In a novel set in the near future, when a beautiful, yet cruel, woman that Lenny Abramov met in Italy says she his coming to stay with him in New York, even the tanks and soldiers stationed in the city and the ongoing war with Venezuela can't get him down.
America is now a police state and bankrupt, with the devaluated dollar pegged to the Chinese yuan. The only thing more important than being young and beautiful in this society is having a good line of credit, being an active consumer and being plugged into the latest model äppärät at all times. A futuristic smart-phone-like device which, presumably to reflect how much room it takes in people's lives, also takes lots of room in the novel, the äppärät allows strangers to view each others personal information and history, including the all-important credit ranking, places of study, employment and residence, sexual preferences, and desirability score, actually referred to as 'f***ability score', in keeping with the general unsubtle attitude toward sex in this society. To wit, the latest fashions include nipple-less bras and 'onionskin jeans' which leave nothing to the imagination. The only thing that Lenny loves more than his 740 square-feet condo in downtown Manhattan and its wall of books—now out of print since nobody reads anymore—is Eunice Parks, a beautiful, slender, superficial and cruel twenty-four year-old Korean girl. Undeterred by the continuous jibes she throws his way about being a nerd and an unattractive loser, our sweet-natured Lenny is convinced that he can help Eunice become a kinder and gentler person simply by loving her with everything he's got.
The book is told from their individual point of view, with Lenny's diary entries alternating with transcripts of Eunice's personal incoming and outgoing communications with her mother and sister, and also her best friend, whom she affectionately calls names most appropriately used in porno-speak, which is apparently the way all young people communicate with each other in a society where pornography has been completely assimilated into the mainstream. Things become dangerous when bands of LNWI (low net worth individuals) try to mount an uprising and are violently quashed by the national guard and the whole country enters in a state of emergency.
I'm having a hard time deciding what I thought about this book. There's no question that it was entertaining. No question either that it was disturbing, as it was intended to be, with Shteyngart describing a future which is not that far removed from the realm of likely possibilities. It was slow going as far as the reading of it went, in large part because of the language used, with countless expressions and acronyms that are a common mode of communication in a visuals-driven society where 'talking' is now referred to as 'verballing'. This book was given to me as a Christmas present along with a gift receipt in case I didn't find it to be quite my thing, and take this as you will, but I've decided to take advantage of the store's generous no-questions-asked return policy and exchange it for something that I'm likely to find ultimately more satisfying. I was going to give a lower rating, but gave this book three stars in the end because of the sheer entertainment factor.
I like my futures either totally awesome or complete shit. Jetsons or the Road. The idea that we will be doing basically the same shit in the future, just with better resolution and faster connections, is very likely, very realistic, and highly uninteresting. After awhile I was reading a couple pages and saying, "Yeah, I get it. We are still assholes in the future, and we still don't really want to talk to anyone and still sort of do. Message received. Let's have a story now."
I have terribly mixed feelings about this book. On the negative side -- and it's a pretty hard-to-ignore negative -- are the main characters, Lenny and Eunice. She's shallow, he's a born loser, and their love story is less "super sad" and more just plain pathetic, based as it is almost entirely on mutual neediness and low self-esteem. I know complaining about this may seem like missing the point, as I'm sure we're meant to identify with their human weaknesses and to long for them to grow to the point where they're capable of something more mature. But that's a bit difficult when when you find yourself actively disinclined to extend the characters any sympathy. This really shouldn't have happened, as Lenny, at least, is a character I ought to be able to relate to. He's a bookish, thoughtful person in a world where those things aren't valued, and that's a pretty good description of my life back in junior high. Unfortunately, though, when we first meet him, he's cultivating a creepy, vaguely stalkerish obsession with Eunice in the wake of a tawdry and unsatisfying one-night stand, making a conscious and concentrated effort to refocus his entire life around a self-serving fantasy version of a woman he barely knows. Then he badgers her to come to him, despite her obvious lack of interest, until she finally gives in just because she needs a place to stay. And, yeah... I don't care how common this sort of thing is in literature, for me it's disturbing and unpleasant in a way that there's just really no recovering from. Ever. It doesn't matter how much Shteyngart later tries to portray Lenny as really rather romantic and sweet, in his own dorkish way. As far as I'm concerned it falls on deaf ears, and any possible connection or empathy I might have felt for the guy is dead before it's begun.
