Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Gary Shteyngart. Super Sad True Love Story

I'm rarely as irritated by a book as I was by Shteyngart's dystopia. I'm also rarely as respectful of one. When I reviewed this book for The Sunday Guardian I had to hold myself back. Because however fine a writer he is (and he is one) and however well-conceived his dystopia (and it mostly is, very) he's still the sort of writer who needs you to know that he knows that he's writing yet another love story about a middle-aged man and a beautiful young girl.

This doesn't stop Super Sad True Love Story from occasionally being quite gorgeous, though.


It is perhaps rather obvious that dystopic fiction should structure itself around the fears of its contemporary society. Orwell’s 1984 (the dystopia everyone has read), for example, deals with constant surveillance by an all-powerful state that has taken over even language.

One of 2010’s biggest theatrical releases was The Social Network, a film whose reception said a lot about the centrality of Facebook to our lives. In India, 2010 also saw the release of Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex aur Dhokha, a film about social voyeurism and the media. In 2010 it’s not Big Brother who is watching you: it’s everyone.

This is certainly the case in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, a dystopian satire in a world where all information about a person is constantly available to those around him. People own apparats, devices to link them to social networks wherever they are. Everyone around you knows your financial status, personal history and “fuckability” rating. It is in this world that middle-aged, hopelessly unfashionable Lenny Abramov falls in love with the much-younger, beautiful Eunice Park. As their relationship progresses, so do larger world political events. Until America falls apart.

The novel uses various formats in order to tell this story, shifting from Lenny’s diary entries to Eunice’s emails and chat transcripts. Lenny’s keeping of a written, personal diary is, like his habit of reading physical copies of books, very unusual in a world where books may not be banned, but are unfashionable enough that most people believe they smell bad. Both Lenny and Eunice experience genuine difficulty in reading, and Lenny has had to re-train himself to write. Interestingly Shteyngart has said (in an interview with the Paris Review) that one of his reasons for choosing this particular narrative style, with the text broken up into short sections with different formats, was that he believed people nowadays find it hard to read a book cover to cover – that we’re no longer as equipped to read books as we once were. This will become the novel’s biggest flaw.

Lenny is an interesting narrator. His many flaws are visible throughout the text. This is the sort of man who uses the word “eponymous” a page into beginning his narrative, and a couple of pages later is gushing about “the Baroque architecture of twentysomething buttocks”. He is attracted to women with tragic pasts – particularly victims of child abuse.

His feelings for Eunice arise naturally out of the sort of person that Lenny is. Early in the book he describes her as a “nano-sized woman who had likely never known the tickle of her own pubic hair, who lacked both breast and scent”. He attempts to convince himself that “the woman I had fallen for is thoughtful and bright”, but it comes across merely as an attempt to convince himself of his own lack of shallowness. He claims that “for me to fall in love with Eunice Park just as the world fell apart would be a tragedy beyond the Greeks”. When the tragedy comes, however, it is not the loss of this relationship that is affecting but the loss of many others.

Lenny’s relationship with his friends, for example. One of the few positives that Shteyngart’s dystopia allows for is that this “permissive” age allows for more physical closeness among men who “grew up with a fairly tense idea of male friendship”. With the rest of the world constantly tuning in honest conversation becomes difficult, but there’s never any doubt that there’s love there.

Eunice’s emails to her family and her friend “Grillbitch” (real name Jenny Kang) are equally moving. Perhaps because she’s younger and better able to communicate with technology, Eunice never seems to feel, as Lenny does, that the modern world makes it harder to communicate with her friends and there’s more honesty in her emails and chat transcripts than there ever is in Lenny’s private diary. Eunice grows and changes over the duration of the novel, and is in the end a far more sympathetic character.

Then there’s Lenny’s love of America. If this novel’s title were intended to refer to its narrator’s relationship with his country it would be quite understandable. Lenny commits himself to loving his country even as it collapses around him, and the sense of what has been, or is about to be, lost pervades the novel.
Every returning New Yorker asks the question: Is this still my city?
I have a ready answer, cloaked in obstinate despair: It is.
And if it’s not, I will love it all the more. I will love it to the point where it becomes mine again.

At the end of the novel, however, Shteyngart disappoints. He provides a frame narrative, and in it attempts to forestall a number of criticisms that might be made about the novel. That it is too much in the style of “the final generation of American “literary” writers”. That Eunice’s entries are preferable to “Lenny’s relentless navel-gazing”. It’s the sort of thing that might be intended to intimidate the reader into not making those criticisms herself – yet Shteyngart’s knowledge that these potential criticisms exist does not make them less true.

And this is ultimately my problem with Super Sad True Love Story. It is beautiful, it is smart, it is incredibly moving, but ultimately it does not trust its readers to read it. Shteyngart will cut the crusts and literally break his book into bite-sized pieces for his readers, and make for himself the criticisms they might have made. One of his fictional reviewers describes Lenny’s book as a “tribute to literature as it once was”. Super Sad True Love Story is the opposite; it’s a book for readers who are already in the dystopia that Shteyngart describes.

Here are a couple of other reviews: Sasha Nova at BSC, Patrick Hudson at The Zone, Deepanjana Pal at Mumbai Boss.


Geetha said...

It was great reading the story you have written... continue to see more of your blogs ...

Raam Pyari said...

I want to read the book after the reading the review!

Aishwarya said...

Raam Pyari - I'm glad!