Thursday, 3 February 2011

6/111 - Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

This is another book I bought quite recently. I had wanted to buy it on the recommendation of a co-worker at Melville House, but at the time it was only out in hardback, and since I had already way over-packed, I decided that this particualr book could wait until I returned home. Plus I kind of preferred the UK cover, too. It is obviously rooted deeply in the canon of dystopian science fiction and satire, so I had high hopes. The story follows Lenny, a middle-aged, unattractive man who falls madly in love with the princess-y Eunice, a woman half his age with daddy issues. Completely self-absorbed, the characters barely even notice as the world around them falls apart.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. In some ways it's really funny and forward-thinking. I love that it's told from the point of view of a middle-aged loser-ish guy who is losing his grip on youth and the changing world around him. It sort of reminded me a bit of 1984 and Brave New World, in the way that there are new abbreviations and colloquialisms that Lenny is unable to learn fast enough (JBF = 'just butt-fucking'). The world itself is like ours, at some indeterminate point in the near future. At some un-named point in the past, the US has ceased to be a global economic leader and has been surpassed by China. Literature is dead, and people spend most of their time glued to 'apparat' screens, either shopping, finding out information about those around them, and ranking themselves within the group of people they are currently in. Face to face communication is kept to a minumum. The top jobs are Media (for the men) and Retail (for the women). Instead of interacting with the world around them, people are glued to their screens, buying more and more things and getting into greater and greater debt. People are obsessed with youth and image, and terrified of death and ageing. Hm, I think I sense a message here.

Even though the message is a little obvious and clunky, I loved the way it was put across. I also really enjoyed the way that the story was told through different mediums. The narration is primarily from Lenny's perspective, who continues to narrate in the 'traditional' style (even though reading books is discouraged and now laughable in this future world.) Eunice, his love interest, narrates her portions through msn-style chat logs and emails with her best friend, Precious Pony, and her Korean mother. The use of these different mediums is really effective and serves to highlight the immense differences between Lenny and Eunice. They are also really funny.

Their characters are often funny, but the worst thing I experienced was that I just hated them. This isn't necessarily a problem - you can still be compelled by the actions of characters whose actions you find distasteful. But for the most part, the actions of Lenny and Eunice were shallow and self-absorbed, and at times I felt myself drifting and wishing for the narrative to hurry along instead of lingering over these vapid people. But I guess that might be the point.

I'm not being totally fair - they are more complicated than that, and at times there are dips below the surface, like Eunice's relationship with her family, but they didn't go quite deep enough to sustain me, which was a little disappointing. Considering the book is over 300 pages, I thought that it could probably have done with culling a proportion to hurry it along a little at those times when it was stagnating.

The political stuff in the book is very interesting, and frighteningly realistic. If you look below the shallow musings of Lenny and Eunice, you get an amazing sense of a society falling apart at the seams in a way that doesn't seem impossible. In this near-future, there is only one party in power, and they weild their power without compassion or humanity. People are judged based on their 'Net Worth'. Everyone suspects everyone - there's plenty of back-stabbing and double-talking. The novel is initially set up as a romance, though it's obvious to everyone that Eunice is never really all that into Lenny. Moments that were supposed to be poignant were lost on me because I disliked the two of them so much. Instead, the most poignant moments for me were the times of chaos in the story, after things begin to fall apart in America.

By far the most interesting and funny areas of the novel are seeing the characters using their 'apparati'. Like a sort of demented iphone, the apparat is used for everything. Eunice uses hers to shop at brand name stores like AssLuxury and Juicy Pussy for a type of panties which pop off, aptly called Total Surrenders. Another character spends hours each day video-streaming about her imaginary fatness. Obviously it's possible to draw a parallel here between the obsession the characters have for their technology and the growing obsession with ours. Not only that, but the increasingly blurred ilnes between public and private. Lenny is a character of the old world, and as a result he finds it difficult to thrive in the future world where the way you appear in relation to those around you is what counts for the most.

Not easy and not perfect, but good.

Next time: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

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