Super Sad True Love Story
Random House: 336 pp., $26
Pity Lenny Abramov, the sad and hilarious human being at the center of "Super Sad True Love Story," Gary Shteyngart's hilarious and sad new novel. A balding, depressed, socially frustrated 39-year-old resident of the American near future — a society so youth-obsessed that it considers 39-year-old men decrepit and irrelevant — he has just officially made the list of "101 People We Need to Feel Sorry For." And poor Lenny isn't getting any younger — unlike his boss, Josh Goldmann (or, as he prefers to be called, "Joshie"), a sexagenarian whose regular "dechronification treatments" have stripped decades from his outward appearance. Lenny would like to dechronify too, but even though he works for the company that offers this new age miracle, he can't afford the treatments. Lenny, like America itself (which spends most of the novel teetering on the verge of social and spiritual collapse), is having some financial issues.
Financial issues are a problem for everyone, of course, but they are especially serious in this all-too-plausible dystopia, where privacy of any sort is a thing of the past: Walk too close to one of the ubiquitous Credit Poles that dot the urban landscape and your credit score is instantly broadcast to everyone in the area. Or, if you want to know this or any other piece of information about someone, just point your äppärät at him and all will be revealed. An äppärät, in case you are wondering, is a kind of uber- iPhone that keeps people connected to one another (and disconnected from reality) in all sorts of innovative ways. (Here is Lenny's friend, Vishnu, explaining the FAC function: "you look at a girl. The EmotePad picks up any change in your blood pressure. That tells her how much you want to do her.") Destroying any last vestige of personal privacy? There's an app for that.
And I have yet to mention the worst piece of news about Lenny, the thing that would render him socially untouchable even if he were younger and his bank account healthier: Lenny — brace yourself — Lenny likes to read. And I'm not referring to online shopping sites: No, Lenny likes to read books. No wonder his "Male Hotness" rating is, as any äppärät will tell you, a measly 120 out of 800. Indeed, when Lenny's girlfriend, Eunice Park, catches him reading, she is profoundly disturbed: "I was so embarrassed," she writes her friend. "I just stood there and watched him read which lasted for like HALF AN HOUR, and finally he put the book down and I pretended like nothing happened."
As this passage might suggest, Eunice is pretty much a girl without a thought in her head — unless, that is, desires for "TotalSurrender panties" and other consumer goods count as "thoughts." Lenny's tendency to glorify the purity of youth — a reaction, perhaps, to his atavistic regard for things intellectual — is supposed to explain his attraction to her, though in the end I still did not quite buy it. But what bothered me far more was Shteyngart's decision to narrate part of the novel in Eunice's voice. These sections, which are presented as excerpts from the online chats she conducts with friends and family via the "GlobalTeens" network, are nearly uniformly uninteresting: I had to resist the urge to skim and get back to the sections narrated by Lenny, who, for all his various flaws, nonetheless comes across as a witty, perceptive observer.
In an odd afterword it is revealed that Eunice's writings have an afterlife: They are collected, along with Lenny's diary entries, and published as a text — the very text, presumably, that the reader is holding. "As the Stateside critics have unanimously agreed," we are informed, "the gems in the text are Eunice Park's GlobalTeens entries." In the words of one fictional critic of this text, "there's a patina of middle-class entitlement, but what comes through is a real interest in the world around her." In fact, this is the opposite of the truth, leading one to wonder whether this is intentional irony on Shteyngart's part, or an attempt to forestall the reader's judgment that the Eunice Park sections are considerably weaker and less fun than the rest. Or has the author bought into his own shtick, and come to agree with Lenny that Eunice's banal and vapid keyboard tappings possess a kind of literary freshness?
One might, I suppose, accuse "Super Sad True Love Story" of being nothing more than an extended expression of the paranoia that afflicts so many contemporary intellectuals, who worry that the space for anything resembling a "life of the mind" (the very phrase has come to sound somewhat quaint) is being squeezed out of existence by our increasingly superficial, increasingly oppressive, consumer culture. Our hearts go out to Lenny, because we fear becoming Lenny. For my part, I find the novel pretty much on target: The Eunice sections aside, it is on the whole both frightening and devastatingly funny. What remains to be seen is whether its depiction of the fall of the American republic will turn out to have been frighteningly, devastatingly prescient.
Jollimore is the author of the poetry collection "Tom Thomson in Purgatory."