Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Sunday Book: Super Sad True Love Story - Gary Schteyngart

I have put down too many books recently. Not forever and not because I don't like them - they're all good and worthwhile in their different way and I am planning on coming back to them - but life and my natural laziness has got in the way. It wasn't really what I was in the mood for, it wasn't what I expected, it was too dry/required too much effort... I know that there are plenty of people who believe that life is too short to finish books you don't enjoy but I am not, for the most part, one of those people. I mean, I see their point, I happily abandoned The Lord of the Rings and The Life of Pi halfway through and have no regrets about it. And if I could go back and abandon American Psycho on p. 5 I would in a flash even though it was mandatory reading for a university module. I would just tell them to suck it because you can't unread a book and some of those images are going to stay with me forever and it is no fun nearly fainting on an EasyJet flight and Bret Easton Ellis is a weenie and who only includes two female authors on a 24 book list of modern fiction?? And breath... However, exceptions aside, I think it is good to read things that are challenging and unexpected and outside of your comfort zone. It is good to push yourself. If you only ever read things you like and that are easy and that condone and reinforce your tastes you will be left with a narrow, limited conception of the world.

Anyway, all of this is a rather roundabout way of saying that I didn't really like Super Sad True Love Story but I read it cover to cover because I had a couple of unfinished books on my conscience. And I'm glad I did because, despite whatever Facebook may imply, liking is not the only benchmark of success. This is a clever, well written, very probably prophetic novel that made me think. A fifteenth re-reading of a favourite Georgette Heyer might have been more enjoyable but this was arguably better for my brain.

Shteyngart's dystopian satire is set in what reviewers and blurb writers call the American near-future and centres on the relationship between Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park. I do slightly question the timing in the book. Lenny, a first generation Jewish-Russian American, is (generously) on the cusp of middle age and I don't know whether it is his cultural references or something else I can't put my finger on but he feels very contemporary. He is deliberately awkward and outside of his time but simultaneously he feels specifically 39 in this moment and age. Meanwhile, the newly graduated  Eunice, the technology she uses and the world she exists in seem at least twenty years away. It would take a parallel as well a temporal shift for them to coexist. Perhaps this sense of dislocation is intentional, perhaps it is an inevitable risk of being of being so culturally and technologically specific, perhaps I am being pedantic. Definitely this is a work of fiction not actual scientific prediction so probably I should stop getting hung up on the details.

The story's setting seems like a fairly plausible prediction of things to come which is, depending on your point of view, uncannily accurate or slightly unambitious. America is in trouble - China owns its ass financially, it's stuck in an unpopular war with Venezuela, the gap between rich and poor has continued to widened and the Low Net Worth Individuals are rioting. People live on their smart phones (called äppärät but otherwise largely undisguised), constantly streaming Media and rating each other. Your credit stats are publically broadcast and everyone is ranked by Looks, Personality, Fuckability etc. It all feels pathetically likely.

Unfortunately the plot doesn't live up to the setting. Or maybe it does. It is plausible, I guess. I am biased - I hate a mid life crisis narrative. Part of that is probably my age but they are also boring, self indulgent and often, ultimately, self congratulatory. And it is hard to disassociate the middle aged Russian American 'hero' with a soft spot for the written word from the middle aged Russian American writer. Lenny is considered something of a social outcast and certainly deeply uncool because he reads actual smelly old paper books while Eunice got a degree in Images and she and her sister and (female) best friend spend their time gossiping and shopping online for nipple-less bras, see through jeans and pop off knickers. As a woman in her early twenties I'm going to take a couple of minutes to feel affronted by the assertion that I am less capable of understanding and appreciating literature than middle aged men... Also, as readers, it seems like we are expected to sympathise with Lenny because of his literary tendencies despite the fact that he tries to manipulate Eunice's relationship with her physically and emotionally abusive father to make her love him. Just eugh.

But... and I'm going to try and reel it in because this is turning into a more negative review than I had intended, the writing is very sharp. Neither Lenny nor Eunice are particularly likeable but their voices are very strong. Lenny writes a diary for character posterity (he works in 'Post Human Services' and dreams of immortality) and Eunice exists in her online exchanges with her mother, sister and geographically distant best friend. Lenny is morose and grandiose by turns and Eunice is sarcastic and slangy and contradictory and prone to flashes of insight. The first person narratives don't do a great deal to advance the plot but they do map the characters beautifully.

Anyway, this has got a bit out of control. All I really wanted to say was 'interesting book, well written but  unpleasant characters, the future is bleak'. And it did make me think and thinking is good. Argh, this post needs a good edit but a) I'm lazy, b) my to do list and c) if I don't post this now I never will and it will just sit in my post queue until I eventually forget about it. So there you go. Sorry blog.

I've been enjoying all the Best Books of 2012 posts that have been going on recently - anyone read anything good? Has anyone tried Shteyngart? Dystopian satire? Thoughts?

Chuck x


  1. I read Lunar Park on a flight and it made me so incredibly uncomfortable. Plus the cover was reflective and every time I turned the page, I ended up blinding my seat mate

  2. I haven't read it, and to be honest, I don't plan to. But I do get where you're coming from - I've read plenty of books that were technically well-written and smart, but which I just loathed because the characters were unbearable (often coupled with smug, self-satisfied prose). For me, Will Self's 'Dorian' falls into that category. Wilde's original Dorian, while similarly a amoral character, was at least interesting, whereas Self's was just unbearable. But the writing was good. I remember reading this book on a very long train trip from Newcastle to Exeter in England, and by the end of the trip I just felt horrible because of that book.

    Anyway, this is a long way of me saying, sometimes it's okay to dislike books that are still technically good pieces of writing. Eh.