One of my favourite novels is Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, a document that posits a futuristic dystopia where books and liberty alike are immolated in streams of fire. It’s touching and prescient and achingly well-written. It’s also founded on a belief that I reject, the notion that television is an ignorance-inducing tool of slavery. Bradbury’s own misguided anxieties are deeply embedded within the novel, but this doesn’t prevent me from appreciating and enjoying the text – it’s possible, after all, to love something you disagree with. I found it much more difficult to appreciate Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story, which was similarly grounded in principles I disagree with but lacked the fervent immediacy of Bradbury’s classic.
Super Sad True Love Story is set in the near-future, a “post-literate” society where the United States of America is crumbling into bankruptcy and the populace are rarely without their äppäräts, a slightly more advanced yet infinitely more insidious version of a smart phone. The focus of the novel is the relationship between two people: Lenny Abramov, a weak-willed, unattractive middle-aged man who works at Post-Human Services with the goal of letting rich people (HNWI or “High Net Worth Individuals”) live forever; and Eunice Park, an college graduate with a social conscience and an overbearing Korean family.
The novel is less science fiction than satire. The goal of a great satire is to exaggerate modern society just enough to shed light on how ridiculous it is, using a new vantage point to provide a fresh perspective. Think Heller’s Catch-22, which uses humour to reveal the absurdity of war. Some elements of Shteyngart’s novel are effective satire. For example, the way people in this world are ranked in public on various measures – their credit score, their personality score, their “fuckability” – is a cogent criticism of the way social media sees people judged on their Tumblr followers or Facebook friends. Post-Human Services’ work in, essentially, making the wealthy immortal is an effective representation of the way privilege is ingrained and exaggerated over time.
Unfortunately, most of Super Sad True Love Story reads more like a satire of a satire, with escalating exaggerations more revealing of its author’s misogyny and misjudgement than societal woes. Some of this is forgivable. The novel’s world finds America hopeless indebted to Chinese merchant bankers, making endless concessions to avoid them calling in a many-trillion-dollar debt. It’s grounded in misguided Tea Party conservatism but there’s some clever ideas nonetheless – for example, America’s hyper-inflation means most people operate in “yuan-pegged dollars.” Like Farenheit 451, if the only problem was a difference of political opinion I wouldn’t mind.
It’s the social specifics where the book becomes truly problematic. Despite writing half the chapters from Eunice’s perspective (actually providing transcipts of her “GlobalTeens” conversations – essentially Facebook), Shteyngart’s perception of women is based in contemptible stereotypes. Despite being described as awfully skinny, Eunice continually describes herself as fat, as does practically every other female in the novel. Clever social criticism this ain’t. Women’s fashion now revolves around nipple-less bras and transparent jeans, the kind of creaky satire you can imagine your granddad coming up with (“Girls these days,” he croaks, “They wear practically nothing!”).
The biggest problem for me was the ill-conceived notion of a post-literate society. The idea of a world where people don’t read anymore, where newspapers are long gone and information is only communicate in BuzzFeed-esque lists or YouTube streaming, could make for good satire. But Shytengart doesn’t seem to have really thought things through. All the little details are wrong. Acronyms are ubiquitous despite the current trend away from them (with iPhone spell check and increasingly no-limit texting). Despite being unable to read, only able to “scan for data,” Eunice proves a more-than-competent author. Lenny has a collection of books that literally everyone else sneers at; pretty hard to believe given the modern popularity of vinyl records.
There’s more examples of this kind of lack of thinking, but I’ll digress because this is quickly becoming more rant than review. It’s not that entire novel is terrible, mind. The relationship between Eunice and Lenny has a ring of truth to it. Their “love” is built on insecurity and desperation and collapses along with the fragile, debt-ridden society they live in. Shteyngart’s satire might not be on-target, but his prose is constructed with a witty verbosity that was about the only thing that kept me reading.
I don’t regret reading Super Sad True Love Story. If nothing else, it provides some insight into how a middle-aged man perceives modern society. It’s instructive to see his paranoia over the mounting size of the United States’ debt and the shrinking size of girls’ clothing. Or Shteyngart’s fears regarding the rise of young people: most of Lenny’s coworkers are much younger than him, prettier and more stylish, and they regard him with penetrating derision. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Perhaps this is just a satire of a satire, and I’m misreading the text just like Shteyngart’s “post-literate” characters. Whether my disgruntlement is justified or not, Super Sad True Love Story isn’t super sad, nor is it particularly good at all.