Reading “Super Sad True Love Story”
Most dystopian novels are bleak and disturbing — think “The Road” or “The Handmaid’s Tale.” You won’t find yourself laughing a lot — or even smiling — while you read these books.
The 2010 novel “Super Sad True Love Story” is as dystopian as they come, but has a zany sense of humor that distinguishes it from other books of its genre. Author Gary Shteyngart has created a horrifying futuristic society, where the United States is on the verge of economic collapse, a creepy military dictatorship reigns, credit rankings and other personal data are publicly available to everyone and anybody who dares read a book risks becoming a social pariah. Common at checkpoints and in other public bulletins is the the “1984”-esque warning “By reading this message you are denying its existence and implying consent.”
All of which is disturbing stuff, but Shteyngart is a very funny writer, and at times “Super Sad True Love Story” feels more like a comedy of manners than a science-fiction novel about a society in decline. The book is also quite sharp: The world depicted in “Super Sad True Love Story” isn’t so far removed from the world of today. There’s little privacy, as Shteyngart’s characters are always connected to social media, and obsession with designer products and youth culture is rampant. In “Super Sad True Love Story,” growing older is one of the worst things that can happen to you. The main character, Lenny Abramov, is in his late 30s and on the verge of obsolescence.
The son of Russian immigrants, Abramov works for a company that sells immortality to “high net-worth individuals” — to rich people who are invited to sign up for a series of cutting-edge medical treatments designed to extend life indefinitely. As the book opens, Lenny is just returning from a stint in Rome, and is in danger of losing his job to the younger, more attractive people who were hired while he was away. He has also fallen in love with a younger woman named Eunice Park, who develops feelings for him and moves in to his apartment despite the fact that he is older, unattractive and neurotic. The book is comprised of Lenny’s journal entries and Eunice’s messages to her friends, family, Lenny and, eventually, Lenny’s sleazy boss.
“Super Sad True Love Story” is light on its feet and frequently hilarious, which is why it comes as such a surprise to realize how deeply sad, even violent, the story ultimately is. The closing chapters revolve around a military crackdown that SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! targets people with bad credit. Lenny and Eunice are safe, but Eunice’s friend David — a veteran of the U.S. war with Venezuela and political activist — has been killed in the government’s attack on the homeless encampments in Central Park, and Lenny’s friend Noah has been killed in an airstrike. After the crackdown, the government reveals a plan to turn New York City into a “lifestyle hub” — a community for the wealthy, where people without means are not welcome. As if this isn’t bad enough, Eunice has run off with Lenny’s sleazy boss, leaving Lenny alone with his neuroses and regrets.
I’m not sure “Super Sad True Love Story” is a great book, but it’s a very good one — fun to read, thought-provoking, witty and smart. But I wasn’t sure it was quite as moving as I wanted it to be — I cared about Lenny and Eunice, but not a lot. These are two people who never really belonged together — who were mismatched from the beginning. Of course, in a world as screwed-up and crazy as the world in “Super Sad True Love Story,” true love might not even be possible. Which might just be the scariest thing of all.
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