Gary Shteyngart's future is shocking - and funny
SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY, by Gary Shteyngart. Random House, 334 pp., $26.
By the time it all hits the futuristic fan in Gary Shteyngart's buoyantly dystopic, mournfully funny new novel, "Super Sad True Love Story," hostile Venezuelans are heading up the Potomac, the Chinese have called in their debt, Nassau warlords are battling Suffolk warlords, and satellite failure has incited a collective nervous breakdown among a generation of Americans who define themselves through their personal electronic devices. When does all this happen? Tough to say. How about "soon"?
So it must be. The classics of fiction-as-social-forecast - and the fact that Shteyngart's novel is one doesn't make it any less funny - share a crucial characteristic: depressing familiarity. If a book suggested humankind had evolved into a race of squirrels that gave birth to bowling balls, it would hardly raise hairs, or chill spines, because . . . well, because it would be silly. But the imagining of a society warped by hedonistic license and genetic engineering ("Brave New World"), or one suppressed through thought control and linguistic terrorism ("1984") is more than alarming, because it takes little imagination to see them coming true. Likewise with Shteyngart: When he looks ahead and sees Americans in the last spasms of rabid consumerism, collapsing under bad credit, deprived of personal privacy and besotted by other people's business, he isn't venturing beyond the borders of the believable. He's barely stressing the envelope.
Shteyngart, author of "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" (2002) and "Absurdistan" (2006), has created another of his memorable Slavic protagonists. Lenny Abramov is a child of immigrants in Westbury (Dad from HolyPetroRussia, Mom from VassalState Belarus) who makes a living as the Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) of the Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corp. As such, he embodies one of the book's Big Jokes (there are many small ones): He is in charge of marketing immortality in a world that's become intolerable.
Checkpoints are everywhere, but, as the sign says: "It is forbidden to acknowledge the existence of this checkpoint." "Credit poles," positioned all around New York City, flash the credit rankings of passersby, whether they like it or they don't. Mostly they don't. (Lenny's credit rating is lousy at the moment because his asset manager has bought into the failing ColgatePalmoliveYum!BrandViacomCredit). And larger problems loom. "Once the Asians turn off the cash spigot," says Lenny's visionary / hustler boss, Joshie, "we're through."
But Lenny is far more concerned with Eunice Park, the often sour child of Korean parents. She becomes Lenny's romantic obsession after a messy night in Rome and has come to stay with him in Manhattan, where people either defecate in the street or own billion-dollar brownstones. It's a curious world, and a richly ironic one: War is being waged by the strongman secretary of state, known only as Rubinstein ("Can you believe he's one of us?" asks an old Abramov family friend, who promptly disappears), and China owns the country, and the corporations run it. But what's the big news? "Gays to marry in NYC."
Lenny and Eunice won't marry. She's not Jewish; he's not Korean. She is, however, in her early 20s, and Lenny is 39, and the brilliance of their May-July tryst is that between them, they cover so much cultural ground: He is a diarist and the "last reader on earth"; she is umbilically attached to her äppärät (a kind of super cell phone), through which she validates all of earthly existence. He is balding, paunchy, big-nosed and doughy; she is perfect (at least to him). It is one miracle of Shteyngart's book - the others being clairvoyance and humor - that we get this touching, worrisome, desperate, sweaty romance between Lenny and Eunice, who cling together for a while, and even go shopping for a dress and flagrant underwear:
"Her face was steely, concentrated, the mouth slightly open," Lenny observes. "Here was the anxiety of choice, the pain of living without history, the pain of some higher need. I felt humbled by this world, awed by its religiosity, the attempt to extract meaning from an artifact that contained mostly thread. If only beauty could explain the world away. If only a nippleless bra could make it all work."
WHO Gary Shteyngart reads from "Super Sad True Love Story"
WHEN | WHERE Thursday at 7 p.m. at Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington (631-271-1442, bookrevue.com) and Saturday at 7 p.m. at Book Hampton, 41 Main St., East Hampton (631-324-4939, bookhampton.com).