paced society that the moment you want to write about something, that instant is gone. The only way to capture the present is to write about the future.”
He began to observe the people and places around him with new eyes, gathering details that he would later exaggerate to imagine a dystopian future.
But he’s kept his humor intact. Some say it’s a particularly effective way for Shteyngart to make his opinions heard about the implications of the Digital Age on reading and literacy.
For James Franco, the actor and writing student who attended Shteyngart’s writing workshop and Neurotic Narrators classes at Columbia University, Shteyngart’s humor delivers convincing messages. He compares the concept of “Super Sad True Love Story” with Woody Allen’s movie “Sleeper,” saying that at the heart of both is the plight of a man facing overpowering technology. “No matter what the specific issues, stories told as works of humor are more likely to be timeless,” Franco says.
“It’s great that he’s tackling the issue of the technology debate in fiction and an extra treat that his usual sense of humor about it is well intact,” says USC professor and ethnic literature scholar Josh Kun. “It makes sense for him to express his ideas in a novel.”
Ilan Stavans, an immigrant literature scholar and Amherst College professor, appreciates Shteyngart’s use of humor as well. In “Super Sad True Love Story,” he says, “Shteyngart imagines a menacing version of the future of New York as a Mel Brooks variation.”
Even if the book’s humor is as sharp and perceptive as many reviews claim it to be, Shteyngart isn’t sitting back and waiting for readers to bite.
For someone who’s wary of the effect of technology on novels, Shteyngart seems to have embraced it for self-promotion. He’s launched a Gary Shteyngart iPhone application, regularly updates his Facebook account and has designed a “Super Sad True Love Story” website in a style that mimics the äppärät.
He also created an online video “trailer,” the perfect venue to exhibit his spirited, at times over-the-top personality. “Gary is quite the performer,” according to Franco. “He has tons of energy, and his teaching style is animated.”
In the video, which has been re-posted on a variety of websites, Shteyngart acts like a Russian peasant with a low-brow sense of humor. He affects an exaggerated accent, frolics with a dachshund and makes self-deprecating goofball comments like “I can’t read!” while holding a book upside down. Authors Edmund White, Jeffrey Eugenides and others give lighthearted comments about the book. Franco appears too, pretending to teach Shteyngart how to read the cover of a Hemingway novel.
The author acknowledges that the video had nothing to do with “Super Sad True Love Story.” But he wanted to convey that he doesn’t take himself too seriously and, moreover, is an entertainer. As well, Shteyngart says he’s driven by the motive of doing anything to get people to read.
“Once we begin to slice and dice our attention with gadgets and the Web,” he says, “novels are the first to go.”
But he hasn’t given up quite yet.
“You have to do everything you can to attract the attention of readers that have hundreds of thousands of authors vying for their attention,” he says. “Things cry out, ‘This is free! And short!’”