To grow old is a strange thing: you watch agog as all you loved turns cheap and tawdry: gold to tin, elegance to chintz. The titillating becomes the pornographic, the folly becomes incalculable error, the youth become parasitic, and the open-armed city becomes a clutch of exploitative vipers.
The student of history knows that it has been ever thus. They can only smile, sadly, faithfully reporting the reality of their times and accepting it as a backdrop for the master narrative of their own life: whom they loved, the career that seemed so important, the rituals and places whose importance seemed natural and unfeigned.
In unremarkable times, death comes to the lucky and they never have to question these narratives and backdrops. But for those caught at the locus of the rupture, they feel their world change and wonder whether the most important tatters of the old life and its beauty will make it across the gap with them.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart is a story of a man in such a time. A man in a future not so terribly far off from our own whose encounter of utter, wrenching true love has the challenge of happening in interesting times. Leonard Abramov: middle-aged, over-fond of rich food, moldering collections of words on pages called books finds himself trying to court, win, seduce, and become desirable to Eunice Park, a girl born part-and-parcel to the zeitgeist.
Spoiler Warning: I recommend the book highly. If you want it in all its unspoiled glory come back later.
Setting plays an incredibly important role in this book, so I’d like to note some of the more interesting aspects of the dystopia where our rupture happens.
The US: An impotent, evadable, cheap dystopia
While Leonard (Lenny) makes his first contact with Ms. Park in the Old World, they both return to a USA which looks as if the negligent, cronyist, bailout and amnesia culture of George W. Bush’s administration had become enshrined, bloated, celebrated, and regnant. It’s never called out as such, but the inspirations for the toxic culture are clear.
To wit, the Secretary of Defense rules in the incapable President’s stead and a culture which has reduced the citizenry to their FICO score has become standard. Credit Poles dot the urban landscape of this banally evil New York so that security forces (whose presence cannot be discussed without violating legislation and thus, rarely are) can easily discern the appropriate level of static due to the individual, varying between whether they are Low Net Worth Individuals or High Net Worth Individuals. This distinction so common it bore two initialisms: LNWI and HNWI, respectively.
After all, Bush encouraged Americans to “go shopping more” after 9/11. If shopping is, therefore, a patriotic act, are not the HNWI’s a better class of American than the alternative? Shouldn’t the HNWI’s have a better experience of America? Autocracy during Weimar Germany gave us the cabaret and a world of challenging sexual stances as sexual expression became a beachhead in the preservation of individual identity. In SSTLS this goes in an interesting dimension as well.
As I mentioned the dystopia seems to take ideas that surfaced under the Bush administration and pushes them to farcical ends. As the Bush era saw the rise of Bravo! and Kardashian TV, the Real Housewives phenomenon and the preening, dull, perfunctory walking genitals of the “Jersey Shore,” SSTLS sees those ideas at their ne plus ultra. Girls shop for goods on sites like “Ass Luxury” and dress in brands like “JuicyPussy.” Their jeans are made by Onionskin (an easter egg for those who ever worked with paper enough): translucent and revealing over quick-release panties by “Total Surrender.” For what it’s worth, there’s JuicyPussy for men, in case we were wondering whether the times were merely misogynistic versus fully misanthropic.
The breasts are displayed as well in zero coverage bras. Shteyngart shows that there’s little point in avoiding broadcasting these, as they’re all in your personal profile broadcast by your hipside computer (called an “äppärät”). A girl in a bar’s äppärät broadcasts:
A bunch of figures appeared on my screen: “Fuckability 780/800, Personality 800/800, Anal Oral Vaginal preference 1/3/2.”
It’s the sexual partner to the credit pole: your wealth quotient and fuckability quotient are broadcast in a way such that your physical body is just another avatar in the world: a dissociated manifestation of the identity of yours which is as comfortable in the digital realms as in the realm of the body. Eunice, a creature of the era is described as:
“A nano-sized woman who had likely never known the tickle of her own pubic hair, who lacked both breast and scent, who existed as easily on an äppärät screen as on the street before me.”
