Part satire, part dystopian chronicle of the near future and part romance, Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story suffers from trying to go in too many directions at once. [amtap book:isbn=0812977866]
It's the story of Lenny Abramov, a middle-aged Jew, the son of Russian immigrants, trying to succeed in an America that is collapsing. Lenny works for a company that claims to be able to reverse the ageing process, at least for those who can afford it. On a business trip to Rome, seeking clients, he meets a 20-something Korean-American called Eunice and falls in love with her. Despite Eunice's initial dismissal of Lenny, the two begin a relationship and narrate it in alternate chapters. Lenny's chapters come from his diary, while Eunice relates events in her emails and social network updates. Lenny's love of literature is one of the key things that divides the pair, indeed it separates Lenny from almost everyone in this book where nobody reads anything longer than an email.
It's a world where everyone is permanently connected to everyone else via a mobile device called an äppärät. Social status is pegged to credit rating, which is displayed by poles in the street as people pass them by. There are no journalists anymore, just people broadcasting their thoughts to the world. Lenny says:
"Once, I reminded Noah about how The New York Lifestyle Times used to have actual correspondents who would go out and report and verify, but he just gave me one of those 'Old man, don’t even,' looks and went back to hollering Spanish slang into his camera nozzle."
One of the odd, slightly implausible things about this book is how this world seems to constantly take Lenny by surprise, as if it had risen overnight without warning. Those around Lenny are frequently taken aback by him too, especially by his habit of reading books.
In one awkward scene Lenny seduces Eunice by reading her some Kundera but at other times his reading comes between them. He writes:
"Things had been rocky between us since I had relapsed and picked up a book, and she had caught me reading, not just text-scanning for data. With the violence just a few miles to our north, I wanted nothing to separate me from my sweetheart, certainly not a two-brick tome of Tolstoy’s W&P."
The "violence" that Lenny refers to is the result of economic disaster. America, heavily in debt to China, is descending into chaos. Shteyngart satirises American politics with the ludicrous Bipartisan Party, whose emblem is a cartoon otter in a cowboy hat. The US is at war with Venezuela, which causes instability, but it is when the Chinese withdraw their financial backing for the administration that the country descends into anarchy.
It is this that consumes the second half of the book. It doesn't come as a surprise - there are plenty of hints early on that all is not well in this world - but it does shift the tone of the novel. Shteyngart struggles to give dramatic weight to both Lenny and Eunice's romance and the American meltdown which consumes the pair.
It makes for an uneven read and ultimately an unsatisfying one. The satire is often too broad, which undermines the poignancy that Shteyngart aims for later. The author's obvious disdain for digital media and his belief that it is distracting us from books is wearing. Given that this is a novel, Shteyngart is likely preaching to the converted anyway.
There are plenty of interesting ideas here and some very thought-provoking writing but it never quite works as a whole.