Wednesday, August 25, 2010

#37: Super Sad True Love Story

There are many aspects of a book, aside from the text itself, that effectively preclude it from being taken seriously. It would seem that a title like Super Sad True Love Story falls squarely into this arena. Safe to say, in any case, that Gary Shteyngart is lucky to have been a known commodity before he burdened libraries and bookstores worldwide with his latest effort.

I say "burdened" not because the novel is so hard to read. If anything, the prose is easy on the eyes, and the brain. An average Shteyngartian observation is, "I just wanted to hold her. She was wearing an oatmeal sweatshirt, beneath which I could espy the twin straps of a bra she did not need." This is actually a perfect microcosmic sentence in a way, since it also illustrates the author's frustrating (and all-too-frequent) displays of paternalism. Time and again, Lenny Abramov, the thirty-nine-year-old love-tortured protagonist, finds himself involuntarily expressing his infatuation with Eunice Park, his twenty-something muse, through a decidedly condescending lens. "A child, just a child," he muses as he watches her shiver from alcoholic over-consumption. Elsewhere, Lenny makes an effort to convey this thought to Eunice: "Soon you will be home and in my arms and the world will reconfigure itself around you and there will be enough compassion for you to feel scared by how much I care for you."

What say ye? Shteyngart is too self-aware as a writer to commit to such indulgent (not to mention italicized) sentences without at least the light sauté of irony thrown in. This is a man who casually remarks that "Dr. Park was landing the plane of his soliloquy," or that "I prepared myself to become Chekhov's ugly merchant Laptev again." Shteyngart's transparent ease with language renders his patriarchal episodes all the more confusing, and I'm not persuaded this ambiguity benefits anyone.

As the critical praise splotched onto the book's back cover makes abundantly clear, Super Sad True Love Story is a satire -- of contemporary American culture, our youth-obsessed society, and the vapidity of unchecked materialism. I usually stumble over faux-prophetical gazes into the future, precisely because these hypothetical apocalypses nearly always go too far. So hypnotized are many authors, by the creative license afforded them by the fiction/sci-fi genre, that they fail to pump the brakes on the less accessible elements of their vivid imaginations.

Nevertheless, in this particular case, resistance, as they say, was futile. Shteyngart's American dystopia is littered with such head-scratchers as Credit Poles (containing "little LED counters at eye level that registered your Credit ranking as you walked by"), Onionskins (entirely see-through jeans worn by fashionable women), and the ubiquitous äppäräti, high-tech portable devices that seem to straddle the line between a camcorder and the iPhone. And yet, the ugly shades of gray that comprise Lenny Abramov's values-depraved universe remain strikingly, even maddeningly, believable. Chalk it up to Shteyngart's installment of the Chinese as the ascending global hegemon, or perhaps the futile American war in Venezuela that practically begs for the reference to our contemporary military expeditions in the Middle East. Whatever the reasons, the depressing world of Super Sad True Love Story retains more than enough real-life potentiality to prevent itself from being dismissed out of hand. Whether this is sufficient for it to be included in the pantheon of classic contemporary literature may, however, require a slightly further suspension of disbelief.

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