Over the past couple of years, I’ve tried to find super awesome dystopian/speculative novels to read, but with varied luck. The craze at present, it seems, is with young adult fiction, due in big part I believe to The Hunger Games, which is by no means my favoritest book series. It’s a good introduction to the dystopian genre, but feels recycled (and nothing tops The Giver). And although MaddAddam was rad, it was part of a series and not fat with new ideas.
Imagine how gleeful I was to discover Super Sad True Love Story, the third novel by Gary Shteyngart. How this book evaded my gaze since 2010, I have no idea. But anyway, it’s one of the best novels of the past few years and a staggering addition to the web of dystopian fiction I’ve come to adore.
The novel focuses on the lives of Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park, a highly unlikely couple residing in a future nightmarishly close to our own. Lenny is a middle-aged salesperson of sorts at an agency that promises technological solutions to death, and Eunice is a Korean-American student in her early twenties who’s unable to find direction in her life. Their love is weird but furtive, and told against Shteyngart’s wildly inventive vision of our collective, near future.
As opposed to Orwell’s crushing London or Huxley’s “orgy porgy,” Shteyngart gives us exactly where we’re headed. People nowadays are glued to super-powered handheld devices that make iPhone’s look primitive, China has the rest of the world running to get in with their economy, books make folks uncomfortable (it’s the smell), and America is a garbage pile/police state. Abramov, with his discomforting book collection, has to deal with his friends’ addiction to Media (all good dystopian novels capitalize something) and constant streaming of their lives, while simultaneously trying to make Eunice, with her shopping obsessions and youthful demeanor, remain in his good favor. And Eunice has overbearing parents, so that’s fun times.
As a reflection of the media Shteyngart lampoons, he adheres to epistolary narratives (with a fun surprise at the end). Abramov’s journal entries are sweeping and literary (in a sad-sack kinda way), and Eunice’s messages on GlobalTeens (another Media invention that makes Facebook look innocent) are hilarious, while making you seriously consider the problematic relationship children, teenagers, and even adults have with communicative technology. You really root for the human, emotional connection Lenny and Eunice have against the terrifying, crushing power of Shteyngart’s overblown Internet culture.
What sets this novel apart from other dystopian novels nowadays is that there is little to no fantasy here. This future, Shteyngart’s future, may as well be our future. I personally sympathize with Lenny, but know that I’m at this moment contributing in some way to a world of Eunice Parks. The age of information technology is far beyond our control, and people are so Media now (my favorite of the author’s new vernacular) that important news and events blow past us so quickly we have no time to really reflect. Shteyngart is a brilliant satirist, but with this novel he’s giving us a vision that may be the closest to reality that any dystopia has offered for a very long time. He illuminates a universal ignorance (Media as its sovereign) distracting us from human atrocities only ever read as headlines, never felt. My advice: read this novel, read this novel again, and don’t stop till your iPhone or Android feels like the apocalypse in your palm.