As the title Super Sad True Love Story suggests, the love affair between Lenny Abramov, son of Russian immigrants, and Eunice Park, daughter of Korean immigrants, doesn't work out despite their "true love" for each other. But the title fails to telegraph the wry humor and exuberant inventiveness of this novel, which is set in the near future when the United States has been conquered financially by China, reading books has all but disappeared and military vets returning from the war with Venezuela have trouble getting paid. Lenny, at 39, is considered old, especially because he doesn't avail himself of the new treatments designed to thwart the aging process, and can't quite warm up to the gadgets that keep the young relentlessly connected. Eunice, 15 years younger, has taken on the abusive and tyrannical personality of her father, a podiatrist who is horrified when his daughter visits with an old white man — her "roommate" — in tow. Despite such impediments to true love, Lenny and Eunice fall for each other, at least until violence, social disorder and a well-preserved wealthy entrepreneur get in the way.
Gary Shteyngart's extrapolation of current trends conjures a future even more disturbing than science fiction set several millennia in the future. Young people not only have stopped reading, but also they consider paper books smelly and disgusting. They carry around a device call an apparat — a sort of super iPhone — which divulges the owner's net worth, sexual desirability and countless other personal details. Age-extension has enabled 70-year-old men to look like they're 30, while setting the body up for a new and horrible form of disintegration. And New York's parks have become havens for the homeless and dispossessed. And yet some things never change, such as the mutually dependent bond that forms between insecure people, the cryptic and vaguely obscene slang invented by young people, and the persistent tensions between parents and their adult children. Shteyngart's imagined world teems with surprises, and yet his story exerts a welcome old-fashioned tug on the heartstrings, making Super Sad also super endearing.
Lenny and Eunice seem hopelessly incompatible, just like the ingredients of Russian and Korean cuisine. The solution? Russian "Korean" salad. Leela Punyaratabandhu, creator of the food blog shesimmers.com, says she first noticed this dish while traveling through countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. She didn't try any, opting instead for sprat sandwiches, golubtsi, vareniki and other Baltic delights, but at a Kyrgyzstani restaurant in Chicago, where she lives, she tried a bite. "It was a life-changing experience," she says on her blog, "and most likely the Russian interpretation of something else that originated in East Asia." Whatever its origins, the marinated grated carrot tastes great by itself, but is also wonderful with coconut milk, she says.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send an e-mail to email@example.com. Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.