Saturday, October 2, 2010

"Super Sad True Love Story" by Gary Shteyngart

Summary: Lenny Abramov has been in Rome for a year, working for his employer in the Post-Human Service division, which seeks to extend (rich) clients' lives permanently.  In Rome he meets Eunice Park, a young Korean-American woman, and instantly falls in love.  When Lenny and Eunice return to the United States, they move in together, but the world is falling apart around them: "The country is crushed by a credit crisis, riots break out in New York's Central Park, the city's streets are lined with national Guard Tanks on every corner, the dollar is so over, and our patient Chinese creditors may just be ready to foreclose on the whole mess" (inside flap).

Musings: Super Sad True Love Story has received a lot of critical praise and hype recently, and I was drawn to Shteyngart's classification as a modern absurdist and satiric writer.

Love Story's initial focus seems to be a critique of modern America, particularly the proliferation of technology.  Individuals are glued to their apparati (essentially advanced cell phones), devices which allow everything from constant shopping (primarily at sexually explicit stores) to the ranking of other individuals (in areas such as "personality" and "f*@kability").  People stream their life and feelings for the public at large, and books are mostly a thing of the past--"printed, bound media artifacts."  Sound familiar?  And, for me, the problem was it all did sound too familiar.  Not only are those concerns something that are, essentially, the concerns of many real people today, they're also concerns that are familiar topics for YA dystopians.  It was like reading a Feed or Uglies with older main characters.  But, of course, reading about teenagers hooked to media is one thing, but reading about older characters just seems, well, pathetic.  And though that may be the point, it also made it difficult for me to enjoy the book.

Lenny himself drove me crazy, as he seemed reminiscent of other modern male protagonists.  He's pathetic and unattractive, hopelessly obsessed with Eunice, desperate to be loved, and dull.  Eunice is facing the demons of an abusive father and needy family, but she hides so much of herself that it's hard to feel much for her.

I felt bored through much of the first two-thirds of the book as Lenny and Eunice push and pull without changing, growing, or moving forward in any meaningful way.  However, after the crisis that occurs, I began to warm to the novel some.  Perhaps it was my familiarity with the post-apocalyptic genre, but I became more interested in what would happen to the country and the characters.  In this section I felt that Shteyngart was also able to show that our reliance on technology and constant need to be connected is both problematic and an undeniable part of our lives.  Writing about people who committed suicide after all apparati lost connection, Lenny recalls, "One [young man who committed suicide] wrote, quite eloquently, about how he 'reached out to life,' but found there only 'walls and thoughts and faces,' which weren't enough.  He needed to be ranked, to know his place in the world.  And that may sound ridiculous, but I can understand him.  We are all bored out of our f*@king minds.  My hands are itching for connection" (270).

The book is very crude and explicit sexually, which even I found somewhat distracting.  Again, there's probably a point in that, but it got a bit lost.  In terms of political messages, I liked that it presented a United States that is no longer a superpower, with individuals not ready to accept that.  Like much of the novel, the scenario is only too plausible in the near future.

Super Sad True Love Story is an interesting book with plenty to discuss, though I don't know that it's deserving of the amount of praise it receives.  In particular, I thought it was sad that a book like this can receive so much recognition while YA novels that address similar issues are often overlooked by critics because of the intended audience.

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