After finishing two novels set in the Soviet Union, Gary Shteyngart’s writing has sailed to America.
In a world where your self-worth is determined by your credit score, onion-skin pants display your genitalia in public, and people connect only through their Global Teen accounts, can one remain innocent enough for true love to exist? This question is answered in a narrative starkly split between the clever, intellectual prose of our protagonist, the super-sad-lover, Lenny Abramov, and the barely literate writing of Euni Park and her mother, Chung Won Park (who has an excuse for her broken English, being a Korean immigrant). Euni, however, has no excuse and can write and speak only in the language of brand names and hip capitalist jargon (“What’s up twat? Miss your ‘tard? Wanna dump a little sugar on me? JBF!”)
If we thought Capitalism was out of control today, the steroids it’s pumping in Shteyngart’s creation are something else. Corporate tyrants have joined forces, and joined names such as: Allied-WasteCVSCitigroupCredit or LandO’LakesGMFordCredit, making this novel chocked full of Capitalist portmanteaus. As any successful satire does, the novel silently begs the inevitable question, how far off are we really? The image of everyone sitting around obsessively checking their “appåråts” is eerily familiar to us, the hyper-sexualized culture, the dependency on our credit like a lifeline.
Despite this notable satiric success, I can’t help but feel something tapping on my shoulder as I read Shteyngart’s latest book. In our cluttered literary world with so many voices echoing from our past, and many more struggling to become the new contemporary flavor, one cannot help but think of its predecessors when reading Super Sad. Shteyngart skillfully combines romantic Russian wit with our modern-day fixation on American collapse.
Ever since 1953, when we found out the temperature at which books burn (which, incidentally, is 451) the literary community has been wallowing in it’s own wake, mourning the loss of itself. And this novel is no exception. Is anyone else getting a little tired of the self-pitying writer that envisions a world in which literature is no longer read? The worst thing that could happen to a writer is they are rendered obsolete, and thus we must read this nightmarish fantasy played out over and over again.
Leaving aside the trope of the death of literary culture for a moment, in the arena of dystopian literature one cannot help but think of Atwood, Orwell, or going farther back, Huxley. I’m not going to even get into the Russian writers conjured in the text. Does Shteyngart measure up to these masters? I’d say no, he doesn’t. But luckily he doesn’t have to. What is redeeming and original about Shteyngart’s writing is his protagonist, Lenny himself. Lenny’s “Jewish affliction for words,” his quirky, strange, intellectual demeanor (“Read: Semitic”), the balding of his head and the bunion on his foot are the saving grace of this novel. He is a distinctly pathetic and uniquely wonderful individual.
Lenny’s super sad love transcends his May-December romance. The super sad love story refers to Lenny and his smelly books, Lenny and mortality, Lenny and life! The first line of his diary reads, “Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die.” In his health-crazed, youth-worshipping world people have the opportunity to try to live forever through de-chronification treatments. Lenny himself works for the Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation, which aids and assists (or should I say aids and abets? As death gets cheated) in “indefinite life extension.” Nonetheless, his last journal entry embraces his imminent mortality (“Today I’ve made a major decision: I am going to die”) giving us closure to his sad love story with life itself.
In a self-congratulatory moment of completion, Shteyngart includes an optimistic afterword in which Lenny Abramov’s diaries are published, acclaimed, and in a sudden retro-rage, literature is back in! This writer finds that addition to be a bit too sweet icing on the cake, as we watch Shteyngart fantasize that his writing may become as popular as Lenny’s diaries. All in all, the prose charms, the stereotypical depiction of the Korean mother charms, the Tompkins Square Park revolutionaries charm, and most of all Lenny charms the TotalSurrender panties right off us.
Publisher: Random House