Book Quote:

“I think when the dust settles and the Bipartisans are history that’s how we’re going to live, as small units who don’t agree. I don’t know what we’ll call it, political parties, military councils, city-states, but that’s how it’s going to be and we’re not going to screw it up this time. It’ll be like 1776 all over again. Act Two for America.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (AUG 2, 2010)

It’s probably best to get this one interesting tidbit out of the way: 38 year-old Gary Shteyngart, the author of the clever new satire, Super Sad True Love Story, recently made the New Yorker’s list of “20 Under 40” fiction writers—writers whom the New Yorker described as “capturing the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction.” With Super Sad, Shteyngart has done just that.

One doesn’t know for sure how many autobiographical elements are in Shteyngart’s protagonist, Lenny Abramov. But the two are close in age. Lenny, an unsure, bumbling, child-adult still, is 39. As the book opens he has just fallen in love with Eunice Park, many years his junior.

While this might seem straightforward enough, it is not. For this is the America of the not-so-distant future where the country is pretty much on the verge of social and economic collapse and a political apparatus named the Bipartisan Party is in power. Sinister elements of authoritarian rule are creeping up everywhere. The National Guard has posted random checkpoints all around the country to weed out unwanted citizenry all while the country is locked in an endless war against Venezuela.

Lenny works for an outfit that is invested heavily in Life Extension and his assignment is essentially to seek out “High Net Worth Individuals” who will subscribe to the concept. In fact, at the outset of the novel, he is just returning from Rome where he has spent a couple of years trying to scope out potential clients in Europe (he meets Eunice Park in Rome).

As far as everyday human interactions are concerned, the situation is equally grim. Everybody lives out lives in a constant flow of information streamed through individual devices called äppärät. At any given time, these “apparati” can tell others what your hotness quotient is or how valuable an asset you are, to your employer. Everybody’s worth is constantly tabulated. “One unfortunate Aiden M. was lowered from ‘overcoming loss of loved one’ to ‘letting personal life interfere with job’ to ‘doesn’t play well with others,’” Shteyngart writes. Hardly anybody ever talks to each other anymore and if they do, it’s called verballing (as opposed to just using pictures streamed live).

Needless to say, such an environment is hardly conducive to the nurturing of a budding relationship. It doesn’t help that Eunice Park, for her part, doesn’t see Lenny through a romantic lens right away. Her first impressions of him are that of a nerd in dorky clothes, someone who is trying way too hard and getting nowhere. Slowly however, she warms up to him, as she realizes he genuinely cares about her.

Super Sad is written in the form of two thought journals. One is maintained by Lenny and is more conventional in its format. The other, maintained by Eunice, is written in the form of brief and intense email messages (or as GlobalTeens messages as they are referred to in the novel) to her close friend, Jenny Kang. Together they paint the picture of a couple slowly navigating the landscape around them to fall in love.

Of course, as the novel’s title implies, this story does not have a fairy tale ending. For one thing, the strained political landscape explodes and there are riots in New York with casualties. The government bombs targets within the country and everyone’s äppärät stops working. All kinds of chaos ensues—nobody is sure exactly who the bad guy is here. In this politically stifling climate, with all kinds of “Big Brothers” watching, it remains to be seen how and if Lenny and Eunice’s fragile relationship will endure.

Shteyngart, himself the son of Russian immigrants, has portrayed Lenny as one too. Eunice, for her part, is the daughter of Korean immigrants. Her father’s systematic abuse of the family (Eunice’s mother, sister Sally, and herself) on the heels of a failing podiatric practice, also looms large in the background. Shteyngart beautifully portrays the unbearable expectations placed on second-generation immigrants to be high achievers. And he makes it clear not all immigrants and their associated dilemmas are the same. One of the best scenes in the novel comes when Lenny gets to meet Dr. Park over lunch. He can see the similarities between his own overbearing father and Dr. Park but can yet spot the telling differences.

Shteyngart has always written wonderful satire starting with the delightful The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, which gave a good sneak peek at this author’s talent. And while it too has sharp satire, Super Sad lacks some of Debutante’s zaniness. Yet it makes up for this in its more significant emotional heft. Perhaps this is a sign of the gradual maturing of Shteyngart’s own work.

In an interview with the New York Times, Shteyngart has said that he is very comfortable painting dystopian societies. “Dystopia is my middle name,” he says, “I was born in the Soviet Union, and then we moved to Reagan’s America.” Even ignoring the tongue-in-cheek factor in that statement, it is easy to see what he means when you read Super Sad. “That’s what I admire about youngish Italians, the slow diminution of ambition, the recognition that the best is far behind them,” Lenny says in the novel. One wonders how long before the same could be said of us Americans.

What’s worse, the scenario painted in Super Sad is not all that far-fetched. One can see the beginnings of such madness all around us. In that sense, not only is Gary Shtenygart’s new novel super sad, it is also super scary.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 114 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House; 1 edition (July 27, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Official website for Gary Shteyngart

Wikipedia page on Gary Shteyngart

EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another satirical book of our times:

The Unknown Knowns by Jeffrey Rotter

And one set in London:

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

And some countries make it hard to write a love story:

Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandinpour


August 2, 2010 · Judi Clark · 3 Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Humorous, New York City, Satire, Scifi, y Award Winning Author

3 Responses

  1. dougbrun - August 3, 2010

    P – Thanks for the great review. I keep seeing Shteyngart’s name all over the place. I have a tad bit better understanding now, having read your review, what all the buzz is about.

  2. poornima - August 3, 2010

    Doug, it’s funny you say that because now I roll my eyes every time I see his name mentioned. Sorry to add to the chorus. The only book I have heard more about is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet :)

  3. Judi Clark - August 5, 2010

    Poornima, I highly recommend THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET. It’s really is that good.

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