It’s a world where your vital stats are more important than the beautiful language that might describe the way you behold a beautiful girl with earnest love, say the girl in the bar above:
The EmotePad picks up any change in your blood pressure. That tells her how much you want to do her.”…Then I touched my heart with the back of my äppärät, trying to fill it with my warmth, my natural desire for love.
Her response to Lenny, the flawed, overweight, deeply human narrator?
The girl across the bar laughed immediately without even turning my way.
The bizarre activity they just participated in is called “FAC-ing” or “Forming a Community.”
While the economic / political elements are important components of the setting, technology also has a central place in this satire as it is an accelerant unto and an enabler of its social dimensions.
The most important technology element is the äppärät. It’s basically an iPhone. In the world of SSTLS, however, using it for the engaged, present, synchronous communication known once as “talking on the phone” is rarely done (a mirror of the present). In fact the odd use of the device to actually bear sounds emitted from the larynx is known as “verbaling.”
The largest-reaching tool of personal communication is a social network called “GlobalTeens.” It’s the reach of Facebook with the youth-obsession and ejaculation-orientation of MySpace (although that, today, seems quaint as maintaining a full profile is prolix in the swipe-right, swipe-left smorgasbord of the present). It’s the bloated, narcissistic endgame forewarned by the Vanity Fair interview with Jeremy Jackson of 2006 (and yes, this is real)
And even on MySpace, a haven for shameless voluptuaries, Jackson stands out. His profile page is plastered with photographs of him out on the town in a series of increasingly preposterous getups, like a walking Zoolander outtake, accompanied by one busty woman after another—some of his 1,818 “friends.” His name assaults you in an oversize pink-and-black font that could have been ripped from a Def Leppard album cover.
Jackson, 25, does not disappoint in person. He meets me at the door of Sutra clad in a designer camouflage-pants-and-jacket number, a handcuff awash in gold and bling on one wrist and a watch with a giant fake-gold dollar sign covering its face on the other. Jackson’s hair is exactly as advertised on MySpace: a spiked mullet that adds four or five inches to his stature.
“Wassuuuup!?,” Jackson yelps in a boyish voice that calls to mind his best-known character—David Hasselhoff’s son, Hobie, on the syndicated lifeguard drama Baywatch. Leading me through the labyrinth of sofa-lined alcoves, he makes it known that he is the toast of the club. Every passerby high-fives or hugs him. He breaks out into a spontaneous dance every few seconds. And, before long, he is extolling MySpace.
“I met half of these people on there,” he says, waving an arm. “MySpace is about the ass. There’s an unlimited supply of ass. It’s ridiculous!”
Lastly, in an era of “fuckability,” FAC-ing, and public displays of net worth rating, an obvious side-effect would be the desire to appear young forever. It just so happens that the corpulent protagonist Lenny works for a company that provides “dechronification” to the elite HNWI’s who can afford the service. The CEO of the company, despite being over sixty appears to be in his 20’s.
Other imaginative side-effects of this technology sexuality broadcast bonanza are mentioned by Shteyngart but none seemed more on the nose than 4 “friends” gathered at a table at a bar each broadcasting their own channel to their digital fanbases while ignoring their real, true, present friends at the table.
As a unifying thread to many of the other elements, the world features an anti-intellectual social trend. Lenny’s possession of real books, books by the Russian masters, books by Kundera, are seen as repulsive if not deviant.
GlobalTeens takes pains to remind its users to move out of text (in this case a debasing synergy between the äppärät, the sexualized clothing)
Globalteens super hint: Switch to Images today! Less words = more fun!!!
GlobalTeens even uses “Message Unable to Be Sent” error messages to give helpful dating tips; wait, no, that’s not correct: they’re sex tips that encourage a female-subservient order. They advise laughing more at his jokes and not trying to be funny yourself as a means to getting to ones knees before a descending zipper because, hey, isn’t that what communication’s all about?
