In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.
Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story demonstrates the power of the “dystopian future” premise, arguably because it does not feel like Shteyngart is writing about a distant enough future. Much as we might prefer to disapprove of this America that is obsessed with eternal youth, rampant social networking, and a cutthroat struggle to get ahead, we can’t quite escape the feeling that Shteyngart’s future sounds uncomfortably familiar.
The trends that Shteyngart is satirizing are easy to spot, and he tweaks them just enough to justify setting his story in the future rather than the present. The dollar is now worthless due to inflation, debt, and lack of industry, and the only money worth having is that which is tied to the Chinese yuan, or “yuan-pegged dollars.”
The government is privy to all information. When the novel opens, Lenny is returning from Italy. Naturally, he is required to inform a computer avatar (in his case, an otter) of all the people he has slept with while abroad. When Lenny is asked about his friends in Italy, he responds that he spent time with “some Italians,” which the computer understands as “Somalians.” Lenny tries in vain to correct the otter avatar and is flagged by security, though he is thankfully allowed to return to his home city, New York.
Lenny works for a longevity company that targets “high net worth individuals” (HNWIs), the only class in America left with money to spend. Longevity is one of America’s few surviving industries, and it pays quite well. Lenny has good credit – rest assured that the majority of his savings are tied to the Chinese yuan – but in spite of his best efforts to scrimp and save, he may not live forever.
Just look at Lenny’s Ohio-shaped bald spot for proof.
Super sadly, things get worse when Lenny learns that his boss is intending to fire him. Lenny can tell because his boss posts his status updates on a schedule board (like we might imagine seeing at a train station). Lenny resolves to save his job, though not by working harder. Instead, he plans to make someone with power feel responsible for him. In this America, it’s not what you know but who you know that matters.
However, it may turn out that what Lenny really needs is a 24-year-old Korean-American girl named Eunice Park. Eunice is hip, fashionable, and well-liked. By attaching himself to her, Lenny instantly finds himself reborn in America.
This is the future that Gary Shteyngart describes in Super Sad True Love Story. The only things that matter are money and social influence. Seduction doesn’t hurt, either. In fact, all three of these are brought together by the “äppärät,” a device like a smartphone that not only has the ability to make phone calls and broadcast live to the web, but also allows people to find out their attractiveness ratings in any given group of people. Lenny tends to score low in spite of his strong credit.
Shteyngart’s writing is crisp and efficient, and the humor of this satire is difficult to miss. However, that humor is tarnished whenever Shteyngart’s vision of a struggling America hits closer to home than readers might prefer. Super Sad True Love Story is a novel that pulls very few punches. The future that most science fiction novels describe is comfortably removed — an abstract thought experiment — whereas the future that Shteyngart describes at times feels alarmingly close to the present.
Lenny is not a hero for us to admire, even though he is one of the only people left in America that still reads books. There is little redemption to be found in Lenny and in this depiction of America. Although this is a love story, it cannot be denied that it is a “super sad” love story. Super Sad True Love Story is an intelligent novel, but one written for readers with a taste, or a tolerance, for biting satire.