July 26, 2010
Love Found Amid Ruins of Empire
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI, New York Times
SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY
By Gary Shteyngart
334 pages. Random House. $26.
Gary Shteyngart’s wonderful new novel, “Super Sad True Love Story,” is a supersad, superfunny, superaffecting performance — a book that not only showcases the ebullient satiric gifts he demonstrated in his entertaining 2002 debut, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” but that also uncovers his abilities to write deeply and movingly about love and loss and mortality. It’s a novel that gives us a cutting comic portrait of a futuristic America, nearly ungovernable and perched on the abyss of fiscal collapse, and at the same time it is a novel that chronicles a sweetly real love affair as it blossoms from its awkward, improbable beginnings.
Mr. Shteyngart spent his earliest childhood in Leningrad, then moved with his family to the United States, and “Super Sad” reflects his dual heritage, combining the dark soulfulness of Russian literature with the antic inventiveness of postmodern American writing; the tenderness of the Chekhovian tradition with the hormonal high jinks of a Judd Apatow movie. This novel avoids the pretensions and grandiosity of Mr. Shteyngart’s last book, “Absurdistan,” even as it demonstrates a new emotional bandwidth and ratifies his emergence as one of his generation’s most original and exhilarating writers.
“Super Sad” takes as its Romeo and Juliet, its Tristan and Iseult, a middle-aged sad sack named Lenny Abramov and a much younger beauty named Eunice Park. He is the son of Russian immigrants, she the daughter of Korean immigrants, and for all their differences, both are afflicted by a lack of self-esteem — insecurities manifested in Lenny’s self-deprecating humor, his compulsive need to try to make others like him, and in Eunice’s bouts of anger and self-loathing, her fear that nothing she cares about can really last. Both are burdened with their striving parents’ unbearable expectations, and both are plagued by unlucky experiences in love. Slowly, haltingly, nervously, they begin to forge a partnership they hope will keep them safe in an unsafe world.
“Super Sad” takes place in the near future, and Mr. Shteyngart has extrapolated every toxic development already at large in America to farcical extremes. The United States is at war in Venezuela, and its national debt has soared to the point where the Chinese are threatening to pull the plug. There are National Guard checkpoints around New York, and riots in the city’s parks. Books are regarded as a distasteful, papery-smelling anachronism by young people who know only how to text-scan for data, and privacy has become a relic of the past. Everyone carries around a device called an äppärät, which can live-stream its owner’s thoughts and conversations, and broadcast their “hotness” quotient to others. People are obsessed with their health — Lenny works as a Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) for a firm that specializes in life extension — and shopping is the favorite pastime of anyone with money.
It’s “zero hour for our economy,” says one of Lenny’s friends, “zero hour for our military might, zero hour for everything that used to make us proud to be ourselves.”
But while Mr. Shteyngart’s descriptions of America have a darkly satiric edge, his descriptions of New York are infused with a deep affection for the city that is partly nostalgia for a vanished metropolis (in other words, Gotham as we know it today) and partly an immigrant’s awestruck love for a place mythologized by books and songs and movies, by everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra. He writes, for instance, of the “melancholy 20th-century light” of a summer’s day that can make “even the most prosaic, unloved buildings” appear “bright and nuclear at the edge of your vision.”
In another chapter he conjures the green paradise of Central Park as seen through lovers’ eyes: an Edenic expanse of trees and grass amid the city’s glass and stone. “We headed south,” Lenny says of a walk with Eunice, “and when the trees ran out, the park handed us over to the city. We surrendered to a skyscraper with a green mansard roof and two stark chimneys. New York exploded all around us, people hawking, buying, demanding, streaming. The city’s density caught me unprepared, and I reeled from its imposition, its alcoholic fumes, its hubris, its loud, dying wealth.”
As recounted in Lenny and Eunice’s own slangy diaries and their e-mail and text messages, their relationship is like a country song — a ballad of longing turning into love turning into loss. For him, it’s a case of love at first sight. For her, it takes a little longer: She has to persuade herself that Lenny’s schlubby looks don’t matter, that his devotion to her is real. Eunice worries that Lenny’s belief that “niceness and smartness always win” in the end is hopelessly naïve, while he worries that her oppressive childhood has made her brittle and mistrustful.
Slowly, however, she falls in love with her “sweet emperor penguin,” and step by step, they begin to negotiate the emotional and familial minefields that threaten their budding romance. But even as they do, the world around them is crumbling. There are riots involving LNWI’s (Lower Net Worth Individuals) and rogue elements of the National Guard. New York, Los Angeles and Washington are put on red alert, and when everyone’s äppärät stops working, there are rumors that Venezuela or China has detonated “a Nonnuclear Electromagnetic Pulse” in the atmosphere. Eunice is unable to reach her family in New Jersey or her best friend, Jenny, in California, and Lenny fears for his parents on Long Island.
“Things were going to get better,” Lenny writes. “Someday. For me to fall in love with Eunice Park just as the world fell apart would be a tragedy beyond the Greeks.”
In recounting the story of Lenny and Eunice in his antic, supercaffeinated prose, Mr. Shteyngart gives us his most powerful and heartfelt novel yet — a novel that performs the delightful feat of mashing up an apocalyptic satire with a genuine supersad true love story.