Super Sad True Love Story
By Gary Shteyngart
In the New York of the near future, nobody wants books any more. Nobody except Lenny Abramov, "an average, nervous man" and the hero of Super Sad True Love Story. He owns books, even reads them, and laments "that terrible calumny of the new generation: that books smell". Everybody else spends too much networking, scanning for data or rating one another's Fuckability to be able to remember how to read. "Those thoughts, these books, they are the problem," scolds Lenny's boss at Post-Human Services, where High Net Worth Individuals buy age-reversing treatments and the bathroom graffiti reads: Lenny Abramov's insulin levels are wack. "You have to stop thinking and start selling." But all the trading is making the city's Lower Net Worth Individuals restless; even worse, the dollar is collapsing, the National Guard is patrolling the streets and relations with China and Venezuela have reached the point where an invasion of the United States is imminent.
Yet hapless, ageing Lenny has found love, in the diminutive form of Eunice Park, the beautiful, 24-year-old daughter of Korean immigrants. And love has found Eunice: in a world obsessed with appearance, she falls for a man in his forties with a bald patch shaped like Ohio and a caring, clever brain underneath it. "For me to fall in love with Eunice Park just as the world fell apart would be a tragedy beyond the Greeks," Lenny writes in his diary. "Once . . . she even asked me to read to her."
Gary Shteyngart seems like the last writer who need concern himself with the death of his industry. His first two books, The Russian Debutante's Handbook and Absurdistan, were bestsellers. They also whipped the literary establishment into a froth of ecstatic, virtually unanimous praise, and his latest accolade was his inclusion in the New Yorker's "20 under 40" list. But Shteyngart, by his own admission, is a man filled with "never-ending feelings of Soviet Jewish worry about the future". (Like each of his protagonists to date, he belongs to a Russian family; born in Leningrad, he has lived in the US since the age of seven.)
Nor has Shteyngart any great affection for "the iTelephone" and other such trappings of modern life. In a recent interview, he explained that the structure of Super Sad True Love Story was just a way of stopping an audience used to "staccato little signals" such as texts and tweets from losing interest. "Just as the reader is about to fall asleep with one kind of format, all of a sudden it changes," he told the Paris Review.
In his novels as much as his interviews, Shteyngart's tongue is never far from his cheek. Like Absurdistan, Super Sad True Love Story drips with satire, from the hyper-sexualised women's fashions - Onionskin jeans that "clung transparently to their thin legs and plump, pink bottoms, revealing their shaven secrets" - to the political party governing this failing police state: the Bipartisans. There is even space for a dose of self-mockery. Absurdistan's cast list includes the dislikeable writer Jerry Shteynfarb; and Lenny discusses his diaries as a "slavish emulation of the final generation of American 'literary' writers".
However, Shteyngart balances all this spiky, knowing social commentary with bucketloads of tenderness. Lenny and Eunice's May-to-December love affair could so easily be cloying. Instead, while Lenny's devotion is instant, insecure Eunice's realisation - that she would quite like to be loved by "what Prof Margaux in Assertiveness class used to call 'a real human being'" - is slower. The result is believable and compelling, as the pair attempt to do the impossible, to bridge the gaps that separate their backgrounds and the generations to which they belong, all the while trying to fit in to an America barely hanging on to its own identity.
At times, the stitches that hold this love story against the backdrop are a little too clearly visible. "I can't connect meaningfully with anyone," Lenny writes, as his city and his relationship start to crumble. It's as if Shteyngart occasionally gets overexcited by the wealth of things he has to say and starts to worry that his readers won't pick it all up before the end of the book. But, for the most part, his control is impeccable, and the dark threat of the Bipartisan government looms behind the touching to and fro of Lenny and Eunice's lives. And anyway, if you miss anything in the paperback, the iPad version should be out soon, right?
Super Sad True Love Story
Granta Books, 272pp, £12.99
Alyssa McDonald is a contributing editor of the New Statesman