“Super Sad True Love Story”
By Gary Shteyngart. Random House, 331 pages.
The villain in Gary Shteyngart’s much-acclaimed satire about a future America, “Super Sad True Love Story,” now out in paperback, is a tiny digital device shaped like a pebble that people wear around the neck. It’s called an “äppärät,” a name harking back to the Communist functionaries, or “apparatchiks,” of the Soviet Union, where Shteyngart was born. With its ceaseless data streams, images, spillages of personal information, mood assessments and social rankings of citizens based upon their financial position and sexual desirability, the äppärät controls the individual like an all-consuming external mind.
This villain is friend, too, to Shteyngart’s misfit hero, Lenny Abramov, a 40ish New Yorker of Soviet Jewish heritage, who strangely loves books, which other people turn up their noses at because of their incredible smell, asking him if he can put away his stinky reading matter as if he’d just pulled a banana or boiled egg out of his lunch bag. Besides books, Abramov is needy of another obsolete thing — love, for a beautiful, unhappy young Korean-American, Eunice Park, who is addicted to online shopping.
In brilliantly biting strokes of prose, Shteyngart paints our society as it might become from what it is now. In his New York, people work for one of two industries, Credit or Media, and the entire foundering American economy has similarly shrunk down to a few megaconglomerates like United ContinentalDeltamerican and Land O’LakesGMFord. The disenfranchised are setting up shantytowns with funky old computers while a paranoid government keeps watch over an increasingly illiterate populace that can text but no longer really read or think. The culture as a whole has rotted through from its obsessions with sex and youth. Even Lenny’s beloved Eunice, the daughter of striving immigrants from the suburbs, covets the “nipplelesss Saami bra,” while young men parade around in “SUK DIK” bodysuits and the rich, such as Lenny’s clients at Post-Human Services, spend their money on reverse aging processes, hoping for eternal life as empty-headed twentysomethings.
Shteyngart’s narrative is built on Lenny’s desire for immortality in a society he doesn’t quite feel at home in. His hopes of marrying Eunice drive his sudden ambition to shave years off his life through the anti-aging treatments his employer offers to only the most perfect specimens among High Net Worth Individuals. As much as Lenny buys into the absurdly superficial values of his society, he sees through them too, staying devoted to his books and his immigrant parents on Long Island, with a pained insistence on remaining human.
His blubbering love for the contemptuous Eunice Park, abused child and unemployed college grad, distills a basic human need to nurture in a world where people have become isolated by connectivity, each mesmerized by the minuscule screen of his digital reality. Shteyngart is at his funniest depicting the most blundering, loving and wounding human encounters of all, the meetings between Eunice and Lenny, and their foreign-born parents, whose old-fashioned expectations, demands and emotions seem all wrong for a society controlled by relentless currents of information.
I met up with Shteyngart during his recent visit to Atlanta’s Ivy Hall, the beautifully refurbished Victorian house in Midtown that serves as the Savannah College of Art and Design’s writing center. We discussed his novel of a dark new digitized world and the unexpected parallels he sees between the old Soviet Union and present-day America. As we chatted in a period sitting room full of ornate furniture and silk pillows, the menace of the future seemed mercifully far away. Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation.
Parul Kapur Hinzen: In a very funny way you paint a very bleak picture of America in “Super Sad True Love Story.” You came here as a child of immigrants over 30 years ago, and presumably your family had expectations this would be a better home for them than the Soviet Union. Now you’re portraying the decline and fall of America. It’s an ambitious thing, taking on the whole society. I’m wondering where this story came from in you.
Gary Shteyngart: In the past I’ve written a lot about Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the feeling was that Russia would hopefully become more and more like America. In the end, I think, America became more and more like Russia — by which I mean, economically, [there’s] a very diminished middle class, diminished prospects for the future. For a while we had a kind of kleptocratic government, which was based on oil resources and natural riches, the same as in Russia.
The other thing I knew when I left Russia was an upsurge of false patriotism, which always happens when a country is starting to feel bad about itself. Xenophobia, as we can see in Arizona and other places. I was in Ohio and saw the biggest American flag I’ve ever seen — the size of a building. It was in a car dealership. I thought the flag doesn’t say “I’m proud,” it says “I’m afraid.” That reminds me a lot of how things were in the Soviet Union. You could sense that things weren’t going to go well.
Hinzen: Did the fact that you’re not American-born give rise to any doubts about your authority to critique American society?
Shteyngart: I think immigrants do a better job of describing America than the native born. So many of today’s writers that I find interesting, like Junot Diaz, critique America. Other [foreign-born] writers may not be critiquing it, but they have a very full understanding of it, like Jhumpa Lahiri, Chang-Rae Lee. It’s good to be slightly on the outside.
Hinzen: You were born in Leningrad [now St. Petersburg] in 1972 and came to the U.S. at the age of seven. I read in your Wikipedia entry that you lived on a square dominated by a large statue of Lenin. I was very impressed, when I visited Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, by the towering statues of heroes and leaders. I thought they were amazing and exhilarating because they were so incredibly tall, but my American friends at the U.S. Embassy told me they were oppressive. They were a symbol of state power . . .
Shteyngart: [Groans in disagreement.]
