I can't remember the last time a book so often made me laugh out loud and scared the hell out of me — sometimes on the same page. • But Gary Shteyngart's new novel, the aptly titled Super Sad True Love Story, accomplishes an even rarer feat: It's a slashing satire with a warm heart.
Shteyngart honed his satirical knives in his first two critically acclaimed novels, The Russian Debutante's Handbook and Absurdistan. He sets Super Sad True Love Story in New York in an all-too-believable dystopic version of the very near future, where the U.S. economy is collapsing, the Bipartisan Party government is a front for megacorporations and someone called "the Chinese central banker," ubiquitous security forces demand your identification and in the next breath require you to deny the exchange took place. The must-have fashion is a brand of transparent jeans called Onionskins.
It's a world where privacy is passe, thanks in large part to a device called an apparat, a sort of smart phone on steroids. It not only provides its owner with a flood of data and images, but displays information about that owner — everything from credit ranking to cholesterol levels — to everyone in the vicinity and, in a painfully personalized version of American Idol, displays those observers' scoring of his personality and sexual attractiveness.
That's tough in a culture where the worship of youth and beauty is even more heightened than now, especially for one of the book's two main characters. Lenny Abramov describes himself as "slight": "Slightness is my curse in every sense. A so-so body in a world where only an incredible one will do." Worse, Lenny teeters on the brink of obsolescence: He's 39.
That's a real disadvantage at his workplace, the Post-Human Services division of the giant Staatling-Wapachung Corporation. Post-Human Services sells dechronification, a process that reverses aging and promises immortality. But it's a product its sales staff can't afford, a luxury available only to select HNWIs — High Net Worth Individuals — like its powerful CEO, Joshie, who despite his boyish name and easy bonhomie is not exactly the beloved father figure Lenny sees him as.
Youth and beauty are no problem for Eunice Park, the 24-year-old Lenny falls in love with. Another child of immigrants — Lenny's parents are Russian Jews, Eunice's are Korean Christians — she has little else in common with the man she affectionately calls "nerd-face." She's lovely, tiny (she weighs 80 pounds and frets about getting fat) and entirely a child of her times, her apparat practically a body part.
Their unlikely love story is told in alternating excerpts from Lenny's diary and Eunice's Globalteens account (think Facebook, cubed). Lenny's choice of the old-school form is of a piece with his literate, literary, self-aware style — no surprise for a man who retains the deeply unfashionable habit of owning and reading books. (One of his middle-aged friends is semi-famous for having written, as a young man, "one of the last novels to make it into print.")
As Eunice puts it in a message to a friend, "Anyway, what kind of freaked me out was that I saw Len reading a book. (No, it didn't SMELL. He uses Pine-Sol on them.) And I don't mean scanning a text like we did in Euro Classics with that Chatterhouse of Parma I mean seriously READING."
Most of Eunice's entries are exchanges with her best friend — their screen names are Euni-tard and Grillbitch, but they call each other "Precious Pony" and "Precious Panda" — that reveal both her youthful, consumerist superficiality and the sweet, loving girl she labors to conceal. After she and Lenny go to Central Park and see a camp of homeless people, she writes, "I swear to god I almost started bawling, but I didn't want to give Lenny the impression that I cared about something."
Those homeless people are an omen of dire changes. Their camp's numbers grow with protesting soldiers, just back from the U.S. war in Venezuela and angry because they haven't received promised bonuses. When all hell breaks loose in Central Park, Lenny and Eunice are in a hip bar in the Bronx surrounded by apparati, and Shteyngart nails the moment of experiencing disaster through the filter of media: "We absorbed the Images and as a group of like-incomed people felt the short bursts of existential fear. That fear was temporarily replaced by a surge of empathy for those who were nominally our fellow New Yorkers. . . . Finally, the fear and the empathy were replaced by a different knowledge. The knowledge that it wouldn't happen to us. That what we were witnessing was not terrorism. That we were of good stock. That these bullets would discriminate."
Lenny is way too optimistic there. The creeping dread that infiltrates the novel's first half blooms darkly in the second. Some things in this vision of the future haven't changed at all; Lenny's parents watch their favorite TV network, FoxLibertyUltra, which broadcasts, as the entire country is collapsing, "three ugly white men yelling at a pretty black man from all directions, while the words 'Gays to wed in NYC' flashed beneath them."
Other things, though, get much, much worse, and Shteyngart makes it all disturbingly convincing. Both satire and speculative fiction tend to be chilly forms; he displays a mastery of them in Super Sad Love Story yet never lets the tragic, wholly human bond between its lovers seem less than real.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.