‘A super sad true love story’ – is sad, and feels true

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. 

 

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Thought, feeling and symmetry

I’ve just finished Dream of Scipio, which I really enjoyed. The characters can at points feel a little flat, but it’s a beautiful novel, and it’s the kind of piece that stays with you. 

The story’s told in three strands; one in Roman Gaul, another in medieval Avignon, another in the south of France during World War II. In each instance Pears creates a character facing a difficult moral choice, choosing in essence between compromise and principle. The characters are carefully structured, and at times they way they reflect each other can feel overly artificial, as though you’re standing between two mirrors rather than reading a novel. But as the novel goes further, and having drawn out the parallels, the stories diverge, which is a relief. 

At points the characters do feel a little flat; I didn’t find them as emotionally engaging as Pears’ other piece I’ve read (An Instance of the Fingerpost). Perhaps that’s a result of the different format. In some ways they feel as though they’re created purely as props for the dilemmas Pears introduces; and when the characters feel most alive is when they’re thinking, rather than responding emotionally. But the rest of the story is strong enough that it’s not too much of an issue, and the story still draws you in. 

The thing I found most interesting about the book is the questions it raises about moral choice. They’re never quite definite questions, as simple as the kind of thing you find in a moral philosophy textbook. But each of his three (male) protagonists grapples with a difficult situation, and responds to it in a different way. That part I found the most interesting, and is what I suspect I’ll still be thinking about for days from now. Whether to compromise principle for the sake of a half-way, or to stay the course, is a difficult one, particularly when outcomes are uncertain, and especially when the choices involve multiple poor options, and success seems to require breaking rules you’ve always held to. 

It’s a difficult set of questions – one I certainly don’t have an answer to. But Pears draws it out well – it’s worth a read. 

 

What if you knew the world was ending, and you could see it happening?

I haven’t read the original Limits to Growth (LtG). I’m not sure if I’ll get around to it. But I’m definitely going to read through this paper on comparing real world data to predictions made by the LtG models (even though it apparently came out in 2008 – how did I miss this?).

Apparently the original LtG work was based on a set of models, that included variables like birth rates, death rates, resource consumption, and food per capita (a crude variable for the food available). Although it’s been described as overly pessimistic, it apparently didn’t predict crashes until the mid-21st century. Say, about forty years from now. And it turns out that although the modelling (quite basic stuff; I think I may even be able to get my head around the equations) was done back in 1970, nobody’s compared the real world data to the different scenarios used in LtG.

Until now.

As I said, I’m still hoping to work my way through the recent CSIRO paper (A comparison of the limits to growth with thirty years of reality, G Turner, CSIRO, June 2008), with the in depth comparisons. For now, some charts. In each one the blue line represents the stabilised model; basically, from what I understand, the one that’s sustainable. Other models (green and red) are variations on crashes. And the purple is the data that we have so far.

So Figure 2 gives us population levels; we’re on track for red/green, not blue.

 

Fig2

 

So Figure 3 gives us birth rates; apparently we’re above average on this. This is a complicated one (for reasons to do with how crude a measure simple birth rates is, when in fact it varies extensively in different parts of the world; but for now notice the higher level trends). Fig3

 

 

Figure 6 gives us services per capita. The paper goes into more detail, but essentially this isn’t services as it might be defined in the national accounts; it’s a narrower focus, with less on luxury consumption on more on core services.

Fig6

 

Figure 7 is food per capita; how hungry are we going to be?

Fig7

Figure 8 is industrial output per capita.

Fig8

Figure 10 is pollution.

Fig10And Figure 9 is non-renewable resources. Fig9Which comes to one of the more interesting points – why aren’t people taking this stuff in a more alarmist fashion? I found some interesting discussion of at the Lowy Interpreter blog – Are we testing the limits to growth?

Commodity prices and the like are a whole other issue, that I won’t get into here – but I’ll just note that I found Jared Diamond’s Collapse persuading, in providing examples of societies that have previously come up against resource constraints.