For the past decade we have been living in a post-apocalyptic moment. We have read about it in Cormac McCarthy’s satisfyingly nightmarish The Road, danced to songs about the planes that crash into buildings, “always two by two”, and smiled at those knowingly sing of our demise. The post-apocalypse, you see, is only ever an aesthetic, and, by definition, never a reality: an aesthetic used to escape worries about the collapse of Western power (because love it or despise it, it is mightily familiar), its apparent last triumph being the offering up, in 2006, of Saddam Hussein’s disembodied head on the silver platter of the tabloid media (for this, despite the prosecution activities in the more intimate surroundings of Abu-Grahib, is what Western power had become). There are other worries too: the collapse of the banking system, the widening gulf between rich and poor, and the disturbing realization our welfare, our jobs, our pensions, our very futures are dreams existing only in an oxygen tent erected in a mathematical dream and inflated by Chinese credit. One mercy is to be found in our ability emote at will about whatever depravity, degradation, or decadence appalls or delights our anxious and attention-deficient minds, determined, as they are, to accomplish something, anything before youth and social order give way which was, like, last week.
Gary Shteyngart’s novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is of this moment, and its snarky take on current events, exaggerated into the near future of a yuan-pegged US dollar and a northern euro, might herald its passing by using the post-apocalyptic as the backdrop to remind the reader of life’s simpler comforts.
In a telling nod to Lampedusa, the book opens in Italy, where Lenny Abramov, a balding, Chekhov-reading thirty-nine year-old, seeks the business of High Net Worth Individuals for Post-Human Services, an organization which promises not only immortality but scientifically-assisted perpetual youth to selected members of the new superclass. On his final night in Rome, Lenny meets Eunice Park, a younger Korean-American who comes to personify youthful perfection for both Lenny and his literally heartless boss, Joshie Goldman, a bouncing septuagenarian trapped in the body of a twenty-year old. What follows Lenny’s return to New York is the story of his relationship with Eunice, largely dominated by their need for personal validation, TotalSurrender panties, and the sun-bright greed of Joshie Goldman.
But Lenny’s New York is not quite our New York. America is bankrupt so the wait at Kennedy is longer and the security more terrifying. Tanks line the streets, as do Credit Poles which broadcast individual ratings for all to see. America (“TOGETHER WE’LL SURPRISE THE WORLD!”) is kept in a state of alert by the American Restoration Authority, the United Nations is a retail corridor and the IMF has relocated to Shanghai. (The UK is referred to simply as HSBC-London.) Communication is via the GlobalTeens social networking site and everyone can be tracked with a GlobalTrace. Other than careers in dechronifcation, the only occupations are in Retail, Media, or Credit. As I say, it’s not quite our New York.
Despite their obvious differences Lenny and Eunice have much in common as the children of immigrant parents who question the wisdom of leaving their now wealthier homelands. They are both desperately narcissistic and, in almost equal measure, kind. Each attempts to reform the other, Eunice by persuading Lenny to wear breathable fabrics, eat well, and generally be less of a schmuck, Lenny by attempting to interest Eunice to his Wall of Books (“nonstreaming media artifacts”) and tear her away from the retail streams on her äppärät.
But for Lenny and Eunice where there is help, self-improvement or self-interest is never far away and asking the reader to stick with such cartoonishly self-absorbed characters is a biggie. Shteyngart takes it about as far as he can. Form helps him out, and he does himself a favour by telling the story through media which place the user at the centre of the world – GlobalTeens messages for Eunice, a handwritten diary for Lenny. This decision, and Lenny and Eunice’s self-absorbtion, has the effect of distancing both the characters and the reader from the far better realized horrors of a familiar civilization collapsing just beyond the edge of the AssLuxury stream or edges of Lenny’s diary.
Technology is a major theme, but more substantial are those concerned with celebrating the physically and temporally present, the things missed as the charaters alternately embark on another strategy of self-improvement and recoil at the latest assault on their sense of cultural security. In this respect, Eunice and Lenny do become more sympathetic and less cartoonish when they begin to realize that life is not in their handheld talismans but in that obscure periphery beyond page and screen.
As Shteyngart has amusingly written, we need only disconnect to achieve a greater and more immediate satisfaction. For Lenny, this is found in New York, particularly the disappearing pockets of dirt and diversity in SoHo and the calm of Central Park. “Look. Celebrate,” Shteyngart seems to be saying. The resulting celebrations are among the most eloquent in the book. All the more so for being nostalgic – New York may have already become the gentrified theme park, the playground of tourists from Europe and Asia and native HNWIs that Shteyngart imagines it becoming. Lenny’s celebrations stand in contrast to the more comedic, and sometimes viscerally horrific, collapse of America that is streamed, recorded, and largely escaped through the beautiful objects which the characters (and reader) cling to as talismans of civilization to which they have paid too little attention.