Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: Super Sad True Love Story

OK, so now that I'm done with whining about Franzen, how about a book I loved?

Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story is shelved in "literature," although I think it might qualify as the sort of near-future science fiction that William Gibson used to write until the world caught up with his futurism.

Shteyngart has tapped into a lot of my personal fears and obsessions with this one: the erosion of human relationships in the face of mediating technology, the growth of America's "in your face" military dominance, the rise of military checkpoints within our own country and the sacrifice of personal liberty and privacy in the name of security, the coarsening of communication as we rely more and more on vulgarity and abbreviation to express ourselves, the preoccupation with youth and the commodification of sex, and the ultimate fate of the US as the dollar drops in value and we're further in debt to our trading partners.

His characters parade about in OnionSkin jeans (yes, they are what you think they are) and undergarments from companies like TotalSurrender and AssLuxury that they buy with yuan because the dollar is worthless.  Work in America is so hard to find that you've got to have a Master's degree and to through a period of apprenticeship to secure a position in retail.  Facebook has been abandoned for the trendier, hipper social networking site GlobalTeens, and people of all ages are so dedicated to texting on GlobalTeens (texting is now called teening) with their hand-helds that, when connectivity goes down for a couple of weeks, several people commit suicide, convinced that a world of "walls and thoughts and faces" is just not enough.

It's a terrifying world, taken all at once like this.  And yet it's the world we're settling into, the way your overweight executive settles into his tacky recliner in front of the TV at the end of a long day.  Bit by bit, we're reclining towards this disaster.  We've all felt it, haven't we?  I just haven't seen it portrayed so clearly and believably before.

And yet he manages to find the humanity in his characters and spin a love story between them.  People still want the same things, really: community, belonging, good friends, work that's challenging and provides a sense of purpose.  It's just that all these human desires are washed under a wave of data and stuff.

The main character, Lenny, is middle aged.  He's determined to live forever, and he works for a company that provides life extension to the very rich.  Obsessed with youth as he is, he's still attached to his old books.  But he's embarrassed by the way they smell.  The person sitting next to him on a plane complains about his volume of Tolstoy, "Duder, that smells like old socks."  When he realizes the same smell might put off Eunice, his young girlfriend, he sprays his library with air freshener.

How can he remain young and still love the things that meant so much to him in a long ago childhood?  And how can he remain young when he can't afford the technology that extends the life of his clients?

His girlfriend, who really is young, wants to feel smart, to understand these books that mean so much to him.  But how can you share literature with a girl who has grown up in a cultural vacuum?  All the references are lost.  It's like trying to read Chaucer in the original Middle English.  Possible, but with great effort.  And certainly not fun, when there's shopping and teening you could be doing instead.

The connection between these characters is as touching as it is doomed, as they struggle to find common interests and qualities that can transcend their generational gap.

I don't want to give too much else away (beyond the obvious bit given away by the book's title).  But I particularly liked Shteyngart's explanation for how the Chinese bankers finally call in their debts.  It seemed like a plausible outcome, though hopefully not the one we ultimately end up with.  The economists I've spoken to have always told me not to worry about our debt to China, since if they call it in, we won't be able to buy their products any more, and so they have an incentive to keep lending us money on and on forever.  Given the collapse of the tech stocks and the housing market and the derivatives market in the last ten years, I've had trouble buying the idea of anything financial going on forever.  (Except, perhaps, for interest payments.)

All this is handled with a marvelous sense of humor, and so it really doesn't come off as bleak as all that. (Humor. Something else that was missing from the Franzen title, and might have made all the difference.) Check out Shteyngart's book trailer, which really has very little to do with the book but will make you want to read it, anyway.

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