Dystopian novels tend to focus on the frightening future mid-swing. There’s little to no depiction of the struggle towards this alien society; readers are introduced to the more frightening aspects of a world gone awry matter-of-factly.
1984 presents a world ruled by the omniscient and omnipresent Big Brother; in Fahrenheit 451 we never do find out why and how society decided to destroy books in the hopes of a better world.
In this vein, I’m quite tempted to call Gary Shteyngart’s A Super Sad True Love Story a pre-dystopian novel. The United States of America, home to protagonist Lenny Abramov and his lady love Eunice Park, is crumbling. The land of the free, home of the brave is deep in debt and decaying, with what is left of its government imposing strict military measures in an effort to establish some semblance of normalcy.
It is perhaps this slow, drawn out death that turned Shteyngart’s United States into a parody of itself. Shteyngart magnifies Americans’ current obsession with reality television and commercialism, presenting a farcical version of a world that is frighteningly freakish yet cruelly imaginable. There is no respect for culture, eternal youth is the gold standard and everyone — LITERALLY EVERYONE — is an unrelenting media whore.
It’s a world filled with Snookis, wearing Onionskin (yes, onion skin) jeans and refusing to “verbal” because words are a vanguard of the old world. Short-hand, slang, text speak — no one appreciates books, complaining of their “old” smell.
Trapped in the middle of this Youtube/Jersey Shore/eBay hybrid society is Lenny Abramov. There is nothing appealing about Lenny, save perhaps his yuan-pegged wealth (the US debt to China is in trillions in this not-so-distant future). Middle-aged, with thinning hair and a paunch, Lenny is not just “old” in the physical sense. Lenny is outdated because he remains one of the few people to remember and cherish the beauty of words, be it in his collection of musty books or in his need to communicate everything.
He falls head over heels in love with Eunice Park, a young Korean-American he met while in Italy. Both children of immigrants (his Russian, hers Korean), Lenny finds common ground and kinship, particularly upon recognizing the tell-tale signs of parental physical and emotional abuse. Lenny believes himself a true lover, offering protection and “healing” for his weak beloved.
In truth, there is a quid pro quo setup in his love affair that he does not notice. Lenny covets her youth, his own long gone and a source of much consternation, considering his job at what passes for Immortality Inc. The company offers a shot at eternal youth, although how successful this venture is comes to fore only in the epilogue.
Lenny, for all his truths and grand emotional outbursts, cannot recognize the fact that his love for Eunice is predicated on his inability to love himself. She is all that he could never be again, and in the same way that he decides to pursue immortality (as an eternally young man, of course) he chooses to pursue Eunice and keep her forever.
Which is not to say that Lenny is evil. If anything, Lenny is simply weak, a man floundering in a society he does not and cannot accept. He is no hero; there is no shocking end to his life’s story. Lenny, for all intents and purposes, is the real every man, completely devoid of anything dramatic, heroic or special to remember him by.
It is his love affair with Eunice that affords him some semblance of “immortality”, the written word returning with a vengeance to a society that has lost the interest and ability to read.
There is nothing particularly groundbreaking in A Super Sad True Love Story. For a novel that borders on dystopia, it is surprisingly tame and nonchalant. What it does offer, however, is a beautiful, heart-breaking take on human beings at the verge of extinction. Lenny and Eunice, neither of them perfect, are simply people who attempt to grasp at whatever is left, to protect themselves from getting torn away by the raging current.
If anything, Shteyngart presents an interesting look into the human psyche, particularly our innate selfishness. Without indicting this selfishness, Shteyngart offers the idea that our attempt to document our daily lives, our thoughts, our musings — all these stem from a desire to be remembered. This is the ultimate selfishness — the need to be immortal, if not in form, then at the very least in thought and words.
To be forgotten: that is the worst travesty.
So this, this post, my blog, my constant updates on Twitter and — to a certain extent — Facebook: these are simply my efforts to validate my existence, to find some way and worm myself into your consciousness, your memories.
In that sense, and this is the most frightening conclusion I’ve gleamed from this fictional dystopia:
WE ARE ALL SNOOKI.