Schlubby Hero Gets Vixen in Shteyngart’s Dystopian Love Story
A down-at-heels U.S. badly in hock to China; a trigger-happy “bipartisan” administration that herds its low-net-worth individuals (LNWIs) out of affluent city centers and, on occasion, shoots them; a culture of subliterate, sexually shameless young people who live attached to their smartphones and look on books as stinky artifacts of the past.
The future or now?
Although Gary Shteyngart sets his dystopian comedy “Super Sad True Love Story” a decade or so hence, what he’s really exercised about is the present -- or, more precisely, the recent past, since the America he lays into looks more like Bush’s than Obama’s. (The country the U.S. has recently invaded in the book is, plausibly, Venezuela.)
As in Shteyngart’s other books, the protagonist is a less attractive, less successful version of the author. Lenny Abramov, the schlubby, pudgy, middle-aged son of poor Russian immigrants, has a job reeling in high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) for an expensive immortality procedure. It appears to be going south.
Lenny’s super sad love story grows out of his super inappropriate fixation on an 86-pound, 24-year-old Korean- American airhead named Eunice Park. That Lenny’s heart shatters the first time he lays eyes on her doesn’t suggest his attraction is based on the quality of her mind -- and Eunice’s mind is hardly her best feature. His true love looks more like a high-school crush.
What draws Eunice to Lenny is harder to make out, since he has so few attractive qualities of mind or body. She ventures this explanation:
“I know he’s gross physically, but there’s something sweet about him, and honestly I need to be taken care of too. I feel safe with him because he is so not my ideal and I feel like I can be myself...”
File that one under “Fantasies of the Middle-Aged Male.” The same dream of the sweet young thing charmed by a broken-down wreck fueled last year’s movie “Crazy Heart”; I didn’t buy it there, either, but at least the wreck was played by Jeff Bridges.
Yet Lenny, for all his weakness, is clearly meant to be the novel’s hero. He represents feeling, kindness, liberal decency and -- most important -- literacy. Eunice tells a friend what it was like to happen upon him with a book in his hands:
“I was so embarrassed I just stood there and watched him read which lasted for like HALF AN HOUR, and finally he put the book down and I pretended like nothing happened. And then I snuck a peek and it was that Russian guy Tolstoy...”
As that passage demonstrates, subtlety of touch isn’t Shteyngart’s greatest gift. Neither is consistency of tone: He gives vent, alternately, to a satirist’s spleen and a heart of mush. The split personality is characteristic.
His 2002 debut, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” was a larcenous romp that ended on a strangely mawkish note. Though the 2006 “Absurdistan” showed more rigor, it still suffered from the chasm between satire and sentiment, which has widened -- fatally -- in the new book.
On the one hand, I had the sensation of an angry, frustrated New Yorker poking his finger into my chest as he enumerated his beefs. I didn’t laugh, but if you’re curious you can check out the novel’s insidery trailer (with the likes of Edmund White, Mary Gaitskill and James Franco trying to keep a straight face) on YouTube; if you find it hilarious, this book is for you.
On the other, I winced at the schmaltziness of the romance -- and the childishness. Any dystopian love story has a ghost looking over its shoulder by the name of “1984.” Orwell’s masterpiece offers complexities of political analysis that Shteyngart (perhaps wisely) doesn’t attempt. More to the point, there’s nothing adolescent about its love story. Its betrayals are hauntingly adult.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Craig Seligman at firstname.lastname@example.org.