Remarkably enough, though, Shteyngart actually makes a pretty good run at writing a book I'm capable of truly enjoying despite my principled distaste for the main characters. From the very first page, I was delighted by the liveliness and intelligence of the writing and impressed by the deftness of the satire, which manages to blend a little bit of the pleasantly ridiculous with a whole lot of the frighteningly plausible. The novel almost managed to support itself on the strength of that alone for about a hundred pages or so, but, alas, eventually it reached the point where the freshness started to wear off and I began to feel impatient with it. It did get better towards the end, when the plot gains some unexpected heft, but sadly it never did quite recapture that initial charm. Which is somewhat frustrating, because I can easily imagine a version of this story that I would have loved unreservedly.
While this book cleverly skewers material and electronic obsessed urbanites, tilts at the windmills of politics and society… I can’t help but feel I’ve read it before. Shteyngart is a gifted writer, but I wish he would give us a more substantial story, a character with more soul than his usual sad sack Russian Jewish slob.
The story reminded me a little bit of a 21st century Woody Allen. But the writing felt very gimmicky.
At one point when I was reading this disturbing satirical look at a possible American future, I just thought, “Wait! How did we get there from here? How did we get from the America I know to a totalitarian nation on the verge of financial and
Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is provoking some strong responses. It’s polarizing. It’s disturbing. It IS funny, but you know how humor is, so subjective. What I find uproarious, you’ll find imbecilic. As a great man said, “So it goes.” Perhaps one of the reasons the novel is so provocative is that despite the absurd humor and the extremity of Shteyngart’s vision, his satirical eye is dead on. He’s got us pegged.
As for the plot, it’s an epistolary novel, a romance related from the pages of Lenny Abramov’s diary and Eunice Park’s emails and instant messages. Poor, sweet, neurotic Lenny. He’ll never be the best looking guy in the room, but he has other redeeming qualities. He’s kind, sincere, loving, fiscally responsible, a reader and a thinker. Unfortunately, 39-year-old Lenny lives in an aggressively vulgar and illiterate culture that is obsessed with youth, beauty, and consumerism. The object of his affection is the much younger, much hotter Eunice. It’s an unlikely match, but I was actually touched as the relationship progressed, all the while fearing for Lenny’s tender heart.
There is so much I could write about this novel! The fact that Lenny works in the indefinite life preservation industry, based on the idea that if you’re rich enough you never have to die. His boss, Joshie Goldman, is a post-adolescent septuagenarian. The fact that LNWI (Low Net Worth Individuals) have formed a tent city in Central Park, and there are armed National Guardsmen all over the New York. The very idea of privacy is essentially a thing of the past. Everyone wears a device that simultaneously connects them online and broadcasts the most intimate details of their lives, and people—lliterally—feel they can’t live without the constant stream of data. The dystopian near future that Shteyngart has created is so rich and fully realized and so worthy of contemplation and discussion. I can barely touch on the ideas he explores in a few paragraphs.
It is worth mentioning just how strong his writing is as well. Even in the midst of the tortured language used by his characters, I found his prose to be a joy to read. There were interesting subtleties to the end of the novel, and I’m not completely sure I understood everything. Rather than weaken the ending, I find this to be a strength. I’ll be pondering Eunice’s decisions for some time, and look forward to discussing the end with friends. Yeah, this one’s going to stick with me for a while.
And yet in the midst of this (foreseeable) hilarity, there is the sweetest character I've ever known in print. Lenny Abramov, 39-years old and nearing death, works for a cell-regeneration company that can guarantee immortality to the very rich and very highly credit ranked. (Sadly, he doesn't qualify)
And Lenny falls in love.
Oh, Lenny, Oh, Lenny, Oh, Lenny
I highly recommend Super Sad True Love Story. (I've decided on a half star deduction from the full 5 stars because certain aspects of the story like otters and details of finance left me a tad bewildered. But, this book warrants a second reading, so I'm sure I'll come away with a full understanding next time)
The main character of the story is a middle aged man who is sad and lonely and doesn't really like the direction the world is heading, but doesn't know what to do about it. He wants real connection, but buys into the idea that he has to stay hip and up with the times to be happy and successful. There's a love story entwined in all of this, but it really is super sad, and not in a way that makes you feel good in the end, just kind of bummed out.
There were some moments of humorous satire, but overall the storyline wasn't that engaging, and the whole book just felt kind of lonely.
Super Sad True Love Story is set about 50 years in the future. The world is a super extreme version of aspects of
Set against this backdrop, the novel tells a love story in chapters that alternate between Lenny Abramov, a schlubby Jewish intellectual aspiring to immortality, and emails and chats from his much younger Korean girlfriend, Eunice Park. Both narrators are somewhat unreliable and the story moves along reasonably well, as the world around them disintegrates and a predictable triangle in their relationship appears.
The writing is hilarious and amazingly inventive, but has diminishing returns -- although never turning negative. And the plot is a decent enough scaffolding and keeps you interested from beginning to end. Overall, one of the best books of the year.
This book is indeed sad, but also funny and thought provoking. There were aspects of this book that were 5-star worthy, some more than 5-star worthy. Lenny is a beautifully drawn character. He is a 40 year old who is old before his time in a country that values nothing so highly as youth. I suspect Gary Shteyngart had an intimate understanding of Lenny. Which brings me to one aspect of the book that I did not like. This story set in the near-future (which was of course not based on a real near-future but very much 2008-09 blown up for satire's sake) read like the hand-wringing of a neurotic 70-year old with his "in my day" and "the kids these days have no work-ethic" and "we are going to hell in a handbasket", etc. In its chicken-littleness it is off-base in so many particulars. In this near future we are apparently so vulgar that we are going to be shopping at AssLuxury for Juicy Pussy clothing and watching amateur water sport porn for fun. Again, I get that its satire, but it really just seemed fussy and cranky. Books will be a thing of the past and language reduced to a pastiche of slang and simple declarative statements (and there is Shteyngart's Achilles heel) instead we'll only read streamed information off our mobiles. In this world no one needs people building their intellect or empathy through reading. New York will clearly divide its haves from its have-lesses and its have-nots, protecting people in Manhattan and "Brownstone Brooklyn" from the odious necessity of having to glimpse anything unpleasant. The only jobs available will be in healthcare aimed at eternal life, media (journalism is dead in this future, media is just content creation), banking, and retail. Some of these things have a grain of truth in them, but its a grain. The one really interesting idea is that China and the Netherlands will call in their markers and own our asses. That might happen. But other than the impact on the monetary system (the dollar becomes meaningless unless its a form of the currency linked to the Yuan.) Shteyngart does not fully explore what that will mean, our domination by foreign powers. The monetary issue is huge, but there are other things that would come with loss of control, and I don't think Shteyngart handled that well. In the book the US has become militarized, life in some ways being like I imagine it is in North Korea and noticeably what it was like in China when I lived there in the 80's and 90's. Maybe I was supposed to assume everything was being controlled by despotic foreign powers, but as far as I could tell it was just a despotic American president who was in cahoots with the money guys. But though I think those were all missed opportunities to tighten up the story, it was the way in which Shteyngart spoke of men and women in this imagined future that ruined part of the book for me.
Apparently in the future gender interactions will tumble back to the 50's, except the women will fuck more, or at least more openly (there are no gender or sexuality fluid people in this future other than one gay man who does videos where he talks while being pounded in the ass [that is for the Chuck Tingle fans out there] by a large person for the entertainment of all and sundry.) Men in Shteyngart's invented world value women only for their youth and their hyper thin bodies. We hear over and over about beautiful Eunice, Lenny's "love" and her obsession with losing some of her 87 pounds. Women work in retail while men work in media and banking. Mostly women shop. Yes, I do believe that Americans are lauded for excess consumption, and that over time that will be more true, but why is it only the women who shop? In the future women remain obsessed only with acquisition and obsessed with their muffin tops. Why? We are past that point now, is there a reason we regress in the future? Shteyngart completely dehumanizes every woman in the book. There are some he sees as maternal figures and others he sees as or potential sex partners and status symbols. That is all he sees them as - hollow shells defined only by the ways they can (actually or potentially) please him. To quote John Lydon, this is not a love song. Lenny never loves Eunice. Lenny loves that other men envy him and think more highly of him because he has snared a young and skinny woman. Eunice never loves Lenny. She loves having a father figure who, unlike her own father, protects her, or at least tries. I don't know, maybe that was part of the satire but I don't think so. I think Shteyngart wanted this to be a couple in love forced apart by the shadowy leaders and a country gone to hell. I just could not get past this because it was a factor on every single page. Dystopia is fine, but why does our dystopia turn women back into mere adornment for men?
But there is a second super-sad love story here that I did love, and that is Shteyngart's love for New York. Shteyngart writes so heart-squeezingly well about this city that I love, and some of the things he sees as threats to its soul are real. The concentration of wealth in a few. The elimination of programs like rent control and stabilization that made this city "small d" demoncratic. You can't live here without seeing the rich, the middle class, the working class, the poor. Its right there, and that ugliness is what makes the city perfect. That is something we are losing in favor of things being cleaner or not being offensive. Go ahead NY, offend me! Keep offending me, and I will offend you right back. That right there is the good stuff, and there are a lot of people trying to change that and Gary and I, we are going to just stay and keep loving this place until its ours again. Even in his dystopian fantasy, Shteyngart finds moments to appreciate the city's magic. I was walking downtown on Fifth Ave today and as I passed The Pierre I was suddenly in this moment in the book where Shteyngart says “We headed south, and when the trees ran out, the park handed us over to the city. We surrendered to a skyscraper with a green mansard roof and two stark chimneys. New York exploded all around us, people hawking, buying, demanding, streaming..” (I had to riffle through the book to find this exact quote when I got home because it is perfect). "The park handed us over," damn that man can write.
So I have written a lot, and sometimes when I write it helps me cement my feelings about a book, but I am still conflicted. I am going with a four, but I believe that is many ways this book fails and is also almost violently misogynistic. (Notwithstanding the fact that Lenny and Eunice tell us repeatedly how much he enjoys cunnilingus. While that is a lovely attribute, it does not automatically mean you don't devalue and dehumanize women. And I could have stood to hear less about the face to genital experience of giving Eunice head,) In other ways I think this is one of the best 21st century books I have read. Maybe the reason for the good and the bad is that in some ways this is a late 20th century book wedged into the 21st century. Ach, I don't know, I need to keep thinking. I can say without question this is worth the time and effort.
Chekhov's short stories begin as comedy but then can break your heart revealing just enough of the true feelings behind the characters. Must be a Russian thing :o)
The truth is on display in nearly every word, especially in the sections composed by the young heroine. I found myself adopting the vocabulary of the book not only in my internal monologue but in my speech. Again, Shteyngart anticipates what hip and efficient world that is to come by creating vocabulary which could be well utilized in our world, if only our shame didn’t prevent us from being so blunt.
The primacy given to relationships and the importance of physical place function as a phenomenal critique of our Gnostic world, which, in the end, doesn’t bring the reader to a redemptive place, but to be fair, it never claims to be anything but a sad story.
The only significant criticism I have of the work is its epilogue. Part two of this section was particularly offensive--like having DaVinci writing analysis of the Mona Lisa on the work’s canvas. (I apologize, that last metaphor is horribly obtuse, and certainly unworthy in a review of writing that is so unlike that.)
And for Eunice and Lenny.. They are pretty self occupied people and their love, if it really was love, is not super sad true but rather super
So "Super Sad True Love Story" was sort of a surprise for me. The book seems to be a geometric projection of the least-beneficial elements of globalization on the American landscape: environmental degradation, income inequality, the loss of manufacturing jobs, the rise of digital culture. It is, in other words, Absurdistan's flip-side. Lenny Abramov, the book's nebbishy, insecure main character, often comes off as the mirror image of the wealthy, shameless, sybarite that he built "Absurdistan" around. Does it work? Sometimes, I think. Shteyngart's parodies of social media's weird, chirpy argot and post-9/11 government doublespeak often spot-on and funny for all the wrong reasons. He also seems to sense the cruelty hidden in the specific ways in which many Americans strive for power, money, youth, status, and recognition: "Super Sad True Love Story" is what happens when "Lookin' Out for Number One" gets taken to its logical extreme. Even so, a profound middle-aged crankiness pervades this book: the novel might as well have been titled "Kids These Days." It might not be entirely unconnected to the author's advancing age, and, if the jacket photo is any indication, severe male-pattern baldness. We see most of its main characters, with the notable exception of the young, radiant Eunice Park, celebrate milestones that usually celebrate the coming of middle age: marriages, babies, a withdrawal from "the scene." He doesn't make it seem easy. But I also think that Shteyngart underestimates how often young people yearn for time periods they never knew. Young people aren't always futurists, after all: did he miss all those suspenders and elaborately waxed mustaches as he was walking around Brooklyn? The coming of a digital culture only means that a large-ish sector of the population will romanticize paper books and handwritten notes, just as people have been fetishizing the "warm" sound of vinyl records ever since compact discs became available.
"Super Sad True Love Story" also seems be asking itself how we can tell the difference between what's ephemeral and what really stays with us. As a unified American identity slides out of view, the main character seems to spend more time considering his stolid, unchanging parents and their Russian/Jewish heritage: an island of physical and cultural stability in a sea of chaos. In the same vein, the book also seems to be a love letter to a socially promiscuous, defiantly multicultural New York which might also be fading from view thanks to the unofficial segregation brought on by sharply diverging income levels. While this is a political book, it's tone is often more melancholy than hectoring, and it's anything but optimistic. Lenny Abramov is, after all, one of New York's last remaining readers. "Super Sad True Love Story" sometimes seems like a book that asks why we should write literature and comes up with few answers. It's a good thing, then, that Shteyngart's prose can be so good: it's got a natural flowing, lyricism, a drop-dead precision to it that makes its most annoying characters' musings seem important and worth reading. Maybe sometimes old guys are worth listening to sometimes, huh?