One of my recent attempts at reading satire was “The Ask” by Sam Lipsyte. As I said clearly, I didn’t like it. (And I’m thankful to another reader at RMC that agreed.) But satire isn’t dead. Not with Gary Shteyngart around. And “Super Sad True Love Story” is not just great satire, it’s also a damn good story.
“Super Sad…” is about the U.S. in the near future. Lots of books are in this setting, but few authors that attempt this construct do such a perfect job as Shteyngart at clouding the line of “near future” and “present.” That’s perhaps the key to this satire. As I read about Americans wandering around shopping and talking on their blackberry-like devices and broadcasting their sexual preferences, credit scores and health data to strangers nearby at bars, I was struck at how close to that reality we actually are. Over and over, I kept thinking, none of this is entirely implausible. Humor gives way to a frightening description of what’s ahead for us.
The characters in SSTLS (is that appropriate?) are spectacular. I think I liked Eunice more than I did Lisbeth Salander in those other books with the long, unwieldy titles. She is a Korean immigrant, but she is also distinctly American. She is biting with her criticisms of Lenny and of others. Yet Shteyngart allows touching windows into her psyche by printing her emails to her friends and family. Scrape aside the teenage jokes and annoying abbreviations and you have just another young woman struggling to understand relationships, the culture she lives in and the life she wants for herself. At first, the emails are like reading teenage posts on Facebook, but it doesn’t take long to see that Shteyngart has also written a modern diary of a thoughtful young woman.
Lenny, the main character, is also a child of immigrants. He is a book collector despite the fact that no one in this near-future NYC has books anymore. People make fun of the smell of his books. And the fact that he has them at all. Given that so much of the other futuristic descriptions were plausible, I found this especially troubling. See:
“Then I celebrated my Wall of Books. I counted the volumes on my twenty-foot-long modernist bookshelf to make sure none had been misplaced or used as kindling by my subtenant. ‘You’re my sacred ones,’ I told the books. ‘No one but me still cares about you. But I’m going to keep you with me forever. And one day I’ll make you important again.'”
More about Lenny: In “The Ask,” I found the main character, Milo, to be offensive and I had no feelings for him at all. With Lenny, the opposite was true. I was rooting for Lenny. Despite his peccadilloes (some of which I share), there was a certain “goodness” to him and I found myself rooting for him. It was tough to watch as Eunice betrayed him repeatedly and I empathized with his work and life struggles. He is the tie between the future society in which he and Eunice reside and the society you and I live in today.
There’s a lot going on in this book that 700 words won’t cover. The satire of America that guides the entire novel is on point, funny, and it gave me pause at many points. The love story between Lenny and Eunice is unique and fresh–nothing about it seemed a riff on other, more well-known literary relationships. There is an underlying commentary about the experiences of immigrants, about the media, about global societies, and they all fit appropriately into this novel–and yet it remains enjoyable to read.
This will take you a day or two to read. I think you will laugh a bit at the absurdities in our lives, deftly pointed out by the author, and I think you will be touched a bit by these characters. Do me a favor, though. Don’t download this on Kindle or your Ipad. Get the hard copy. I’m not ready for Eunice and Lenny’s future just yet.