Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review: Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel, by Gary Shteyngart

New York: Random House, 2010, pp. 334.

The protagonist of Gary Shteyngart's bestselling novel Super Sad True Love Story is Leonard Abramov, the Queens-born son of Jewish Russian immigrants from what was then Leningrad. At this point in his life, Lenny is middle-aged, unhandsome, awkward, neurotic and hopelessly out of tune with the times. Only his possession of a relatively good job (he's a Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator for the Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation, essentially a salesman hawking life extension to rich customers), and his friendships with a few somewhat more favored people, save him from being written off as a total loser.

At the start of the novel Lenny is winding up an unprofitable year in Europe and beginning a romance with Eunice Park, a young Korean-American woman he meets in Rome, a recent college graduate being prodded toward law school by her immigrant parents. Eunice is confused and at times floundering, and her sense of their relationship is irreconcilable with that of an older lover desperately trying to retain a tenuous hold on her affections.

And making their relationship more tenuous still, external obstacles to their being happy together, going far beyond the usual, very quickly start to loom large: their relationship unfolds in a near-future United States which, under the leadership of the Bipartisan Party (and the de facto dictatorship of neoconservative Defense Secretary Rubinstein), is fighting a war in Venezuela and on the verge of economic collapse. Indeed, the situation is already so severe that even the near-annihilation of civil liberties fails to stop a mounting tide of internal disorder.

These are not the most original of characters, and their relationship may not be the most original of situations. There is much about them that will annoy a good many readers by the end of the story (especially if the reader has ever had to deal with people like them). Yet, they both rang true for me, and held my interest throughout.

Additionally, and more surprisingly, I was genuinely impressed with the world-building, which was extensive, innovative, often zany and smoothly integrated into the narrative. As might be expected from the premise it contained much satirical caricature, but at the same time seemed eerily, depressingly plausible in its essentials. At its best it reads like Bruce Sterling's writing about the near future, but with his Davos Man libertarian-conservatism replaced by a critical take from the left.

Moreover, Shteyngart successfully interweaves the big picture with the personal tale of Lenny and Eunice, Big Events impinging on their all-too-familiar Little Story in ways large and small, at many points making what could easily have been cliché (not least, the treatment of the immigrant experience) something worthwhile. Especially significant, the book uncannily captures the voice of the consumerist, texting-addicted young adult who can't get through a conversation without repeatedly saying "Whatever" (and can't get through a book, period) in Eunice. The generation gap between her cohort and their elders (sometimes, their elders by only a slender margin) is a difference of epochs, the dividing line between the eras of Johannes Guttenberg and Steve Jobs.

Shteyngart shows as well as tells this in his switches back and forth between Abramov's viewpoint, related in entries in an old-fashioned diary, and Eunice's exchanges of text messages with her family and friends, as well as in their exchanges with each other. Lenny's old-fashioned bookishness is constantly a source of embarrassment and anxiety between the two, and at times, even a wall. In one of the book's more memorable scenes, Lenny tries to read to her out of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, to share a book that meant a great deal to him with her, and the experience turns out to be, well, unbearable.

Fortunately, Shteyngart's novel never is. Despite its switches of viewpoint, its stylistic experimentation, its density with concept and allusion, it is hugely readable, and a quick read as well as a satisfying one. In fact, while I've often felt that the genre's opinion leaders are too quick to embrace well-established "mainstream" authors who try their hand at science fiction, I would be disappointed to not see Super Sad True Love Story get some recognition at awards time next year.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Reflections on Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The success of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy is exactly the kind of hit that makes me suspicious - a book showered with acclaim by critics who are none too clear about the reasons for that acclaim, an apparent pop cultural phenomenon which does not fit the accustomed pattern, nor appear to have broken that pattern by fulfilling some undiscovered niche.1 The success of Larsson's books seemed all the more remarkable given that the U.S. is such a weak market for translations (or even for stories about other lands), and there has certainly been nothing to indicate a special openness to Swedish imports in particular - neither an upsurge of interest in Swedish culture as such, nor a sudden preoccupation with Sweden in foreign affairs.

Naturally, I looked into the issue, reading a few reviews. Every so often someone mentions the interest of Lisbeth Salander-Watson to protagonist Mikael Blomkvist's Holmes, as many a critic has put it (though frankly I think it's the other way around). However, she she struck me as a bag of clichés-the pierced, tattooed rebel-punk hacker (which decade is this?), the brilliant detective whose symptoms of autism are the basis of their talent as well as their weakness (meet Gil Grissom, Temperance Brennan, Adrian Monk, and that's just on television), the Bohemian freelance investigator (I did say she was Holmes to Blomkvist's Watson, didn't I?).

