Gary Shteyngart: A 'Love Story' In A Sad Future

Super Sad True Love Story
Super Sad True Love Story
By Gary Shteyngart
Paperback, 352 pages
Random House Trade Paperbacks
List price: $15

Read An Excerpt

This interview was originally broadcast on Aug. 2, 2010. Super Sad True Love Story is now available in paperback.

Gary Shteyngart's third novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is a black comedy set in America at some point in the near future: books no longer exist, Americans spend the majority of their time watching videos on their iPhone-like "apparats" and the country is on the brink of complete collapse.

It is also a love story. Amidst the chaotic visions of a dystopic future, a schlumpy salesman named Lenny Abramov falls in love with Eunice Park, the daughter of Korean immigrants and a newly minted college graduate. Lenny spends his time convincing her to love him back — to create some form of stability in a world that is growing increasingly fickle and ephemeral.

In an interview on Fresh Air, Shteyngart tells Terry Gross that he needed to set his novel in the future because the present is moving too fast for novelists to fully contemplate.

"We're all living in the future constantly ... because right now things are happening so quickly." he explains. It's a problem writers such as Leo Tolstoy may not have felt so acutely. "In the 1860s, [Tolstoy] wanted to write about the Napoleonic Campaign of 1812. If you write about 1812 in 1860, a horse is still a horse. And a carriage is still a carriage. Obviously, there have been some technological advancements. But you don't have to worry about explaining the next killer app or the next Facebook ..."

Shteyngart's debut novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook received the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. His second novel Absurdistan was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review and Time Magazine.


Gary Shteyngart

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Interview Highlights

On attention spans

"Sometimes technology outpaces humanity's ability to process it. I think that's where we are right now. My mind has been sliced and diced in so many ways. There's so many packets of information coming at me, especially in a city like New York, which is so dense with information no matter where you go. ... It's just shocking: how is literature supposed to survive when our brain has been pummeled with information all day long at work — if we're white collar workers. When we go home, are we really going to open a thick text with 350 pages and try to waddle through it?"

On death

"A good friend of mine turned 50 recently and he said 'Oh my God, Gary, I can see that life is not eternal.' And I thought 'You just figured this out now?' Because death has been on my mind since I was a little pup. I was very, very sick when I was growing up in Russia. The ambulance constantly came to our house. I had horrible asthma that is easily treated in America but they didn't even have inhalers back in Russia. So what I remember the most is just constantly being in that ambulance trying to breathe — can't breathe — and even as a little child you're thinking 'This means I'm going to die and what will happen after I die?' ... I always think that good writers should be growing up on the brink of death — it really lets them see mortality very clearly."

On identifying with your parents

"In the end, you really are them [even] with all of the things you've done to not be them."

On humor

"Humor is what I have. People say 'Oh, he's going to write some schticky crap ...' Oh, please. Without humor, I cannot go on and I doubt many of my readers would go on either. Humor is so important. I am here to have fun here with my work. I'm here to entertain people. ... I just want fiction to remain a vital force for entertainment and not just for contemplation. Both things can exist."

On new technology

"Here's the thing with this new technology. I think it's incredibly effective. I just don't think it's made anyone much happier. If anything, we are now always connected but we don't know what we're connected to. It's just an endless stream of information."

Excerpt: 'Super Sad True Love Story'

Super Sad True Love Story
Super Sad True Love Story
By Gary Shteyngart
Paperback, 352 pages
Random House Trade Paperbacks
List price: $15

June 1

Rome–New York

Dearest Diary,

Today I've made a major decision: I am never going to die. Others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain. The light switch will be turned off. Their lives, their entirety, will be marked by glossy marble headstones bearing false summations ("her star shone brightly," "never to be forgotten," "he liked jazz"), and then these too will be lost in a coastal flood or get hacked to pieces by some genetically modified future-turkey.

Don't let them tell you life's a journey. A journey is when you end up somewhere. When I take the number 6 train to see my social worker, that's a journey. When I beg the pilot of this rickety United-ContinentalDeltamerican plane currently trembling its way across the Atlantic to turn around and head straight back to Rome and into Eunice Park's fickle arms, that's a journey.

