Book review: Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart
Early in American novelist Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan the narrator says he is "almost disabused" of the belief that he can fly. The word "almost" is beautifully exact. Shteyngart's characters never give in to reality all at once. They have immigrant skills and immigrant illusions, and they come from countries that are themselves in the process of migrating: in one novel a Russia that wants to be the US, in another an America that imagines it is not Russia.
In his new novel these transpositions now occur in time. We are reading the diaries of Lenny Abramov and the e-mails of Eunice Park and her friends and family. The action of the novel is situated in our future and in Lenny's and Eunice's past. The first edition of their work was published "two years ago" in Beijing and New York, although the story we have been reading took place "so many decades ago". Lenny and Eunice meet in Rome in June of an unspecified year and live out the few months of a semi-affectionate, needy, awkward, deluded affair until, in November, Eunice takes off with Lenny's boss, and Lenny, like his fictional forebear, becomes disabused of his favourite belief: in this case, that he can live forever.
Lenny announces at the beginning that he is "never going to die", and he does this not out of pure longing but because he thinks it's a matter of putting in enough energy, money and dieting. He works for Post-Human Services, a research branch of a vast corporation that also deals in security and more or less runs the government.
This unit is housed in a former synagogue close to New York's Fifth Avenue and is trying to test its way to immortality. Lenny's boss, Joshie, for example, who turns 70 in the course of the novel, has had so many replacements of muscles and organs and blood that he looks younger than Lenny, who has reached the dangerous old age of 39. As Lenny remarks at one point, "the true subject of science fiction is death".
There is a would-be vampire story lurking in the sci-fi. Both Lenny and Joshie see in Eunice, an angry, beautiful 24-year-old Korean-American - her "usual face" is said to be one of "a grave and unmitigated displeasure" - not only a young person but youth itself, and something they can co-opt, make their own. But Eunice is not going to be anyone else's salvation.
She has her inherited and experienced past (an abandoned Korea, an abusive father), just as he has the ruined Russia and the defensive Long Island of his parents. "How far I had come from my parents," he writes, "born in a country built on corpses, how far I had come from their endless anxiety. And yet how little I had traveled away from them, the inability to grasp the present moment." History, in this view, is just like time and aging; it doesn't let anyone go, although the dream of escaping its grip is recurring and irresistible.It doesn't let America go, either. The "prematurely old country" of the novel is run as a kind of war zone. The state of emergency is permanent, tanks are all over the place, and in a particularly brilliant invention, people are required to deny the existence of all the weaponry they see and to consent formally to the act of denial they have just performed. The only thing that keeps people really happy is their credit rating, if they have one that's high enough. Scores are publicly available on screens posted on every street and can always be checked on the devices everyone carries, providing instant background checks on anyone you might like to know, along with helpful ratings like that of your perceived desirability for sex.
The novel slows a little during what feel like rather dutiful ethnic encounters - Lenny takes Eunice to see his parents on Long Island, he meets her parents and sister at a "worship service" in Madison Square Garden - and for a while it seems as if a pre-post-human realist novel is trying to sneak into the satirical pages.
But the writing is never less than stylish and witty, and the sense of disaster, as in Shteyngart's other novels, is unfailingly lyrical, performed for full, funny rhetorical orchestra. When Lenny's world ends, when Eunice leaves him, when America's war on Venezuela comes home to Manhattan, when New York City is about to be turned into a spa for the very rich, we are not exactly laughing, nor are we crying.
The sheer exhilaration of the writing in this book - Lenny's confessional tones, Eunice's teenage slang - is itself a sort of answer to the flattened-out horrors of the world it depicts. We can't say we haven't been warned.