Eventually, I gave in and read the first book (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) for myself in the hopes of answering that question.

The book certainly had its limits, from a commercial perspective. The book's marketed as a thriller, but while there's certainly a "story of detection," involving dark deeds and an element of danger, the Millennium Trilogy's first installment is no adrenaline novel. The investigation's very slow to get going, the very skeptical hero expecting to find nothing for over a hundred pages after taking the job, and sure enough, not getting a handle on even the first clue until the mid-point of the 465 page narrative. The story's short on action, too. (Blomkvist doesn't even get shot at until after page three hundred.) When he's unmasked, the killer is no Hannibal Lecter, rather a stock figure as banal as his crimes are hideous, his personal share of the family's very heavy baggage as ugly and awful as one might expect given the circumstances, but hardly anything readers of the genre would not have seen before - something that can be said of just about anything else in the story.

Admittedly Larsson shows some innovation, and reasonable skill, in tying the pursuit of the serial killer with a sweeping family history and a financial crime story, one developed with a fair bit of sophistication (though I felt there was an element of wish-fulfillment in the conclusion). In a few instances, there seemed to be touches many a reader likely finds compelling in a retro way. The element of dynastic epic we get here, the protagonist who bed-hops adroitly and guiltlessly - this is stuff we got a lot more of in the '70s. (Indeed, Daniel Craig will probably bed more women in this film franchise than he did as 007.) Perhaps reflecting Larsson's own experiences, there is an edge to the predicaments and compromises Blomkvist faces as a journalist. Salander also turned out to be a more engaging creation than I expected. Many authors can't resist the temptation to turn a character like this one into a Mary Sue (as with the aforementioned, extremely tiresome Temperance Brennan), but Salander's combination of strengths and vulnerabilities, the marks left by her condition and society's incomprehension of it, make her more complex and interesting than that, the novel's characterization of her both sharp and sensitive. (Most of the time, anyway. There is a point late in the book when Salander's bag of tricks suddenly seems implausibly large.) The treatment of Salander's hacking is also a cut above the commonplace depictions of the activity as a black nerd-magic useful for moving the plot over and around any obstacle. Finally, while Larsson's is not the most visceral or swiftly paced writing, the narrative flows smoothly enough. Put another way, he knows how to keep readers turning the pages.

Where marketing the book in the U.S. is concerned, the element of financial crime may be a bit more intriguing to the general readership amid an economic crisis which has seen plenty of it, and as Charles McGrath noted in a lengthy article in the New York Times, that the books introduce American readers to
a Sweden that is vastly different from the bleak, repressed, guilt-ridden images we see in Ingmar Bergman movies and from the design-loving Socialist paradise we imagine whenever we visit Ikea . . . [which is instead] a country that turns out to be a lot like our own.
The fact that so much of the story seems familiar, particularly what is unpleasant in the story, may be exactly the point. There's probably no small amount of Schadenfreude in that, given the way attitudes toward Europe echo the country's own culture wars (awfully ironic given Larsson's own politics), but this moves product all the same.

Still, the book's strengths, exoticisms and timing notwithstanding, I can't help but feel that the heights the book has attained in the United States (and worldwide) represent a triumph of marketing more than anything else. Ultimately, the book is a bestseller because it is a bestseller (as it was in Europe before reaching the U.S.). In any event, the situation reverts to normal when one considers that Hollywood is going for a remake rather than a theatrical release of the Swedish films already made out of the books, despite this rather low-key material's questionable appropriateness to a high-concept production. Indeed, the questionable stylistic fit of the flashy David Fincher to Larsson's writing (so that I actually wonder if he hasn't been brought in specifically to add an element of flash); Daniel Craig's uncertain record in selling major releases outside the Bond franchise; Hollywood's well-known profligacy with budgets and the grosses studios are forced to expect to justify that profligacy (which make even a $400 million take a potentially franchise-ending disappointment in many cases); and the tendency toward diminishing returns on sequels and remakes (keep in mind that much of the intended audience will have seen the Swedish film versions first); make this an unlikely franchise.

1. Patrick Anderson of the Washington Post does better than most, but likewise fell short of answering my questions.

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