"GARY SHTEYNGART = DUMBSHIT. OH WOW, YOUR DYSTOPIAN SATIRE HAS CHINA SURPASSING USA AND EVERYONE ADDICTED TO IPODS. REAL FUCKING IMAGINATIVE"—@LitCritHulk on Twitter.
I realize that opening a book review with a quote from a Twitter critic whose gimmick is impersonating a Marvel superhero serves as de facto validation of any amount of hand-wringing about the decline of print culture. However, LitCritHulk has a point, at least when it comes to the setting of Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story. In Shteyngart's brave new world, books are obsolete relics, one's worth is determined by one's credit score, people spend hours shopping for translucent pants on their "äppäräts" (yeah, basically a fancy iPod), and the US is about to become Asia's bitch. It is not, as even a casual reader of sci-fi will have discerned, a particularly creative futurescape, but it's populated with characters who defy the very clichés that Shteyngart would have us believe his world is built on.
The book's epistolary structure compiles diary entries written by earnest, old-fashioned Lenny, alongside emails written to and from the girl he loves, the ruthlessly modern Eunice Park, as they struggle to protect their relationship, their families, and their lives in a New York City that's collapsing around them.
Korean American Eunice is a "nano-sized woman who had likely never known the tickle of her own pubic hair, who lacked both breast and scent, who existed as easily on an äppärät screen as on the street before me." Compare Eunice's description to what Lenny has to say about an Italian woman, Fabrizia: "Her body conquered by small armies of hair, her curves fixed by carbohydrates, nothing but the Old World and its dying nonelectronic corporeality." Forget the fleshy, wooly past. The future is hairless—and pixilated.
Lenny, meanwhile, is a total schlub; in his own words, a "slight man with a gray, sunken battleship of a face, curious wet eyes, a giant, gleaming forehead on which a dozen cavemen could have painted something nice, a sickle of a nose perched atop a tiny puckered mouth, and from the back, a growing bald spot whose shape perfectly replicates the great state of Ohio, with its capital city, Columbus, marked by a deep-brown mole." He's an unattractive, visibly aging anachronism in a society that encourages its citizens to share data on one another's "fuckability." Lenny's voice is the true highlight of True Love Story—his diary entries convey, with humor and anxiety, his nostalgia for a lost world, the world of his immigrant parents and the books he hoards in his apartment, as well as his hopeless love for Eunice. In contrast, the brittle, noncommittal Eunice is the bête noire of anyone who's ever suspected the internet is making us stupider, and her deliberately shallow dispatches can be grating, even as Shteyngart allows hints of compassion and self-determination to emerge from behind even Eunice's affectless façade.
True Story is a frustrating read: It functions so flimsily as an indictment of our cultural proclivities (doesn't everyone already believe we are really and truly fucked? Anyone, at least, who reads literary fiction?) and so effectively as an examination of our interpersonal ones. Shteyngart has imagined a future where kids dress like whores and don't read—to paraphrase, "real imaginative." He's also imagined a future in which wry middle-aged men agonize over their fuckability and worry about the safety of their parents amid riots and food shortages. My 140-character review: When it's not distracted by hand-wringing, it's heartbreaking.