Book Review: 'Super Sad True Love Story' By Gary Shteyngart - ' Two Stories Of Doomed Love' Gary Shteyngart's dystopian novel narrates two doomed romances: one between a man and a woman, and one between a writer and his country — or what he fears his country may become. By turns fierce, funny and frightening, Super Sad True Love Story deserves a place on the shelf beside 1984 and Brave New World.
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Book Reviews

'Super Sad' And Satiric, Two Stories Of Doomed Love

Super Sad True Love Story
Super Sad True Love Story
By Gary Shteyngart
Hardcover, 352 pages
Random House
List price: $26
Read An Excerpt

"Looking good is the new smart," says a character in Super Sad True Love Story. Welcome to Gary Shteyngart's vision of America in the near future, where intelligence does indeed take a backseat to sexual desirability. Books are a thing of the past; they're now considered curios that "smell like wet socks." Americans now spend all their free time shopping and watching videos on their ''apparats,'' smart phone-like devices that nobody is ever without.

The last shreds of modesty have long since disappeared -- young women buy obscenely named undergarments that reveal pretty much everything; and the harshest, most degrading varieties of hard-core pornography have now become mainstream entertainment. This isn't your father's New York -- but if Shteyngart's manic, alternatingly hilarious and terrifying vision is right, it might be your son's.

The surprising and brilliant third novel from Russian-American satirist Shteyngart is actually two love stories -- and while they're both, as promised, super sad, they're also incredibly (but very darkly) funny. The first love story chronicles the affair between Lenny Abramov, a shlubby but large-hearted salesman, and Eunice Park, 15 years his junior, a confused, shopping-obsessed daughter of Korean immigrants. Lenny is sweet but oblivious; Eunice is troubled, and runs hot and cold. Their relationship is uneasy; it hangs obstinately by a thread.

Adding to the strain is the fact that America has become a financially strapped police state, and the poor and disenfranchised are threatening to revolt. The States are now all but owned by China (now "The People's Bank of China-Worldwide") and are in the political grip of an ultrahawkish defense secretary who's in charge of America's war on Venezuela. The ruling Bipartisan party brooks no dissent, and publishes menacing warning signs with the party's mascot, a cartoon otter. When poor people begin to rise up in places including Tompkins Square Park (perhaps a reference to the infamous 1988 police riot there), they're put down with brutal efficiency.

Gary Shteyngart is a Russian-American novelist who currently teaches at Columbia University. In June 2010, The New Yorker ranked him as one of its "20 under 40" best fiction writers. Lacombe hide caption

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And that's the second love story. Shteyngart writes with an obvious affection for America -- at its most chilling, Super Sad True Love Story comes across as a cri de coeur from an author scared for his country. The biggest risk for any dystopian novel with a political edge is that it can easily become humorless or didactic; Shteyngart deftly avoids this trap by employing his disarming and absurd sense of humor (much of which is unprintable here). Combined with the near-future setting, the effect is a novel more immediate -- and thus more frightening, at least for contemporary readers -- than similarly themed books by Orwell, Huxley and Atwood.

Shteyngart is relatively straight-faced when it comes to Lenny and Eunice's love for each other; he keeps his sharp tongue and jaundiced eye temporarily in check, and it's a smart move. The novelist knows how to get well-earned, knowing laughs, but it's the deeply sad, though not quite despairing, tone that makes this such a remarkable and unexpected novel. Anyone who remembers Sept. 11 will get chills reading Lenny's description of the New York skyline, the empty Freedom Tower rising above it all: "Is this still my city? I have a ready answer, cloaked in obstinate despair: It is. And if it's not, I will love it all the more. I will love it to the point where it becomes mine again." Lenny could be talking about America; he could be talking about Eunice. He could be talking for anyone who's ever been in love, with a person or a place, anyone who knows that the truest kinds of love can also be the saddest.

Excerpt: 'Super Sad True Love Story'

Super Sad True Love Story
Super Sad True Love Story
By Gary Shteyngart
Hardcover, 352 pages
Random House
List price: $26

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...


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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