Tainted Love

A review of Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story

Dreamed of better lives, the kind which never hate,
Trapped in a state of imaginary grace.
I made a pilgrimage to save this human race,
Never comprehending the race had long gone by.

Part resignation, part vow, Modern English’s hit 1982 track “Melt With You” borrows from the classical poet Virgil a supreme belief that love can conquer all. Despite his pessimism about the fate of humanity, the song’s lover retains his commitment and faith in love. Fast-forward twenty-eight years, subtract a cold war, and you arrive at the publication of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, a novel whose sweet, sad, humorous and occasionally contrived narrative unfurls in a not-so-distant, disintegrating America. Its lover desperately tries to believe that “things were going to get better. Someday. For me to fall in love with Eunice Park just as the world fell apart would be a tragedy beyond the Greeks.” Unfortunately, his entropic world does just that, conquering the protagonist’s love and society in one fatal sweep.

Shteyngart has quickly found himself in the good graces of literary circles with his two previous efforts, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, which share Super Sad True Love Story’s mix of quirky wit, social commentary, and moments of painful introspection. No doubt many of these accolades are well deserved; Super Sad True Love Story is an impressive, engaging novel. Still, it does not quite possess the subtlety a superb satire demands, for Shteyngart’s heavy-handed political complaints only amount to a distracting, superficial critique of capitalism.

In some ways, Super Sad True Love Story delivers what it promises: boy meets girl on the brink of chaos, where hope for the couple’s future seems futile. Nevertheless, one follows the collision of our horribly matched lovers, Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park, with misguided optimism. Abramov, the hopelessly neurotic product of resilient Russian immigrant parents, dominates the narration with his pinings and persistence on how to make Eunice, fifteen years his junior, fall in love with him. In the abyss of middle age, our protagonist tries to affirm his worth to his beloved despite his tragically anachronistic sensitive-hipster-intellectual persona. Eunice is far more in tune with the times: youthful, obsessed with shopping and more likely to have her nose poked in a cybermall than a novel.

Regardless of obstacles, both are compelled to pursue love by a sense of impending doom. Their pessimism is not exceptional. Take for instance one of Lenny’s closest friends, Noah, a blogger whose shrill screeds and fondness for vulgarity liken him to a grotesque hybrid of Michael Moore and Howard Stern. Despite himself, Noah acutely voices the hopelessness of our characters’ belief in the future, as no one contests his assertions that their country has traded its shining seas for something closer to Orwell’s Oceania. Indeed, nearly all of characters seem infused with the doom and gloom clichés so cherished today by dystopic soothsayers; from science fiction writers to the myriad of pessimistic trends including but not limited to neo-Malthusianians, insurrectionists, disaster porn fetishists, cyberpunks, dieselpunks, survivalists, neo-catastrophists, crisis theorists, peakniks, ex-worker collectives and the New York Times business section.

Super Sad True Love Story is emblematic of the confusing character of modern anti-capitalism, whose political backdrop reads like a puréed concoction of protest placards, all complaints “Left” represented: the problems of an incomprehensible gap between rich and poor, unemployment, Islamophobia, xenophobia, the hypersexualization of female bodies, police brutality, rampant consumerism, pseudo-Luddite aversions to technology, racism and racialization, credit score conspiracies, exploitative private military contracts; and of course, the American-Zionist campaign against poor, huddled brown masses. Add to this mix the imagination of a society that no longer values intellectuals, artists or literacy in general, an existence that has no use for poetry, aesthetics and, more specifically, for Lenny’s “smelly old books.” Many will read Shteyngart’s view of the future and relish in the ruthlessness with which he attacks the decadence of a fading empire. “Shteyngart is the Joseph Heller of the information age,” raves Salon magazine. The Washington Post commends Shteyngart for “exposing the moral bankruptcy of our techno-lust.” And, while the NY Times knows we cannot be saved from “the follies of our rulers,” Shteyngart’s “words are a form of life, and we can’t say we haven’t been warned.”

