The Search for Eternal Youth in a Yuan-Driven World
Jong, Erica, Moment
Super Sad True Love Story
By Gary Shteyngart
2010, $26.00, pp. 352
Gary Shteyngart is a melancholy Russian, a wandering Jew, an unassimilated American, a Swiftian satirist and a Gogolian taleteller. The voice of his novels is unique: rambunctious, fierce, funny--with a glaze of despair.
In Super Sad True Love Story, he manages to send up everything from America's dependence on the Chinese yuan to chubby Jewish boys who fall in love with sleek Korean American chicks half their age. The world of Super Sad True Love Story is one in which a person's youth, sexuality and credit-rating are all-important. Aging men spend their life savings in search of expensive attempts to turn back the clock, administered by a company called Post-Human Services where our hero, Lenny Abramov, works in various jobs depending on how successfully he sucks up to his boss. As if that weren't enough for one novel, Super Sad also incorporates revolution, counter-revolution, the invasion of America by the People's Republic of China and a mordant parody of our sexual consumer culture.
Shteyngart's satire made me laugh out loud and moved me to buy his first two novels, The Russian Debutante's Handbook and Absurdistan. I read them both, giggling. The cumulative effect of the three books, however, was oddly one of confusion. Shteyngart's heroes are so similar: Russian-born New-Yorkers, perpetually horny and reflexively anti-Semitic. Shteyngart's anti-Semitism is not political in the least; the West Bank and Goldman Sachs are terra incognita. It isn't even fresh. His Jews have big lips and noses, devour sturgeon and other greasy foods, sometimes relish being repulsively fat and feel humid lust when they aren't wallowing in victimhood. They are the adolescents, if not the elders, of Zion, as imagined by Nazis. I get it, but I don't like it. This kind of stereotyped image of Jews makes me itch. It probably makes Shteyngart itch, too. He's too smart not to be aware of what he's doing. But whatever. You can't censor satire.
Super Sad is much better than either of the previous novels, which got enviable reviews on the whole. It shares with them the satiric provocations, the Russian-Jewish soul, but covers a broader canvas and features more complex and contradictory main characters.
Told in diaries and email, Super Sad gives the lovers, Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park, their own voices, their own ambivalence, their own take on the disastrous civilization Shteyngart has created for our future. And what a civilization it is!
The search for youth is obsessional and expensive. The new world, like our world, is divided into High and Low Net Worth Individuals, HNWLs and LNWIs. What's left of America has capitulated to China's economic power and financial super-strength. By the end of the book, the Chinese bankers and politicians are arriving in triumph and studying American emails as if they were literature. All very amusing.
Eunice Park is a middle-class Korean-American beauty from New Jersey who refuses to take her LSATs to please her fiercely ambitious parents. She is also allergic to "texts" and specializes in "images" and "Assertiveness Training" at the fictional Elderbird College. And Lenny is Shteyn-gart's stand-in, an insecure, Russian-American Jew looking for love in all the wrong places. Love, for Shteyngart's protagonists, is a search for "diversity"--as in the first two novels. African-American and Latina girls turn him on, and so do Asians. He's hot for Caucasian women, too, but the oedipal feelings are too close for comfort. He loves Italians, for example. He adores and fears his Russian Mama, of course.
The plot of the novel parallels Lennys search for love--particularly his courtship of the beauteous Eunice, who finds him old, flabby and badly dressed. She likes his adoration, however, and eventually they live together with his smelly books and bookshelves. …