Super Sad True Love Story
Gary Shteyngart (Random House 2010)
I know. Horrid book jacket design. It’s like some dusty, smelly thing from 1972 that you would find in the attic, perhaps the fiction-riddled memoirs of some long-forgotten starlet crying out to be remembered. Take the jacket off and throw it away, for what lies within is a wonderful novel. Clever, absorbing, prophetic, hilarious and poignant.
“I am never going to die. Never, never, never, never. And you can go to hell for doubting me.”
These words are enthusiastically and defiantly entered into the journal of one Lenny Abramov at the start of Super Sad True Love Story, and he means them. He has every intention of fulfilling this dream, with the aid of the life-extending company he works for. It is a dream that has enchanted mankind likely from the very moment after self-awareness came into being. It’s why we love vampires, and often blindly embrace the concept of eternal life after we have shuffled off this mortal coil, despite all logical doubts to the contrary.
As universal as the inherent yearning for immortality resides within us is, however, the following question must eventually arise: Why do you think you would be happier if you could live forever? The immediate response is likely that it’s a no-brainer, but if contemplated seriously for just a few moments, the simple obvious answer slowly begins to recede and become hazy.
Lenny, a likable schmuck, is insulted and degraded often throughout the story, once being told vehemently that “Mediocrities like you deserve to live forever!” Could being sentenced to eternal life actually be a fate worse than death? Woody Allen once proclaimed that he doesn’t wish to achieve immortality through his work, that he wants to achieve immortality through not dying. Be careful what you wish for, Woody. Maybe you hadn’t considered the possibility quite as deeply as such a profound desire warrants.
The questioning of immortality’s ultimate logic hums along as background noise throughout Super Sad, forever present but deep enough that the reader isn’t always conscious of it. Certainly, it’s not a concern to Lenny. He’s approaching middle age and feels like a failure. He sees youth and beauty at every turn, mocking his thinning greying hair, slumping shoulders and deepening awareness of his own eventual demise. By the time he learns he has the opportunity to live indefinitely, no such worries about the consequences enter his mind.
The story is set in the Manhattan of a world that has progressed, for lack of a better word, a decade or two beyond our current one, after having followed a path that seems entirely possible, if not probable, based on our current course. A political party known as the Bipartisans are at the helm of the US government, and that may be the most outlandish of all the predictions.
Much more reasonable assumptions include the war with Venezuela, the Chinese domination of American currency and therefore America, and the public display of everyone’s most personal details at the fingertips of everyone else via their äppäräti (handheld devices that will tell you, based on facial recognition, everything from a neighbour’s cholesterol level to her fuckability rating). Lenny is a neo-Luddite to a certain degree. He prefers reading books than spending time with his äppärät, a hobby that is looked down upon in his world. The fact that his own fuckability rating is far below average may contribute to that. Of the äppärät, he decries that it knows “every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.”
These near-future predictions all seem disturbingly realistic, yet none are presented with a heavy hand. Nothing in Super Sad is. It is a viciously funny book. Shteyngart has a wicked wit and his unease with the future we face is presented with biting satire. He also happens to have the ability to form his thoughts, his sentences and paragraphs, into beautiful, flowing passages that could be read for the sheer love of language, even if they didn’t connect to build an interesting story. The fact that they do is merely icing on the cake.
We also become familiar with soon-to-merge mega-corporations such as ColgatePalmoliveYum!BrandsViacom, and new texting acronyms like JBF (just butt-fucking) instead of the old familiar ‘jk’. Everything about Shteyngart’s vision is familiar, which helps to make it all so eerily plausible. Most of the characters reside in this world with the nonchalance of kids today who don’t recall a time without internet or cell phones. Lenny is different.
Lenny is more old fashioned, and he’s not an original character. We’ve met him many times. He is Willy Loman. He is Winston Smith. He is Rick Blaine, Terry Malloy, a dozen hapless Jerry Lewis characters and Ernest Borgnine’s Marty. He’s every man who has felt the bitter loneliness of unrequited love, who is an ordinary man forced to endure the trials of an unjust world, who yearns to not go gently into that good night, yet lives a life of quiet desperation. Lenny is us. We can live vicariously through him, and cheer him on as he fights to avoid going to the grave, whether the song is still in him or not.
He falls in love with a young woman, possibly more in love with the ‘young’ than the ‘woman.’ She’s fifteen years his junior. He feels she is out of his league, and she agrees. She is upfront about her lack of love for him, yet her occasional tenderness gives him hope that he can change that. He is determined to make her love him whether she wants to or not. She teaches him to not be so much of a nerd while he strives to become her source of strength, her rock, or perhaps something softer. He writes in his journal:
“I relished the opportunity to observe her behind, which sat humbly, almost unnecessarily, atop two sturdy legs. I wondered how she could survive in the world without an ass. Everyone needs a cushion. Perhaps I could be that for her.”
Super Sad is the account of that unlikely-to-succeed love affair amid a broken America, and a place where if love is not eternal, at least existence might be.
I greatly look forward to reading Shteyngart’s next effort, but only if the publisher hires a new jacket artist. LOL, JBF.