Shteyngart loves New York and it shows. He describes neighborhoods and everyday occurrences with a lyrical tenderness. He recalls New York’s dream and its promise as an entry port for immigrants to a better life. He also imagines it betraying that promise as it it becomes a “Lifestyle City” that seeks “harm reduction” steps which allow it to more fully live up to that Disneyland promise. New York has been infected from within and shudders to become a place meant for HNWI’s that is struggling to cast off the LNWI’s in the form of gentrification, credit poles, and slow, enduring disenfranchisement. It’s a New York stripped of “Give me your tired” it’s one grown reactionary and nasty under the current political regime.
The three bridges connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan, one long necklace of light, gradually differentiated themselves. The Empire State extinguished its crown and tucked itself away behind a lesser building. On the Brooklyn side, the gold-tipped Williamsburg Savings Bank, cornered by the half-built, abandoned glass giants around it, quietly gave us the finger. Only the bankrupt “Freedom” Tower empty and stern in profile, like an angry man risen and ready to punch, celebrated itself throughout the night.
That angry punch, that need to succeed despite having hollowed out what was special and once lead to succcess culminates in the rupture which makes Lenny’s unfamiliar yet normal times exceptional.
Shortly after the Staten Island Ferry trip which produced the observation that the angry man was about to punch metaphor, a horrible series of events happens which leaves the indulgent, corpulent order undermined and the technical age which had so infiltrated daily life eradicated.
Shteyngart as a Russian Jew knows all too well that whole orders can be undone overnight; that some safety nets are made of the finest filament and that when our psyches count on them too faithfully we can find ourselves ill-prepared for a disrupted world. This thread is nursed along by occasional discussions between Lenny and his Russian immigrant parents who enjoy the last shreds of the immigrant dream at their modest home in Long Island.
In some ways, the immigrants, in that foreign membrane that keeps them from associating too easily to their host country, are better prepared for realities under post-rupture life. They laugh in idealistic faces of their hopeful, naive children. But for those who identify too intimately with their times and its foibles (technologically, sexually, politically) without the immigrants’ prophylactic remove, the new world is challenging, scary, and even not worth enduring in:
Four young people committed suicide in our building complexes, and two of them wrote suicide notes about how they couldn’t see a future without their äpparati. One wrote, quite eloquently, about how he “reached out to life,” but found there only “walls and thoughts and places,” which weren’t enough. He needed to be ranked, to know his place in this world. And that may sound ridiculous, but I can understand him. We are all bored out of our fucking minds. My hands are itching for connection…
What a fitting indictment of our world which happens so much in the faces of wide-screened äppäräti. We cannot ride together in shared space, we cannot address one another with verbaling, we cannot tolerate the peace of the idle moment without processing a new notifications icon that our hands acknowledge and provide “connection.”
We are addicts at the slot-machine of a tech-mediated society hoping that we’ll hit the jackpot of connection. But the house never pays and yet we dump in our quarters of hope and humanity and crank the arm anyway.
In such a world a true, ardent love as Lenny’s can’t survive. As such, the true love story must turn (tee-bitter-hee), Super-Sad.
I lastly want to praise Shteyngart’s beauiful sense of the English language. The following passage is representative:
I remember reading the Times in the subway, folding it awkwardly while leaning against the door, caught up in the words, worried about crashing to the floor or tripping over some lightly clad beauty (there was always at least one), but even more afraid to lose the thread of the article in front of me, my spine banging against the train door, the clatter and drone of the massive machine around me, and me, with my words, brilliantly alone.
There are many other interesting threads: the US in receivership to Chinese investors, what happens should Chinese literature turn the ascendent form of art on Earth (“to write text is glorious!”), etc. The ideas are enchanting but satirical: less meant as thought experiments but more as Cassandra-like murmurs of logical conclusion. The book provides a fascinating setting for a complicated love story full of beautiful language and a love of New York City. It’s a fine book that I’ll not forget and would recommend.