Although this social commentary receives the praise of critics, it’s a simplistic account of modern social discontents. The perverse panorama of SSTLS reifies the instability of capitalism into archetypal forms of villainy: corporate greed, insatiable consumerism, the gullible complacent masses. This impulse towards allegory burdens the reading experience. The manner in which Shteyngart obfuscates the line between political and aesthetic is far from enlightening, but rather insubstantial.

What is striking, however, is the way in which Shteyngart constructs a lattice of vogue “anti-capitalist” preoccupations, merges them into a corporate wasteland of AlliedWasteCVSCitiGroup and Ass Luxury advertisements, and smashes it to pieces. In the future of SSTLS, capitalism triumphantly survives, reorganizes and thrives. This rebound occurs despite the realization that the crises of capitalism cannot be managed, that the United States “has tried a dozen different economic plans in as many months. Privatization, deprivatization, savings stimulus, spending stimulus, regulation, deregulation, pegged currency, floating currency, controlled currency, uncontrolled currency, more tariffs, less tariffs. And the net result: bupkis.” Congruent with this consciousness is a tragic material reality: after the total collapse of American society, instead of revolution we get regression, where urban dwellers suppose “the closer to the city, the better. Even if you have to work a five-jiao line. Work is work.”

Here, Shteyngart’s political critique is indeed so subtle (or, more precisely, unconscious, unintended, and unnoticed by most readers) it will perhaps not be able to vie for attention with the racist billboards dotting the landscape of the future, which depict Chinese as thrifty ants and Latinos as spend-happy grasshoppers. All existing forms of discontent, whether David’s “Act Two for America,” Noah’s tirades, or an isolationism of domesticity, prove inadequate to secure the characters a better future. Any form of political or social solidarity, anything beyond self-protection, is but a façade. While some empathy lingers, as the cynical realist Eunice claims, the reality is that “we’re not all in this together.”

Indeed, the existence of any alternative, uniting political vision is absent from Super Sad True Love Story’s 350-plus pages. As Terrence Rafferty noted in his review inSlate, Shteyngart’s previous books “were unrepentantly gleeful about the demise of the Soviet empire; the end of America makes him a lot sadder.” Shteyngart’s faith that capitalism deserved victory over the ruins of the Soviet Empire has been lost, and in its place, an ambivalent nihilism prevails. The book’s characters have inherited the history of failure to build a better society; this history is exemplified in the inability of Lenny Abramov, the son of anti-Soviet Russian immigrants, to imagine, despite the horrors of the modern world, an emancipatory alternative. Capital’s domination has manifested itself so strongly in his behaviors and desires, in his entire existence and that of his society, that after the entire American infrastructure has crumbled, after Lenny is left with only his Euny to love, he is relieved, even enlivened to return to work.

This uncanny home in an impoverished system is coupled with an unsettling admission by Lenny. As the Big Apple devolves into a police state, Lenny entertains the possibility that the ensuing chaos might have been precisely what everyone wanted. He wonders “if the violence was actually channeling our collective fear into a kind of momentary clarity, the clarity of being alive during conclusive times, the joy of being historically important by association?.” This pleasure of playing the part of the last man, an insight that cuts from Shteyngart’s character through to the apocalyptic fetish common today, even among those who profess “another world is possible,” exhibits an utter pessimism towards the future and man’s ability to shape it. If we are in fact witnessing “zero hour for our economy, zero hour for our military might, zero hour for everything that used to make us proud to be ourselves,” the time or place where more was possible, in Shteyngart’s narrative, seems to have passed without us noticing. Possibility is projected into the past, but not identified with any definite point in history, fictional or real. Abramov urges that we turn to the Old World, specifically Rome, for little more than consolation, for evidently that’s where the appropriate disposition for the end of days lies. On his Roman holiday, Abramov begins to admire in the Italians, in a history of centuries of collapse, “the slow diminution of ambition, the recognition that the best is far behind them. (An Italian Whitney Houston might have sung, ‘I believe the parents are the future.’) We Americans can learn a lot from their graceful decline.”

