Set in a near future as absurd as it is familiar, Super Sad True Love Story depicts a narcissistic America, drunk on credit, obsessed with youth, and largely ignorant of its relationship with the rest of the world. The government is run by the monolithic Bipartisan party, and no one much cares what the military does in Venezuela so long as the never ending stream of hypnotic information keeps scrolling across their “äppäräti.” It’s funny the way Russian literature, blight, or accidental death can be funny.
I’d call it dystopian literature except that in many ways Shteyngart’s novel doesn’t go far enough in reimagining our world to qualify. “Äppäräti” are juiced up smart phones, new fashions are obscenely revealing, and everyone loves shopping. Dystopian literature shows us our world is stranger than we imagined by drawing out similarities with a world that appears unrecognizable on its surface; Super Sad True Love Story pretty much shows us our world exactly like it is, only worse.
For all the elaborate trappings of its near future setting, Super Sad True Love Story is less affecting as satire than (like the title suggests) as a oddly simple love story. Lenny Abramov, an aging, balding book addict with dreams of immortality falls for Eunice Park, a twenty-something Korean-American beauty and a true product of her times, image obsessed, outwardly confident, inwardly self-loathing. That Shteyngart manages to cut compelling characters from these types is a testament to his talents as a writer; that Lenny and Eunice manage to find consolation in each other is a testament to the strangeness of intimacy.
Lenny and Eunice first meet at a party in Rome right before Lenny returns to the States. They spend the night together, an event which he considers a religious experience, but which she sees as a “lesser evil” than going home with another older guy at the party. Lenny invites her to live with him in New York that same night. Eunice accepts only after this other thing she has going with a guy in Rome falls apart, so why not move in with an almost stranger who worships her rather than returning to her abusive father and cowed mother in Fort Lee?
It’s not the most promising beginning in the history of romance, except that it turns out to be exactly what they both want. Eunice tries to explain her decision to a friend:
When we were walking down this pretty street in Rome I noticed Lenny’s shirt was buttoned all wrong, and I just reached over and rebuttoned it. I just wanted to help him be less of a dork. Isn’t that a form of love too?… I think of him going down on me until he could barely breathe, the poor thing, and the way I could just close my eyes and pretend we were both other people.
Eunice wants to believe that people can change, and Lenny wants to be changed. He wants her to grant him some of her apparent ease in a world out of which he is rapidly aging; he wants her to make him “less of a dork.” His willingness to give himself to her transforms desperation into heroism, because in his heart he believes he can save her too.
On the morning Eunice arrives from Rome, Lenny gives himself a little pep talk:
Lenny, I said aloud. You are not going to screw this up. You’ve been given a chance to help the most beautiful woman in the world. You must be good, Lenny. You must not think of yourself. Only of this little creature before you. Then you will be helped in turn… if you show her that adult love can over come childhood pain, then both of you will be shown the kingdom.
The exchange between Lenny’s openness and Eunice’s guardedness drives the novel through personal and geopolitical disasters, and the possibility that two terribly matched people could find solace in each other (even a doomed solace) amidst a crumbling world is the novel’s most powerful statement. Many of the other characters you could’ve set on fire, and I might not have noticed. (In fact, some of them do go up in flames.) But Lenny and Eunice create something between themselves that I won’t soon forget.
Similar reads:Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, and The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken