Gary Shteyngart, Old Man
By Gary Shteyngart
Random House, 2010
A writer is given but one life, and there is therefore no point in writing several different novels. In the course of the time allotted to him, the novelist must create the one novel that is his, and it will therefore be a long one.
The Soviet literary critic Lidiia Ginzburg wrote this of Proust, but she might have been speaking for all of us, whether or not we are novelists. If Gary Shteyngart has spent the first decade of his career inventing and reinventing his own great American novel, then with his most recent Super Sad True Love Story, he has come the closest to perfecting it. All three of Shteyngart’s novels have been dystopian tales featuring American-Russian-Jewish male protagonists of approximately the author’s age (his first came out when he was 30; he is now 38). Each has involved an encounter between an underachieving latter day romantic protagonist and a corrupt power structure. All have trembled ever so slightly under the weight of Russian literature, and traces of Gogol, Goncharov, and Chekhov seep into the corners of their pages. All three of his novels have been virtuosic farces, in which liberal arts educations offer little preparation for a post-Cold War doomsday. All are brazen exemplars of post-ethnic comedy that gently mock naïve Americans who, longing to dismiss cultural difference, attempt to appropriate foreign identities and reclaimed racial epithets. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2003) found American recent college grads carousing in “Prava” (“The Paris of the Nineties”); Absurdistan (2006) took a Russian Jewish oligarch’s overweight son (a “sophisticate and melancholic”) to an imaginary former Soviet republic dominated by Halliburton. Super Sad True Love Story may be as gimmicky and as full of invented slang as Shteyngart’s last two novels, but this time the author steps beyond his practiced satire to create a deep and moving work about an individual’s relationship to his mortality.
The novel is set in a very near future in which people of all ages communicate via “Global Teens” accounts and pick up each other’s net worth, “fuckability” quotients, and “child-abuse” rankings on their personal devices (“äpäräti”). Shteyngart, as always, has his hand on the pulse of America’s collective anxieties, and if you squint hard enough his apocalyptic prophecy looks unsettlingly like the present. America’s employed sector tends to fall into three categories: credit, retail and media, and members of the latter (which bears no resemblance to investigative journalism) constantly stream their most personal conversations, thoughts, and political views from trendy bars on Staten Island (most young upwardly mobile types having fled the slums of Manhattan). Literature has been replaced by “text,” art by “images.” The corrupt Bi-partisan U.S. government has stopped protecting its citizens, the country is at war with Venezuela, and China and Norway are poised to take over the U.S.’s failing economy. A stock market crash leaves former credit employees in tent cities struggling to get a signal on ancient laptops; New York pedestrians live in fear of “credit poles” that flash their credit rankings for the street to see. Immigrants and their children fear finance-based deportation, and those Americans who are still solvent struggle to keep yuan-pegged dollars in the bank in the face of soaring prices and new fashion trends. Despite the ubiquity of äpäräti, reading has gone out of style. No one can tolerate the smell of books. Characters wear transparent “onionskin jeans” that flaunt their labial rings, the New York City Subway has been privatized.
America is in its death-throes, and even as it revels in material culture, it is catapulted toward an inevitable end as quickly as irreversibly as Lenny, the novel’s age obsessed 39-year-old protagonist, inches toward his own death. Lenny works for “Post-Human Services,” a life-extension organization located in a former synagogue, where an old Italian train marquee advertises its employees’ daily successes in passing for young:
Instead of the arrivi and partenze times of trains pulling in and out of Florence or Milan, the flip board displayed the names of Post-Human Services employees, along with the results of our latest physicals, our methylation and homocysteine levels, our testosterone and estrogen, our fasting insulin and triglycerides, and, most important, our “mood + stress indicators” which were always supposed to read “positive/playful/ready to contribute” but which, with enough input from competitive co-workers, could be changed to “one moody betch today” or “not a team playa this month.”
The workers hang out in an “eternity lounge” and, in generous moments, treat each other to blanched vegetables. Red wine is called “resveratrol.” The default tyranny of youth has marginalized anyone over the age of 30, and Lenny is terrified of his own obsolescence.
The novel is also a love story between the protagonist and elusive youth. Eunice Park, the 24-year-old Korean American object of Lenny’s desire, is youth personified. Her well-moisturized skin shows no sign of age, she shops online at “AssLuxury,” is up on the latest in äpärät technology, and is utterly unsure of herself. Whereas the female characters in Shteyngart’s past novels (Morgan in Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Rouenna in Absurdistan) are frustratingly two-dimensional, Eunice is endowed with a depth of thought that her male counterpart never learns to appreciate. The alternation between Lenny’s electronic diary entries and Eunice’s letters and instant messages adds texture to the story. The characters are brutally honest in a way that people have perhaps only become in our own confessional era of Web 2.0, and this contemporary epistolary format, complete with misspellings, abbreviations, and affectionate nicknames (“What’s up, twat? Missing your ‘tard? Wanna dump a little sugar on me? JBF.”), is both funny and unexpectedly raw. Eunice’s family’s immigration from Korea forms its own narrative in her mother’s missives, which are as full of tenderness as they are with pressure to please:
When I was little girl we didn’t eat rice from bottom because we are from good family and we only give nooroonggi to beggars, but now I know you like it so I always cook dolsot pab too long even when you not here because I miss you so much!! ☺ Ha, I try to make unhappy face, but it come out happy, so maybe Jesu telling me something!
In an interview with Natalie Jacoby of the Paris Review, Shteyngart claimed to have adapted his writing style to today’s digital culture: “Everything is mixed up, and different stuff comes at you at different speeds. Just as the reader is about to fall asleep with one kind of format, all of the sudden it changes.” Perhaps in solidarity with his post-literate audience, in a promotional trailer for the book Shteyngart exclaims, “I can’t read!” Shteyngart may have had an impatient readership in mind, but the dueling narrative also lends psychological tension to the novel, creating an unbearable distance between the two main characters. On their own, Lenny’s diary entries would be idealistic and self-absorbed. His Eunice lacks scent, needs protection, shuns politics. But Eunice’s narrative shows how wrong he often is: she feels the constant burden of protecting her friends and family and becomes intimately involved in resisting the ineffectual government. The couple’s inability to know one another, even in a world of perpetual exhibition, amplifies their alienation exponentially.
I admit I was uncomfortable for the first sixty pages of Super Sad True Love Story. Where did Shteyngart get off calling thirty-somethings old? My own skin started to itch for a better firming cream. I suddenly wanted antioxidants. Though I’ve never met Shteyngart, his characters’ complexes felt like a personal affront: I was, after all, only a few years behind him at Oberlin – he knows my type, and is mercilessly chronicling my age-group and demographic as we move further from our debutante years. But by the final pages of the novel I had come to appreciate Shteyngart’s quirky meditation on youth, mortality, and love. America’s obsession with eternity is the object of Shteyngart’s sharpest satire yet. And it’s Lenny’s inextricability from the passage of time–his melancholy affection for paperbacks, his inability to stick to an age-erasing diet and skin regime, his constant references to his “bald patch in the shape of Ohio,” that makes him a sympathetic character. Shteyngart, who was recently included in The New Yorker’s prestigious group “20 [writers] under [age] 40” is, like his character, slowly inching toward middle age. This book made me a little less frightened of growing up with him, perhaps in part because it is better than his previous novels which, while entertaining, hovered a little too close to a college joke. Super Sad True Love Story gives us a glimpse of what a more mature Shteyngart is capable of writing.
Amelia Glaser is an Assistant Professor of Russian Literature at the University of California, San Diego. Last month she reviewed Peter Stein’s production of Dostoevsky’s The Demons.