By January 13, 2011 0 Comments Read More →

Caught up in a Super Sad True Love Story

super-sad-true-love-storyPart comic satire, part acid bath, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is a book that readers will either love or hate, perhaps both. In the book’s dystopian future, America is collapsing due to debt to foreign nations; people are expected to spend themselves into debt as an act of patriotic loyalty; constant ties to handheld gadgets and implants have replaced literature and human interaction; consumers follow advertisements blindly into health fads, oversexed behavior, and narcissim; and vapid youth media culture dominates public discourse. Shteyngart’s vision is frightening until the reader realizes that most of this “future” has already happened, and then it’s not just frightening but terrifying, and yes, “super sad.”

In this bleak landscape Shteyngart places two narrators. Lenny Abramov is the son of immigrant Russian parents, a man entering middle age who works for a company that sells life extension treatments to the super rich (“HNWIs,” or “High Net-Worth Individuals”). He’s beginning to face the cruel reality that he himself will never be wealthy enough to receive the treatments he sells and that his job is under threat because he no longer looks young enough to sell the concept of eternal youth. He’s losing touch because he prefers books to the apparat handheld device that dominates the lives of most of his friends and acquaintances.

Eunice Park is a young Korean-American for whom Lenny falls. They’re an odd couple. His narration comes in the form of old-fashioned journal entries while most of hers come as mostly vapid, slang-ridden text messages to friends and family. She’s health-obssessed and Lenny’s pudgy. But despite the near twenty-year age difference between them, a romance blooms. Eunice represents the youth that Lenny wants to recapture, and she appreciates the old-fashioned devoted attention that he provides. They bond over the shared past of driven immigrant families.

Shteyngart subjects the budding romance to many challenges–pressure from family and friends, the manipulative grab for Eunice made by Lenny’s boss, the charismatic, youth-enhanced Joshie Goldman, and the collapse of American society. The debt crisis escalates into public revolt, xenophobic riots, and a crushing response from the corporate state.

It’s not easy to like Shteyngart’s protagonists. Character flaws make both almost unbearable at times–Eunice’s personality is shallow and underdeveloped and Lenny wallows in anxiety. But they have these flaws because they’re creatures of their society, and Shteyngart’s depiction of that society is dead accurate: offensive yet drop-dead funny. I laughed at this book, but ultimately realized that it was nervous laughter: this dystopia is too close to the painful truth.

Whether they love it or hate it, book group readers are going to have lots to say about Super Sad True Love Story, a book that will stay with them as something that they regularly reference while negotiating our troubled world.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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