Love in a Time of Dystopia

In the popular imagination of the 1980s, America was a utopia, Russia a dystopia; but then the cold war warmed and everywhere became equally tepid. It’s a mediocre life we live now in America: Our economy is an unnatural disaster; our environment a wreck; and our present enemies constitute no empire-they merely compose grainy videos in cave shelters, ride mules and set our own jetliners against us. The great countries have all been founded, and the great novels have all been written. There is no weak analogy or equivalency here but “direct descent,” as the genealogists say.

Still, despite their declines, America and Russia sustain a fatal fascination with national greatness. The great American novel was only the capitalized version 2.0 of the great Russian novel, and both were attempts, whether conscious or not, to assert preeminence not for individual authors or their countries’ changeable regimes but for entire cultures. Indeed, there once was a sense that one’s very being lived in the artworks of one’s culture. It’s laughable now, but without that sense, we would not revere books. And we would have no books to review.

Gary Shteyngart, born in Leningrad in 1972, and currently a resident of Manhattan, left Russia’s death throes only to experience, in his own telling and not just my own, America’s-and literature’s. Three novels have emerged from this sufferance: The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2003) was a funny, flawed take on a young Russian who became a young American, then flew east after the collapse of communism to fleece fellow expatriates in the fictional nation of Pravda; Absurdistan (2006), funnier and less flawed, fabled an obese heir, another Americanized Russian, a fan of rap and buffets, trying to convince emigration officials to let him leave St. Petersburg after the funeral of his mafioso father. Now Super Sad True Love Story complicates this trilogy of big men talking big talk with the story of a Russophile who loves books in a bookless culture and who tries to attract a 20-something Korean-American woman.

Vladimir Girshkin, émigré protagonist of the first novel, and Misha Vainberg, hero of the second, have given way to an older, grayer, more depressive loser: Lenny Abramov, scared of disease, of the disease that is ignorance, and of death; employee of a life-extension company, “the Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation,” housed in a Fifth Avenue synagogue bought at auction, “when the original congregation folded after being bamboozled by some kind of Jewish pyramid scheme years ago.”

Enter Madoff, laughing. Mr. Shteyngart’s novel is a compendium of posts: a post-9/11 novel, becoming a post-recession novel, eventually posting its satiric gains into a dim futurity. When is this novel set? Unclear. A reference is made to a character’s parents not yet born under the Reagan administration. There’s another passing mention of a soldier too young to be a veteran of the invasion of Venezuela.

On Roman holiday, feckless Lenny meets exchange student Eunice Park, another first-generation American with overbearing parents-her mother a kind, happy fool who’s always urging Eunice to marry, though her own husband beats her. Eating and drinking through anti-American Italy, Lenny proclaims his passions both amorous and bibliophilic, but Eunice, transparently into transparent bras and cash, is initially repelled. A brief bout of cunnilingus leads to flirty correspondence and then to America, where Lenny and Eunice reconnect and the rest of the novel is set. Or perhaps that should be “America,” now under the authority of the ARA, the American Restoration Authority, whose slogan declares, “Together We’ll Surprise the World!”

Lenny keeps a diary expressing every antiquated conceit of the Old Country (loneliness, hopelessness, anger and lust-the entire emotional gamut of the Dostoyevskian underground), while Eunice prefers chatting and emailing, blithely and cruelly. Their differences provide for a narrative of alternating chapters: Lenny’s entries, eager, earnest and nebbishy, interleaved with Eunice’s e-epistolaries, tough, candid and bitchy:

“I met this old, gross guy at a party yesterday and we got really drunk and I sort of let him go down on me. … He was nice, kind of dorky, although he thinks he’s so Media cause he works in biotech or something. And he had the grossest feet, bunions and this gigantic heel spur that sticks out like he’s got a thumb glued to his foot. I know, I’m thinking like my dad. Anyway, he brushes his teeth all wrong, so I had to SHOW A GROWN MAN HOW TO USE A TOOTHBRUSH!!!!!”

Apocalypse is in the best interests of the satirist: the worse the world, the better the material. Lenny and Eunice’s world is fairly bad and fairly recognizable: Super Sad True Love Story posits an America indebted to China and controlled by the Bipartisan Party. Books are regarded as olfactory nuisances; Fox News has split into FoxLiberty-Prime and FoxLiberty-Ultra; the dollar is but the slave of the yuan. Revolution foments as National Guard tanks occupy the avenues and blockade downtown; a shantytown appears in Central Park: “Outside, the streets were nearly empty. All the cabs had fled to wherever cabs come from, and that absence of moving yellow made Manhattan feel as still and silent as Kabul during Friday prayers.”

By this time, however, red, white and blue shades of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the Soviet era’s most trenchant satire, have given way to a homage to Orwell’s 1984, another dystopia disguised as a romance, as Mr. Shteyngart appears bored with the politics of state and confronts them within the politics of love. The perfect conjunction between Mr. Shteyngart’s criticism, which is public, and his characters’ private angst can be found in the novel’s treatment of social networking. Mr. Shteyngart has devised an application whereby each person, as he enters a room-a bar, a club, a restaurant-is immediately rated on another’s handheld device, or “äppärät,” by criteria of health, wealth, personality and fuckability. (One reason writers write is to score high on just such an imaginary scale.)

The humor elates and gladdens, pokes, prods, deflates and denounces; yet where the book truly surprises is in its essential, seemingly unself-conscious bookishness. Mr. Shteyngart has made a bound object set sometime after the obsolescence of bound objects, and it’s only because he’s such a natural novelist that his product is a hardcover and not an exclusively downloadable document. Notably for a book about bibliothanatos, it’s quite the living product: teeming with an excess of subplots and subcharacters, disorganization and referential ephemera. A super-sad mess of a book about the super-sad mess we’re surviving, Mr. Shteyngart’s novel ultimately coheres in its call for a love of literacy and a literacy of love.


Mr. Cohen’s most recent novel, Witz, was published in May.


Love in a Time of Dystopia