[Illustration by ALEX FINE]
BY PAUL MAHER JR. The dystopian satire of Gary Shteyngart’s splendid affecting novel Super Sad True Love Story is anchored deep into the neuroses of an America that no longer is able to distinguish its objectives from its agendas. The novel’s landscape is less the chaotic sensory overload of Blade Runner than it is the bleak rain-soaked miasma of Taxi Driver, a Gotham sprawl seen from within a tortoise shell.
The novel’s protagonist, Lenny Abramov, is no Travis Bickle however. Likening him to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man is a more accurate comparison. Like the Dostoyevsky, Shteyngart richly layers his novel with dark humor and forceful depictions of the rudderless populace of an empire in steep decline. Here we find Lenny hatching an escape plan:
I will need to re-grow my melting liver, replace the entire circulatory system with “smart blood,” and find someplace safe and warm (but not too warm) to while away the angry seasons and the holocausts. And when the Earth expires, as it surely must, I will leave it for a new Earth, greener still but with fewer allergens …
Lenny is not fooled by the media-powered mirage of American exceptionalism, instead he sees a flaming downward spiral of economic crisis engulfing a populace of lost souls in misery, anger, fear and division. Yet the title of the novel promises a love story, and a love story it is — sort of. His unlikely tryst with Eunice Park a recent graduate of Elderbird College brings a new spark of redemption and hope to an individual by all appearances hopelessly incapable of living in the society he is often so critical of.
Corporate America never looked so bleak. Shteyngart invents acronyms and concepts that cater to the privileged and deny the less-privileged something as basic as health care. “Life extension” is only available to HNWIs (High Net-Worth Individuals), of which Lenny, who is constantly beset by a plethora of ailments, is unable to take advantage. Yet, the advantages created by these leaps in technology are also sources of anxiety, having portable devices that can gauge your cholesterol count for example, or your credit rating makes everyday living a strategy of beating the odds. One is also able to detect the social/professional/personal standing of anybody in their immediate vicinity. Shteyngart bombards the reader with endlessly hilarious detail, such as the corporate clothing designers that co-opt adolescent jargon to hawk a line of clothing dubbed “JuicyPussy” line. American Apparel I am looking at you.
Shteyngart has given us a disturbingly hilarious vision of the American Dream as seen through an Orwellian kaleidoscope — all of which would be a lot funnier if it weren’t so close to the sad truth. By turns compassionate, antagonistic, tender and pessimistic, it will either raise your hopes for the future, or doom them. Either way, the “super sad true love story” stripped of its futuristic inventions so ably presented here is in fact a funhouse mirror of circa now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Maher Jr. is the writer of two biographies of Jack Kerouac, the editor of two volumes of interviews with Kerouac and Miles Davis and another with Tom Waits due out in fall 2010. He is also a photographer. Maher is working on two screenplays about the captivity of Mary Rowlandson and the prison years of Dostoevsky.