Thursday, January 20, 2011

Books Stink: Super Sad True Love Story Review

Super Sad True Love Story: Immigrant love in dystopia
Gary Shteyngart goes over the top with his corporate satire, but his third novel still has bite

Toronto Star | August 21, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

On the Bookavore tumblr, an anonymous Brooklyn bookseller recently posted an “E-books Article Drinking Game.” Trigger phrases and their alcohol equivalents include “any discussion of book world after 2020 — one drink” and the debilitating “smell of a real book — clean out the liquor cabinet, drink until you pass out, wake up next morning, puke, then continue drinking.”

Meanwhile, in Super Sad True Love Story, anti-hero Lenny Abramov is forced to mask the odour of his formidable book collection with Pine-Sol Wild Flower Blast. In Gary Shteyngart’s satiric dystopia of the near future, books stink. Literally. (“Duder, that thing smells like wet socks,” notes an airplane passenger, referring to Lenny’s collection of Chekhov short stories.) But a crashing American dollar and the possible repossession of Manhattan by the Chinese means Lenny has bigger problems than the uncoolness of his antiquarian reading habits.

Shteyngart’s comic timing has always been exceptional, but with Super Sad he demonstrates his socio-cultural radar is equally well calibrated. Anticipating the triumph of our smartphone-addicted, attention-span deprived, Google-stupid culture, Shteyngart is less concerned about the future of the book (i.e. Kindle versus hardcover) and more focused on whether books have a future, period. (“Lenny Abramov, last reader on earth!” declares his friend Noah, over drinks at a popular new bar on Staten Island called Cervix.)

Although there is plenty of overlap between Super Sad and his previous two novels (especially Absurdistan), pushing the setting 15 minutes into the future helps make Shteyngart’s obsession with slang, sex, the Russian immigrant experience and the shortcomings of the American military-industrial-political-media complex appear fresh. Is his strategy is a success? This depends on whether you find such corporate monstrosities as LandO’LakesGMFord and ColgatePalmoliveYum!BrandViacomCredit hilarious or hokey.

Like many futuristic dystopias (Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or We by Yevgeny Zamyatin), the bleakness of Super Sad’s over-surveillanced and politically restrictive America is relieved by a sweeping romance. But Shteyngart is only willing to allow Lenny partial happiness. As his semi-girlfriend Eunice Park explains in a quasi-diary entry on Facebook-of-the-future site GlobalTeens, “he’s gross physically, but there’s something sweet about him.”

Although the novel is told through the alternating journal entries of Lenny and Eunice, their romantic chemistry is never entirely explained. Opposites attract, but 39-year-old Lenny and 24-year-old Eunice are less a couple than an engineered way of highlighting the novel’s major tensions. That said, their ongoing relationship is messy, complicated, argument-ridden and complicated by past obsessions and emotional scars — which is to say, entirely believable.

Since the novel’s title functions as an obvious spoiler, suspense is instead generated by Lenny’s tenuous job prospects at the Post-Human Services division of Staatling-Wapachung (a company that promises immortality to those who can afford it) and ongoing corporate intrigue. As befits a novel with Super Sad in its title, Shteyngart eventually stops cracking jokes as the country he loves starts to crumble for the last time.

Can a novel filled with references to TotalSurrender panties and a website called AssLuxury also serve as a serious work of cultural and political commentary? Duder, I’m not entirely convinced. Can an author successfully mock our rapidly depleting attention spans through the creaky medium of the novel? Duder, yes. And for such audacity Shteyngart deserves to be read —preferably in a quiet room, in a few sittings and without the compelling but empty distractions of Facebook, Twitter and iPhone.