Hinzen: What was it like for you to grow up as a child in Lenin’s shadow? Did you have any feelings about his statue?
Shteyngart: I loved it! I would go up and hug it all the time. I wrote a story about Lenin and a magical goose when I was four or five — a little novel for my grandmother.
Hinzen: So you didn’t find it oppressive?
Shteyngart: No, this is part of my DNA, being from these gigantic countries, the USSR and then the United States … countries that feel they have a grand role to play on the world stage. Countries with a mission — and America is the ultimate of those countries — a God-given mission.
Hinzen: Before you arrived in the U.S., what kind of ideas did you have about what it would be like here?
Shteyngart: We thought it would be the enemy.
Hinzen: Oh, really?
Shteyngart: Yeah, of course. My father had told me worshipping Lenin is wrong and now we would have to start worshipping Reagan.
Hinzen: Your novel describes many different forces undermining America. There is economic disintegration, moral decline, a political culture of surveillance and censorship. Perhaps worst of all is the prevalence of digital technology, which completely controls people’s minds with tiny devices.
Shteyngart: In [George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel] “1984,” it’s Big Brother who’s out there trying to collect the information, whereas here everyone’s just willingly giving it up. There’s no barrier. Any corporation can find out anything it wants about you by following your digital trail.
There’s a rising power in this book: China. Look, Americans work their butts off. This is a highly productive society. But other countries just want it more. At one point, we wanted it more. Now they want it more. I think that the danger is that America is just not used to the idea of not being the predominant power — not just in the economy, but in culture and pop culture — the defining country.
Hinzen: In your book, your protagonist Lenny Abramov and his girlfriend Eunice Park, who are both from immigrant backgrounds, are devoted to their families. Is the immigrant child’s love for family part of what you meant by the title “Super Sad True Love Story”?
Shteyngart: Sure, because how are you going to bring these two people together? You have to have some commonality. Eunice is into looks and shopping. Lenny is an old-fashioned creature who likes to read books. The immigrant stuff is what they feel in each other — it’s what they understand about one another.
Hinzen: In your book everyone wears a little digital pebble around their neck known as an “äppärät,” which is constantly streaming data about whoever’s passing by, ranking people and giving them a position in society. How do you feel about technology? Is there any way around it?
Shteyngart: We’re in this very transitional generation with one foot in the old and one in the new. So it’s very difficult to be us, I think. Two generations down the line there won’t even be a question about this. People will not read books and printed paper, except for some pretty strange people — the same people that now buy LPs. Everything will be digitized. What we have is one of the clearest technological breaks from one generation to another. That’s worrying to me. It probably won’t be worrying to other people. To me it feels we’re losing a part of being human.
Hinzen: Are you using the technology?
Shteyngart: I’m using all of it now, especially as a writer to promote a book. I have a Facebook account. I did a YouTube video for the hardcover [with actor James Franco, a creative writing student of Shteyngart’s at Columbia University], and I’m doing one for the paperback. You have to promote in every digital way you can, because the traditional forms of promoting a book are dying very quickly. Used to be that any small or medium-sized town would have a newspaper book review section. So long. Goodbye to that.
Hinzen: In terms of your personal use, you’re wired up?
Shteyngart: Not like a person in Silicon Valley is wired up. But yeah, I’m pretty wired up. The idea of any device is that it’s labor saving, and so many things [about it] are labor saving. At the same time, we’re completely enslaved by it. A moment doesn’t go by when it’s not pinging with some new message, some little factoid. We’re drowning in information.
Hinzen: I Googled you and found an article you’d written about Seoul for “Travel & Leisure” magazine. You describe a never-ending flow of visual data all around you and young people known as the Thumb Tribe for their “ceaseless wireless communication.” You say South Korea is known as the “Republic of Samsung” because of its total cellular coverage. How much of Seoul is there in your portrait of a future New York? Did some of your ideas about the future come from over there?
Shteyngart: Oh, yeah. What’s interesting is that we’re even behind in many ways. Obviously, I’m not pro all this technology. But one of the ways we [Americans] lose out is that we don’t have good broadband service. South Korea is two and a half times faster. We’re not even good at the basics of infrastructure. But going to Seoul and seeing this marriage of hardware and software — I mean people really live their lives online.
There was a New York Times article, a very tragic story, about a [Korean] couple who had a baby. They spent all their time online with a program on how to raise a baby. A virtual baby. Anyway, they spent all their time playing this game, they forgot to feed their real baby and it died.
Hinzen: So you see that kind of thing in a future New York?
Shteyngart: No, [in] the whole world.
Hinzen: What was the process of writing the novel like? How did this fictional world, slightly more extreme than ours, come about?
Shteyngart: There was [an] incident. Like Lenny, I have this huge wall of books in my apartment. A cable repairman came over, a very young guy, and he said, “Why you got all them books here, man?” He was really disgusted. I could just see the disgust on his face. Then he said, “You have a 25-inch TV — it’s so small.” I thought, wow, my priorities are really out of whack with the world around me. That’s where Lenny comes from.
Hinzen: So it’s autobiographical in a sense?
Shteyngart: It’s my outlook on life. You know, it’s very strange to be working in a medium that daily loses cultural significance.