Okay — I’m not even going to pretend like I understood what-all was going on here.
Lenny Abramov has issues. Fresh from a stint in Rome in the not-so-distant future, his attempt to re-enter the U.S. is met with suspicion and derision — especially as he finds America a changed place from when he left. No longer a super power, his homeland is under China’s thumb. The American dollar is so devalued it basically ceases to exist. Riots are exploding across the country, reducing the once-great nation to a disaster zone, and everyone exists in a virtual reality through iPhone-like devices that might as well be surgically attached to their hands. Oh, and they’re half naked while doing it — sex is as accessible as Coca Cola on every street corner in America.
Basically, things suck.
The only bright spot in 39-year-old Lenny’s failing existence is Eunice Park, a nubile first-generation American (like Lenny!) who manages to put up with him long enough to gain free shelter at his New York City apartment. Moderately grossed out by Lenny’s age, poor dental care and unfortunate balding pattern, Eunice sticks around long enough to lap up his obsessive care for her as the country goes to pot. And Lenny has to decide where and how to weather the storm . . .
Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is the weirdest book I’ve read in ages. Alternating between Lenny’s diary entries and transcripts of Eunice’s online conversations with her sister, mother and best friend, the story depicts a frighteningly weakened America. And honestly, it stressed me out.
Look, I can get down with a good dystopian read. I enjoy thinking about how society will evolve in years to come and whether the world will someday be one I’d recognize. What’s creepy about Shteyngart’s almost-too-cool-for-school rendition of our homeland is that it’s . . . well, realistic. The nationwide obsession with “apparati,” the higher-tech version of a smartphone, is eerily familiar. Our dependence on China’s credit to bail us out of endless financial crises? The doing-away of separate political parties, leaving us with one scary and irresponsible “bipartisan” form of leadership? Skimpy garments like onion-skin jeans that leave nothing to the imagination?
We can see it all, of course.
I listened to Super Sad True Love Story on audio, and maybe that was a bad call. It seemed like a frightening radio broadcast, coating the interior of my car with wails akin to, “The world as you know it is ending!” Given I’m high-strung on a good day, Shteyngart’s novel — occasionally funny, usually creepy — left me with the sour, metallic taste of bad fortune in my mouth. It wasn’t hopeful or uplifting (not that I’d have expected that — you know, given the title). And though it’s just fiction, it’s not a stretch to imagine some of the more disturbing moments appearing as headlines on tomorrow’s news. (If newspapers exist. Which they probably won’t. [If I had a nickel for every time someone said that to me, a newspaper columnist . . .])
But beyond all the dystopian elements, we have the titular love story: presumably the one between Lenny and Eunice. If you can call it that. Eunice is young, shallow, sarcastic and hurtful, and Lenny is desperate, eccentric and emotionally stunted. Their union is obviously toxic, but Lenny is so physically attracted to lithe Eunice he can’t help himself. No matter that she barely lets him touch her, and when he does? It seems born of pity and boredom. Shteyngart’s intimate scenes are so factual and awkward.
Lenny, who works in the business of helping people “live forever,” is constantly grappling with a between-two-worlds mentality; his parents are hardened Russian immigrants who want to see their beloved Lenny settle down with a nice Jewish girl. When he shows up with Eunice, a far cry from the woman they’d imagined for a daughter-in-law, things don’t go as planned. And Lenny begins to understand that what he feels for Eunice, real though he feels it must be, isn’t quite real enough.
That’s a phrase that really jumped out at me, especially in the latter half of the novel: Lenny declaring that life — its experiences; its triumphs; its pains — is “real enough.” Not real as in an authentic experience, but real enough. Sort of a caricature of real life. What a sad state of affairs for us, a people increasingly dependent on devices to feel like we’re “living.”
Fans of contemporary fiction, dystopian stories, love stories gone awry and novels analyzing American society will find plenty to discuss, snort at and ponder. Though it ultimately wasn’t a story I could say I enjoyed, I did find the book interesting and listened to the end. Shteyngart’s brand of dark humor can be appealing, though it ultimately left me feeling cold and uncomfortable. Yes, it was “super sad.”
3 out of 5!