If one has hope that the future need not be the barbarism of Super Sad True Love Story, explanations for our deepening political pessimism will need to be sought elsewhere. (I nominate Dialectic of Enlightenment as a place to start.) One should not read Shteyngart’s book for political commentary, but rather, as a symptom. In a world absent of emancipatory politics, even art tries to rationalize and make do with the disappointment of the present and future. This is fully pronounced in the core of SSTLS: the aims and limitations of love in such a hostile environment. While Mr Shteyngart is still an amateur landscaper of the dystopian, he is far more successful at outlining, in agonizing detail and with a deliberate, vulnerable thoughtfulness, the anatomy of a broken heart.

For this, Shteyngart’s form works well, directing the reader’s attention back and forth between the more traditional diary entries of Lenny and the transcripts of the Eunice’s digital persona. The schema of their romance is borrowed, in Lenny’s mind, from Anton Chekhov. Abramov proposes his seduction of Eunice will mimic that of Three Years:

[Attractive Julia] was distressed and dispirited, and told herself now that to refuse an honorable, good man who loved her, simply because he was not attractive, especially when marrying him would make it possible for her to change her mode of life, her cheerless, monotonous, idle life in which youth was passing with no prospect of anything better in the future — to refuse him under such circumstances was madness, caprice and folly, and that God might even punish her for it.

Clearly, Lenny has no problem with self-deprecation; indeed, it is one of his most prominent personality traits. This perverse conception of love, one that has no qualms at highlighting self-interest, bargaining, and settling, is reflective of Super Sad True Love Story’s salutary avoidance of flat sentimentalism. Instead, Shyteyngart not only reproduces the limerence of new love, but also the alloy of sadism and masochism in attraction, and the necessary lies one cannot help tellto keep a relationship alive.

Lenny plays the part both of the patriarchal lover and Freudian realist. On one occasion, he waxes poetic that the “love I felt for her on that train ride had a capital and provinces, parishes and a Vatican, an orange planet and many sullen moons — it was systemic and it was complete.” Later, he admits “the fact that she was suspicious of me, the fact that she cared — that pleased me too,” a confession lacking the conceits of his earlier verse. Eunice and Lenny‘s imperfections are far less endearing than the partners in a romantic comedy, and their self-absorption and self-punishment do not have the scope to make them completely tragic. And yet, perhaps this is only because Shteyngart refuses to hold back in making visible the ugliness lurking underneath attachment. Eunice seeks constant validation of her looks and the means to constantly add to her wardrobe. Her attraction to Lenny blossoms from the stability, primarily financial, that he can provide. This may make us more sympathetic to our fumbling, pitiful, desperate Lenny, whose perspective is dominant — but even this preference is complicated by Shteyngart. For Lenny’s own pathologies are on display — his attraction to the abused, his tolerance (relishing) of his own mistreatment — these disturbing psyches are inextricable both from the couple’s attraction to each other and from the reader’s attraction to them.

Are such perversions often absent from attraction, or do they underlie all our endeavors in love? If the latter, do they somehow remain, nevertheless, perversions? Is the condition of Noah and his girlfriend Amy, of being “together for the obvious and timeless reason: it was slightly less painful than being alone,” simply an undesirable yet unavoidable condition, or does it instead underscore the reasons for and limits of human relationships in the imagined future they inhabit?

This yearning for love despite its limited possibility is the implicit sociopolitical critique in Shteyngart’s narrative. In the future of SSTLS, each aspect of society simultaneously permeates and asphyxiates the whole, shaping all of human existence. Love, despite romantics who protest otherwise, is not immune. The reader cannot help but be taken aback by Lenny’s frustration with the seeming insignificance of “difficult economic details,” leading him to say, “how desperately I wanted to forsake these facts, to open a smelly old book or to go down on a pretty young girl instead. Why couldn’t I have been born to a better world?”

This question carries heft beyond the pleasure of curling up with a good book and performing cunnilingus. What does such an inquiry mean for the world of Super Sad True Love Story and, what question does it pose to our own? Why couldn’t we have been born to a better world, where one could experience a greater level of intellectual, sexual, political, and social freedom? What went wrong? Can it be amended? Shtyengart provides no answers, but the perverse compulsions for and doomed outcome of the romance of Lenny and Eunice speak volumes to the limits of what people can create in their personal lives when living in a world out of their control. Lenny’s heartbreak is not only over a lost love, but for a lost world in which love can do more than die, more or less slowly.