Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story has a lot going for it. Its primary virtue is the vitality the author spins into the setting. The novel takes place in a near future where the U.S. is spinning down the tubes and a brand-addled populace is barely able to notice. They’re awash in a constant stream of social updates and cheap sex delivered to ubiquitous next-gen handhelds.
The set-up could be preachy in the wrong hands, but Shteyngart has a deadpan knack for capturing absurdity. The titular love story is a May-November romance between Lenny Abramov, a 39-year-old pitchman for immortality services, and Eunice Parker, a pushy 24-year-old “with a major in Images and a minor in Assertiveness.” For his dream of everlasting life and his lust for Euny—basically the same thing—Lenny is pushed to immerse himself in the contemporary culture, giving us an outside, but enthusiastic, look at this brave new world.
They don’t have much in common. Lenny dresses in thrift-store polyesters; he has an apartment filled with actual books (which he douses with Pine-Sol before Euny visits—conventional wisdom holds that they smell). Euny spends most of her time chatting on her GlobalTeens account or searching for the perfect “nippleless Saaami bra” or Assluxury gear. She’s not personally shallow; compared to her peers in the book, she’s open, thoughtful, curious, if also selfish and cruel. But the cultural pool in which she’s been raised only stretches a couple inches to its bottom.
Both lovers are children of immigrants, Lenny Russian-Jewish, Euny Korean. Shteyngart is accomplished at capturing their sense of otherness, the strained, awkward love their families have alternately lavished on them and withheld entirely. These cultural clashes further ground the world he’s created, conveying that things were very different not too long ago. A lot has changed in a short time.
This setting is fleshed out in a virtuoso scene where Lenny hits a bar with his college buddies after a year abroad. As one pal live-streams the proceedings, Lenny learns his new apparat facilitates a sort of live bulletin board with everyone present, one that centers on crowd-sourced ratings for Personality and Fuckability. Lenny, who’s visibly aging despite his job selling the expensive promise of immortality, fails to measure up. By these standards, he never could.
Around them, the U.S. is in shambles. There’s a protracted, losing war in Venezuela. Poles on the street track pedestrian credit ratings, and typo-strewn ads threaten to deport anyone whose score doesn’t measure up. The ruling Bipartisan party has turning to crude, violent tactics to suppress any political dissent. But displaced people—including returning soldiers cheated of their bonuses—are starting to gather in the parks, a prescient forecast of the Occupy movement.
The setting is excellent, but Shteyngart runs into more trouble with the characters. He doesn’t seem to have a full handle on them. They can feel more like dolls than people, something to fill the space he’s created. Lenny and Euny engage us with their commentary, but they never quite seem consistent in their motivations. They’re malleable, shading cruel or kind as circumstances require. Euny’s eventual outreach seems especially forced, even through the lens of a 20-something trying to find herself.
What’s especially problematic is that the relationship at the heart of the story never quite seems to cohere. The book tries to co-opt our disbelief; Lenny and especially Euny spend much the novel questioning their relationship. But their questions make sense, while the answer of them being together never quite seems to.
There are other issues. Constant sexual references capture—and indict—the culture. They’re well employed but become repetitive; some could have been cut with no loss. It’s also hard to know how seriously to take the burgeoning totalitarian state, but that may reflect Lenny’s uncertainty as well.
Still, Shteyngart seems to hit his twin goals of capturing how it could all go wrong: the rot of overshared public life and the danger of no longer being able to distinguish government from the corporations that can buy so much of it. He does it with plenty of humor. By the end of the book, though, you’re not sure what’s so funny anymore.