SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY is a dystopian sci-fi novel (is there any other kind?) set in the near future, and as such is a satire on contemporary American obsessions. It opens in Rome in the very near future, where Lenny Abramov, the story’s hero, is attending an orgy. Lenny is in Rome in pursuit of High Net Worth Individuals, hoping to sell them on the idea of Indefinite Life Extension, a service provided by the Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation.
Lenny meets Eunice Park, an American-Korean student living in Rome, and falls for her immediately. Soon after, Lenny returns to New York, where we discover that the United States is in a state of terminal decline. At war in Venezuela, the US is indebted to China, and is ruled by the quasi-fascist Bipartisan Party led by the hated Rubenstein.
Lenny’s ambitions are two-fold. He wants to earn enough money to become a High Net Worth Individual, and thus avail of Indefinite Life Extension. He also wants to marry Eunice Park.
The novel’s opening chapter comes courtesy of Lenny’s diary, in which he records his fears and concerns, his hopes and desires. Lenny’s is not the only story being told, however. The reader is given access to Eunice’s ‘Globalteen’ account, in which we are offered her emails to her sister, Sally, her mother Chung Won, and her best friend, Jenny Kang, aka Grillbitch.
Thus the story proceeds with Lenny telling us about the declining economic and political situation in New York, and his burgeoning romance with Eunice; we then get Eunice’s take on the same events, which is often radically different to Lenny’s.
Lenny is an ambitious, shallow, naïve 39-year-old. His infatuation with Eunice, who is roughly half his age, bears all the hallmarks of a mid-life crisis. Obsessed with youth, his credit balance and maintaining the illusion of normality as normal life crumbles around him, Lenny is very much a product of his time, when consumerism and patriotism amount to more or less the same thing.
Lenny does appear to be slightly more thoughtful than his circle of friends, however. He is genuinely in love with Eunice, and wants nothing more than to be allowed to take care of her. Despite his conflicted relationship with his Russian-Jewish parents, he is constantly seeking their approval. Lenny also has a love of books, or ‘old print media’, which marks him out as something of a subversive in a society that has only contempt for any information that is not streamed on the ‘Globalteen network’ (aka the internet) and condensed into easily digestible data packets.
Shteyngart makes much of Lenny’s Russian-Jewish background, but also presents Lenny as an Everyman, his naivety manifesting itself as a curiosity that in turn allows the reader to explore the nooks and crannies of his brave new world. He should be a likeable protagonist, but Lenny is too passive a hero to generate much sympathy. It makes sense, according to the book’s logic, that Lenny - and his entire generation - should be passive, conditioned as they are to be constantly receptive to information overload. By the same token, Lenny would have been a much more interesting character had he taken the decision to kick against the pricks much earlier in the story.
Eunice is roughly half Lenny’s age, a young woman who is entirely immersed in the shallowness of her culture. An obsessive on-line shopper, she is emotionally stunted, dazzled by surface appearance and prospective mates’ credit rating. It’s to her own credit that Eunice gradually comes to appreciate Lenny’s subtle virtues, not least of which is that Lenny loves her for who she is, not what she represents.
Eunice’s background is every bit as complicated as Lenny’s. One of two daughters in an immigrant Korean family, she has grown up with one foot in the liberal, consumerist society of the United States, and her other foot firmly shackled by her family’s conservative values. Her family life is further complicated by the fact that her father is physically abusive, and her mother is deeply religious. Starved of genuine affection, reluctant to trust men beyond physical engaging with them, she slowly responds to Lenny’s overtures.
Meanwhile, Joshie Goldmann is Lenny’s boss at the Post-Human Services division of Staatling-Wapachung, a sprawling corporation that also houses a military division. Joshie is the living embodiment of the Indefinite Life Extension programme; although a father figure to Lenny, and a friend of almost 20 years standing, Joshie appears physically to be 20 years younger than Lenny. Joshie rules the Post-Human Services division with a benign dictator’s tender touch, espousing hippy-like mantras in order to motivate his staff.
The America Lenny lives in is embroiled in a doomed land-war in Venezuela; Shteyngart never explicitly states the war is for oil, but we can take it for granted that that is the motive. Meanwhile, disgruntled veterans of the war, denied their promised bonus when they return to the States, foment dissent against the Bipartisan Party that rules the US. This dissent eventually boils over into outright conflict, when the veterans of New York, many of whom live homeless in Central Park, are attacked by the National Guard, and a state of emergency declared.
Shteyngart also emphasises the current US obsession with the illusion of eternal youth, exaggerating it into a desire to live forever via the Indefinite Life Extension programme. The obsession with technology is also lampooned, as most people own an ‘apparat’, which appears to be an advance version of today’s hand-held devices (at one point, when Lenny takes out his out-moded apparat, he is sneered at by a younger co-worker, who asks if his apparat is an iPhone). The cult of celebrity and the desire for 15 minutes of fame is also lampooned, as most of Lenny’s ‘Media’ friends appear to stream their own on-line shows. Consumerism has become something of a philosophy in Lenny’s America; strangers can point their apparats at you to discover your credit rating, while credit poles on the street will also flash your credit details as you pass by.
On a darker note, the two-party democratic system currently operating in America has morphed into a one-party government, which is quasi-fascist in tone, and issues declarations reminiscent of Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984.
Shteyngart employs a lively style, a variety of ‘teen-speak’ which is perfectly pitched to reflect the shallowness of the culture. The prose is slightly more formal when Lenny addresses his diary, but Eunice’s accounts are peppered with sexual slang, acronyms and an abrasively crude form of affection.
He also employs a narrative structure that is initially interesting, in that he presents the reader with Lenny’s diary account of events, and then offers a contrasting take on those events - personal, political - from Eunice’s perspective. Once the pattern is established, however, it very quickly becomes predictable, and even monotonous. Overall, the novel is an interesting contemporary equivalent to Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD or George Orwell’s 1984, or Michael Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION, as it offers a jaundiced view of a near future where our modern obsessions could well lead us.
Despite Shteyngart’s use of familiar technology, however, there is little that is fresh or new here - in its appraisal of a conservative and quasi-fascist future, the novel’s liberal angst is predictably conservative.
Shteyngart’s lively use of language makes the novel an enjoyable read on a page-turning basis, but in terms of the big picture, the novel is more concerned with reacting to current trends rather than devising a future philosophy. There’s a self-limiting aspect to the story that is perfectly in tune with Lenny’s passive personality, and with the internal logic of the world Shteyngart has created, but that self-limiting aspect also means that the novel lacks the grand ambitions of the great sci-fi novels.
I’d recommend SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY to anyone interested in dabbling in contemporary sci-fi, but connoisseurs of the genre might find it a little disappointing. - Declan Burke
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.