Now Playing: The Doobie Brothers--"What a Fool Believes"
Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story (2010): It was probably fitting that my first serious foray back into recreational fiction would be a critically acclaimed, unusually effective sci-fi satire that mirrored many of my own recent irritations with modern culture. Shteyngart's third novel was the June offering for the University of Michigan Fantasy/Sci-Fi Theory Reading Group--an assemblage which I'd occasionally considered joining but had never gotten around to finding--so the choice was in many ways already determined (I didn't end up going for various reasons, maybe wisely). I really had no idea how things would go down; I'd heard of Gary Shteyngart, as an entertainingly acerbic chronicler of immigrant life (Soviet Jewish in particular) in the new fin-de-siecle America, and what I'd heard had intrigued me enough not to form any prejudices, as I might otherwise against the This American Life and McSweeney's run of literati (my experience with Sarah Vowell, not to mention general principles, should have warned me off such intransigence). His earlier novels, The Russian Debutante's Handbook and Absurdistan, had a generally high reputation, and I reckoned that if I dipped my oar back in the waters of contemporary fiction, it might as well be in the company of this guy.
A decade or two in the future (I think), Lenny Abramov works as a lifestyle headhunter for a biotech corporation that specializes in prolonging the lives of the wealthy and powerful, with an eventual eye towards upgrading to de facto immortality. For the past year, he's been knocking around Europe on special assignment with little to show for it until he meets the vivacious young Eunice Park at a Rome party. Instantly besotted, he can't get her out of his mind on his return to the States, even with the pressures of his job, the ambiguous attentions of Joshie Goldmann--his "charismatic" boss--and the neverending assimilation problems of his own cranky immigrant parents. His transatlantic correspondence with Eunice runs into problems when she returns to the States, largely due to issues with her own cranky immigrant parents (in her case, Korean Christian). Their relationship faces a number of problems: a twenty-year age difference, clashes of temperament, combative friends and relatives, their bizarre motives for getting involved in the first place, and their existence in a horrifically commercialized world all the more appalling for being a worryingly close extrapolation of our own.
The United States is governed by the "Bipartisan Party" with a puppet president and a Defense Secretary controlling the real power. He, in turn, must answer to the Chinese Central Banker, as the country is effectively mortgaged to pay its debt. American troops are fighting in Venezuela and former allied blocs in Europe are clamoring to decouple from long-existing strategic alliances. The political horror goes hand in hand with the consumerist nightmare of contemporary culture, as practically everyone stays nearly all the time on their "apparats" (think more sophisticated and powerful iPhones), and the citizenry are largely defined by their occupations (Media, Credit, Retail) and credit status ("Low Net Worth Individuals," or LNWIs, are kept effectively segregated in ghettos and slums). Lenny faces the same shady issues normally found in older male relationships with younger females, but in this case against a cheerfully grim backdrop of political and societal collapse. The story's epistolary delivery exemplifies the differences between the two: Lenny's tale arises from his old-fashioned, hand-written diary (text is frowned upon in their world, apparently due to the smell), while Eunice's emails and archived chats tell her side of the relationship. Unsurprisingly, they both learn a great many things about their relationship and their world as each are rocked by crisis after crisis. The story never quite loses its sense of humor even as it grows increasingly somber, and there are some rather bravura descriptive setpieces (one in particular put me in mind of Cloverfield, of all things).
Shteyngart's connection with my own worries was startling and a little unnerving. Barely two blog posts after I implicitly kvetched against the unstoppable columns of Internet culture, he's delivered the perfect satirical blow. Often satire can be too overblown, too off in its pacing or emphasis, or simply too gratuitously nasty. Somehow, though, Shteyngart manages to weave through any number of roadblocks. The novel follows in the great tradition of writers like Yevgeny Zamyatin, George Orwell, J.G. Ballard, and Margaret Atwood, in which the projected dystopias really have easily identifiable roots in their contemporary societies (and are in some cases barely distinguishable from them). In many ways, like Ballard, Shteyngart is exploring his fears in a world where many of them have already been made flesh. It may explain, too, why the satire's so unexpectedly well-balanced. Jim Munroe's Everything In Silico tried something similar several years ago, but I found it unsuccessful, maybe because it was too close to a cyberpunk aesthetic. There's the occasional cartoon villain in SSTLS, but the major relationship, between Lenny and Eunice, is well portrayed, and Eunice comes through as a believable young woman trying to redefine her humanity in a world which has little use for it (though there were a few close calls). If I have any criticism of the fundamentals, it's that Eunice is slightly less the equal partner in the narrative, though admittedly Lenny's had twenty more years' worth of rumination. All in all, it was a fantastic reintroduction to contemporary fiction, and an encouraging sign for someone like me to continue participating in both consuming and creating same.