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.

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