The United States, hopelessly in debt to China, has invaded Venezuela for its oil. Republicans and Democrats have merged into the Bipartisan Party. (Their mascot is a smiling otter in a cowboy hat.) Everyone carries around electronic gizmos that instantly access everyone else’s (high) cholesterol counts and (low) credit ratings.
Gary Shteyngart’s dystopian novel, set in the not-far-off future, satirizes all the fallout from the Bush years: all the fear-mongering, war-hawking, rich/poor divides and pseudo-patriotic bullshit. Give us another decade or two, he suggests, and we’ll make it even worse. (For Shteyngart’s sense of humor, however, check out the YouTube trailer.)
But Super Sad True Love Story is also satire with a heart: In among all the projections about the techno-global-consumerist nightmare that we are creating, there’s the human interest of a grudging love affair. Lenny Abramov — neurotic son of immigrant parents, nearly 40, clinging to his 740-square-foot apartment and a job scouting out High Net Worth Individuals in search of eternal life through “dechronification” — woos and wins Eunice Park, a Korean-American woman half his age.
Lenny loves books; he has a bald spot and no sense of style. Eunice, offspring of an abusive patriarch, weighs 86 pounds but feels sure she’s too fat; she never really learned how to read books, only how to scan them. We grasp their story from alternating epistolary chapters: Lenny’s written old-school to his diary, Euny’s compulsively typed into her GlobalTeens account.
Shteyngart’s characters, particularly Lenny, fear mortality. And yet their lives — devoid of privacy, obsessed with consumerism, militarized — are like a living death: “passive heads bent, arms at their trousers, everyone guilty of not being their best … the kind of docility I had never expected from Americans, even after so many years of our decline. Here was the tiredness of failure imposed on a country that believed only in its opposite.” As Eunice’s best friend (“Grillbitch”) says, “This country is so stupid. Only spoiled white people could let something so good get so bad.”
Super Sad True Love Story is funny yet dark, LOLing until everything fades to black. Yet it’s in our power, Shteyngart suggests, to prevent this sad love story from becoming true.