This post is a super duper spoily mcspoilerson. Don’t read it if you are planning to read this book. Which, in my humble opinion, would be mostly a waste of time, but it is a NY Times bestseller and it’s all Literature-y and stuff, so some of you might still want to. No judging.
Also, this post might very well get a little ranty. This book is essentially everything that pisses me off about the concept of “Literature,” so it’s pushing a lot of buttons. Angry buttons. Of anger. Angrily. You were warned.
Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart, was one of the hardest books to finish reading that I have ever encountered. I literally had to drag myself through the last third of the book, and bribe myself with the promise of Gulliver’s Travels at the end of it. I was very sad about this, considering that it came to me highly recommended by a friend of mine, whose opinion on literature I respect and value, even if I’m rarely actually in agreement with his overall assessment. But. This book. I did not like it.
I’m going to start with what was good about the book, before things get too ranty up in here. First of all, the prose. The book switches back and forth between the two main characters, Lenny and Eunice, who both have quite distinctive and interesting voices. Lenny is poetic and long-winded, often getting distracted by the symbolism behind everyday gestures, or describing in great detail something that he thought was beautiful. Eunice, on the other hand, is terse and to-the-point, and clearly quite smart but constantly burying her intelligence behind shallow observations and obnoxious chat speak acronyms like JBF (Just Butt Fucking). The characters switch off every chapter, and the contrast between their two voices makes for a fascinating study in the ways that people manage to communicate, even when their base speech patterns and frames of reference are so vastly different.
Another thing I actually liked about the book was one of its central premises: the idea that, if you eat and drink the right things, and exercise the right way, and undergo the right treatments and just happen to have the exact perfect genetics, you can live forever, always turning back the clock on your own body. Except not actually, because the character who represents this idea–the 20-looking 70-year-old Joshie Goldman–ultimately fails and ends up aged worse than ever. The concept of immortality is a fascinating one, both psychologically and morally, and to see it cast as the holy grail of both scientific achievement and human vanity puts a whole new spin on it that I found quite interesting and clever.
But that’s where my praise ends. Because here’s the thing:
I freaking hated everyone.
There is not one character in this book whom I could identify with or root for in any way. I know there’s a lot to be said for unlikable protagonists, what with the popularity of the whole anti-hero trope, but this is a whole new breed of awful. For one thing, Lenny, who I think is suppose to be the one you sympathize with the most, is a whiny bastard. He spends half the book complaining about how mean Eunice is to him, and the other half lamenting how hopelessly in love with her he is, with a few scattered sections of bitching about how crazy his immigrant parents are and whining that Joshie doesn’t love him anymore. Eunice, on the other hand, is a straight-up crazy bitch. When she’s not needlessly insulting Lenny, upon whom she is utterly dependent, she’s badmouthing her father, mother, sister, friends and just about everyone else, usually to her equally bitchy friend on the other coast (whom she calls, amusingly, both “grillbitch” and “precious pony”). She also has daddy issues out the wazoo, which I think is suppose to be justification for her crazy, but ultimately renders her even more of an unconvincing stereotype.
I wish I could say that the side characters made up for the suck of the main ones, which is the case in many books, but I would be lying. Eunice’s friends are all as shallow and bitchy as she is (though, mercifully, you see very little of them), while Lenny’s friends are all pretentious assholes, with the possible exception of Grace, who exists solely to be gentle and supportive to whoever needs it most in that moment (Lenny also fantasizes about her sexually on several occasions, even though she is both married to his friend Vishnu and pregnant, which means we can add “creeper” to the list of offenses against him). The most likable characters in the book are Lenny’s parents–staunchly conservative Russian orthodox Jewish immigrants–but even they seem to devolve into weak metaphors rather than actual people, when they aren’t too busy harassing Lenny about nothing at all. I found myself often wishing that the apocalypse would hurry up and happen already.
And that’s the other thing. It’s obvious from the outset of the book what the climax is going to be: the collapse of Western society. In this futuristic world, everybody is constantly plugged in to their “apparats,” which keep them connected to the Internet and allow them to judge and rank one another, stream their every half-baked thought, and constantly shop. Constantly. With Chinese money, because American currency is unstable. Everybody is sorted into financial categories, starting with “Low Net Worth Individuals” on the bottom and going all the way up to “High Net Worth Individuals” at the top, and every time you pass a credit pole, your credit rating is displayed to everyone around you so that they can properly judge you. Meanwhile, the resident evil!corporation, the Wapachung Contingency (which Lenny works for, under the command of Joshie), has taken over the National Guard and is essentially running the country as a semi-military state. It’s clearly a society designed to collapse in on itself, and that’s exactly what it does–240 pages into the story. And that’s the first time anything interesting happens in the entire book. The entire book.
During society’s collapse, there are a few bitchin’ scenes, like the one where the Wapachung Contingency blows up a ferry to kill dissenting voices on board, and Eunice grows a heart long enough to take care of the old people in Lenny’s apartment complex, who can’t survive without a society to support them. Unfortunately, once “the Rupture”, as it is dubbed, settles, the book goes right back to its old ways, with Lenny panting after Eunice like a diseased puppy while she calmly concludes that he is too old for her and cheats on him with the 70-year-old-turned-teenager Joshie. And then Lenny moves to Canada.
I wish I could say that the book ends there, but it doesn’t. In what is possibly one of the most absurdly self-congratulating moves I have ever seen in a book, the next chapter jumps forward several decades to Lenny’s life in Europe, after his journal/Eunice’s letters (the book we’ve been reading up until this point) have become an international bestseller called Super Sad True Love Story, which has been adapted into a television series and is soon to become a major motion picture. Lenny goes on to quote some of the critiques of said book, many of which are, unsurprisingly, quite flattering (“a tribute to literature as it once was [emphasis mine].” pg. 327), though even the insulting ones still associate him with “the final generation of American ‘literary’ writers.” The most obnoxiously self-congratulatory passage, though, is about Eunice’s writing:
“But as stateside critics have unanimously agreed, the gems in the text are Eunice Park’s GlobalTeens entries. … She can be bitchy…but what comes through is a real interest in the world around her–an attempt to negotiate her way through the precarious legacy of her family and to form her own opinions about love and physical attraction and commerce and friendship, all set in a world whose cruelties gradually begin to mirror those of her own childhood.” pg. 327-328
Essentially, Shteyngart told his readers what he wanted them to think about the story. He reviewed his own book. Within the book. Some people might find that innovative and meta, sure, but I think it’s kind of classless. Better to let it speak for itself than to color it with any kind of pre-packaged judgement hastily tacked on to the end. But at least the book ends with a flourish: Lenny gloating over how he traumatized two young, beautiful actresses who had the audacity to make fun of his writing. As if I didn’t find him hateful enough as it was.
I’m sure my analysis of this book is heavily at odds with what a lot of other people have to say about it, but for the record, this is exactly the kind of book I’m talking about when I complain about “Literature.” Yes, this book hits all the right notes–dismal worldview, weak-minded but poetic protagonist with a (questionably) “beautiful soul,” rampant abuse (mostly of female characters), and a general sense of nihilism and the futility of human existence–but that doesn’t make it a good book. At best, this book is a poor reproduction of 1984, only in chat-speak. And for all its merits, I don’t actually like 1984 very much, so there you go.
“A week ago, before Eunice gave me reason to live, you wouldn’t have noticed me, diary. A week ago, I did not exist.” -Lenny, Super Sad True Love Story
pg. 160 of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift