Recommendation: Great book but, as the title suggests, this is not for the faint of heart. If you need a story dripping with smiles and sunshine, this will be too much. If you’re not afraid to play in the dark, you should pick this one up.
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It’s super. It’s sad. It’s true. And it’s a love story. Well, it’s actually fiction so maybe it’s not so true, but Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is a pretty awesome book. Lenny Abramov is kind of a loser. Almost 40, about to be demoted, chronically alone, unattractive and disconnected from modern technology, Lenny is a serious sad sack. Even sadder is the American culture that has developed around him. Everything is hyper-sexualized (from see-through “Onionskin” girl jeans to the ability to directly rate someone’s attractiveness), hyper-judgmental (amidst the floundering US economy only a high credit rating can ensure your safety), and hyper-technological (devices called apparati hang from each person’s neck, absorb most of their attention and almost completely reduce the need for human contact). Bleak, bleak, bleak. But, Lenny catches a glimpse at redemption when he meets Eunice Park, a twenty-year-old shopping obsessed woman of Korean descent. With their deteriorating nation as a backdrop, Lenny and Eunice try to find out if love has a place in their society.
This novel really brings a lot to the table and it kept pushing me between laughter and fear, which is kind of Shteyngart’s thang. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, although Lenny can be too long-winded at times, and it holds enough resemblance to modern-day society that it can really freak you out. The segregation based on credit score is pretty reminiscent of Romney’s 47% fiasco (which occurred after the book’s release, fyi). The reduced human interaction due to constant use of apparati reminds me a little too much of those parties where everyone ends up on their smart phone. The intense sexualization and objectification of women is a frighteningly logical extension of porn culture. Pretty much Shteyngart looks at some major problems with society today, gives them a slight twist, and hands them back to us so we can see just how deformed and grotesque they really are. It’s totally creepy, but in a very insightful manner. And before I sound too depressing, let me reiterate that there is a lot of humor in this book. It’s sad, but it’s also funny. When an advanced smartphone is determining (and displaying for everyone to see) someone’s anal/oral/vaginal preferences, you just have to take a second, sit back, and let some laughter crawl out of your gut. It’s pretty rare that someone can make you think critically and laugh at the same time, but Shteyngart’s got that kind of talent.
Obviously, I’m a fan, but I did feel that things got a little too heavy at times. I’m all down for the dark novels (my friends make fun of me for always wanting the main character to die at the end of movies), but I felt that this lacked any sense of redemption. Maybe redemption is the wrong word, maybe realism is more appropriate. Everything that Shteyngart creates can be easily linked back to modern society, but the fact that everything goes so wrong is a little oppressive. The technology obsession, the objectification of women, the loss of literacy, the impenetrable bureaucracy, the heightened military presence, any of it can make sense on its own, but to have it all parading around in one world at the same time gave it a slight cartoonish gloss that kept it a step below the 1984s and Luminariums of the book world. There is just too much crammed into 330 pages. At 500 pages, with time to add some depth and ease into the ideals of this American dystopia, I could see Super Sad True Love Story tip the scales and land in the range of all-time greats. As it stands, it’s just really really good (stabbing insult, I know).
There is also a little inconsistency in Lenny’s characterization. You always want to see the main character grow in a novel, and it’s pretty imperative that they change in some discernible way, but those changes shouldn’t be frantic or wild. Lenny, at some points, changes with the direction of the wind. He very suddenly goes from loving Eunice more than anything in the world to thinking they might be over. There is a traumatic event that initiates it, but for someone who was willing to give up everything to be with the girl he loved, it seemed a little shaky. None of this is to say that you shouldn’t read this book. It’s absorbing and sucks you in a way that is borderline terrifying (reading the last 75 pages on the subway and then receiving a text asking if riots were breaking out in Brooklyn (??) had me really confused about which reality I was in). So when you’re in a mood where you feel comfortable being confronted with the uglier sides of yourself, definitely give this a read.
This book is really jam-packed with a lot of levels and I can’t go into them all here without turning this post into a novel in its own right, but if you want to discuss any other aspects of the story leave a comment and we’ll talk.