But wait. There's more, isn't there? There's our legacy. We don't die because our progeny lives on! The ritual passing of the DNA, Mama's corkscrew curls, his granddaddy's lower lip, ah buh-lieve thuh chil'ren ah our future. I'm quoting here from "The Greatest Love of All," by 1980s pop diva Whitney Houston, track nine of her eponymous first LP.

Utter nonsense. The children are our future only in the most narrow, transitive sense. They are our future until they too perish. The song's next line, "Teach them well and let them lead the way," encourages an adult's relinquishing of selfhood in favor of future generations. The phrase "I live for my kids," for example, is tantamount to admitting that one will be dead shortly and that one's life, for all practical purposes, is already over. "I'm gradually dying for my kids" would be more accurate.

But what ah our chil'ren? Lovely and fresh in their youth; blind to mortality; rolling around, Eunice Park–like, in the tall grass with their alabaster legs; fawns, sweet fawns, all of them, gleaming in their dreamy plasticity, at one with the outwardly simple nature of their world.

And then, a brief almost-century later: drooling on some poor Mexican nursemaid in an Arizona hospice.

Nullified. Did you know that each peaceful, natural death at age eighty-one is a tragedy without compare? Every day people, individuals — Americans, if that makes it more urgent for you — fall facedown on the battlefield, never to get up again. Never to exist again.

These are complex personalities, their cerebral cortexes shimmering with floating worlds, universes that would have floored our sheepherding, fig-eating, analog ancestors. These folks are minor deities, vessels of love, life-givers, unsung geniuses, gods of the forge getting up at six-fifteen in the morning to fire up the coffeemaker, mouthing silent prayers that they will live to see the next day and the one after that and then Sarah's graduation and then...

Nullified.

But not me, dear diary. Lucky diary. Undeserving diary. From this day forward you will travel on the greatest adventure yet undertaken by a nervous, average man sixty-nine inches in height, 160 pounds in heft, with a slightly dangerous body mass index of 23.9. Why "from this day forward"? Because yesterday I met Eunice Park, and she will sustain me through forever. Take a long look at me, diary. What do you see? A slight man with a gray, sunken battleship of a face, curious wet eyes, a giant gleaming forehead on which a dozen cavemen could have painted something nice, a sickle of a nose perched atop a tiny puckered mouth, and from the back, a growing bald spot whose shape perfectly replicates the great state of Ohio, with its capital city, Columbus, marked by a deep-brown mole. Slight. Slightness is my curse in every sense. A so-so body in a world where only an incredible one will do. A body at the chronological age of thirty-nine already racked with too much LDL cholesterol, too much ACTH hormone, too much of everything that dooms the heart, sunders the liver, explodes all hope. A week ago, before Eunice gave me reason to live, you wouldn't have noticed me, diary. A week ago, I did not exist. A week ago, at a restaurant in Turin, I approached a potential client, a classically attractive High Net Worth Individual. He looked up from his wintry bollito misto, looked right past me, looked back down at the boiled lovemaking of his seven meats and seven vegetable sauces, looked back up, looked right past me again — it is clear that for a member of upper society to even remotely notice me I must first fire a flaming arrow into a dancing moose or be kicked in the testicles by a head of state.

And yet Lenny Abramov, your humble diarist, your small nonentity, will live forever. The technology is almost here. As the Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) of the Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation, I will be the first to partake of it. I just have to be good and I have to believe in myself. I just have to stay off the trans fats and the hooch. I just have to drink plenty of green tea and alkalinized water and submit my genome to the right people. 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; and in the flowering of my own intelligence some 1032 years hence, when our universe decides to fold in on itself, my personality will jump through a black hole and surf into a dimension of unthinkable wonders, where the things that sustained me on Earth 1.0 – tortelli lucchese, pistachio ice cream, the early works of the Velvet Underground, smooth, tanned skin pulled over the soft Baroque architecture of twentysomething buttocks — will seem as laughable and infantile as building blocks, baby formula, a game of

"Simon says do this."

That's right: I am never going to die, caro diario. Never, never, never, never. And you can go to hell for doubting me.

Excerpted from Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. Copyright 2010 by Gary Shteyngart. Excerpted by permission of Random House.

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