I didn’t particularly enjoy Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, but I still think it was a good book.
It’s a love story, told through diaries and emails. Shteyngart’s doing several things; he’s trying to tell a love story, about a relationship between two very different people. He’s projecting into a future world, one where America’s descent and China’s rise have continued on steady trajectories, and where trends in computer usage and sexualisation of popular culture have continued unmoderated. He’s reflecting on death, eternity and how humans respond to hopes and desires about those things, told through a company that promises customers eternal life.
He does most of those things well, and I’d describe it as a well-written novel, but it wasn’t particularly enjoyable.
Shtenygart tells the story of Lenny, a middle aged, slightly hopeless and unassertive man, and Eunice, a twenty-something woman he falls in love with. Throughout the story the two of them – are not right for each other, but … oh, I won’t ruin it for you. That’s part of why you’re reading to the end, although not a big part. Shteyngart is too busy pointing out the flaws, the humanity of his characters, and it didn’t feel as though he’d made much effort in creating sympathetic characters. As a reader I felt a measure of sympathy for the two of them – but I didn’t feel much more interest in them at the end of the book than I did at the start.
One of the things I appreciated much more was that Shteyngart manages to paint a futuristic world that’s luridly dystopian, but disturbingly plausible. American has continued running a current account deficit (but, also see what Krugman has to say), inequality has continued to increase, and the sexualisation of popular culture has continued to increase (JuicyPussy is a popular brand of clothes, and some people wear ‘onionskin’ [translucent] jeans). Oh – and people are assessed by their credit ratings. It was well done; it felt completely plausible and realistic, but he didn’t make the mistake of borrowing into detail unnecessarily, when it wasn’t simply central to his point. Oh, and another extrapolation – America has become increasingly militarised, and people are required to ‘imply and deny’ (imply consent and deny the authority’s actions took place) even when going through checkpoints. This whole section felt eerie real. It was well done, but the book a tad depressing at points, because Shteyngart isn’t in the business of giving solutions or answers. Or hope. And, his characters, deeply flawed as he continues to point out, stumble close to meaningful action but then stumble away again.
Shteyngart also writes well about a world where people depend increasingly on their “apparat” (smartphones), and there’s a breakdown in people’s ability to communicate and read. Another part of the novel that felt depressingly realistic was his use of messages and chat logs to tell the story; at times it felt like you were just trawling through someone’s facebook account. He emulates the style well, but it doesn’t make for fun reading.
Another part of the novel that was well done was his focus on eternity. Here is perhaps the novel’s strongest point; his characters use the company’s work on seeking eternal life as a starting point for reflections on their own fear of mortality, and how that relates to desires for youth and beauty. Which, to be honest, was probably the strongest part of the novel.
But overall, Super Sad True Love Story felt like a set of clever ideas, but it didn’t make me care particularly about the characters or what happened to them. I’m glad I’ve finished reading it, to be honest, because now I don’t have to keep reading it.