Sunday, November 28, 2010

Love for Shteyngart's Sad Super Scary (Because It's True) Story

I'm too old to return to the dystopian novels I devoured in my adolescence (1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451) but I loved Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, even though it literally gave me nightmares.

Like George Saunders, Shteyngart sets his dystopia primarily in language, specifically in the unholy matrimony of language and commerce, in which language promises to serve and obey commerce and only commerce, and commerce promises to sell us eternal youth and coolness until death does upon us all creep like a prime-time serial killer or fall like a cloud of hot orange toxic ash from the burning sky.

The most frightening thing about America in SSTLS is -- well, where to begin? It's all frightening. The United States is a failed, bankrupt, one-party state; the American Restoration Authority announces that in reading its sign, you have denied the existence of the tank you just passed and have "implied consent"; the National Guard belongs to a sinister corporation; and no one reads books ("printed, bound media artifacts") anymore. The United Nations is a mall.

The most frightening thing is the utterly frantic futility of the lives being lived, as people scramble to increase their credit and fuckability ratings and save enough money for dechronification treatments. They are terrified of death because their lives have had no meaning.

Here is our main character, Lenny, watching his girlfriend Eunice shop for a dress: "Here was the anxiety of choice, the pain of living without history, the pain of some higher need. I felt humbled by this world, awed by its religiosity, the attempt to extract meaning from an artifact that contained mostly thread. If only beauty could explain the world away. If only a nippleless bra could make it all work" (Shteyngart 209).

Super Sad True Love Story is darkly funny and deeply disturbing and beautifully written. It goes on the "Read This Before It's Too Late (it's already too late)" shelf with Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and McCarthy's The Road.

Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. Random House: New York, 2010.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

This Is What Happens When You Look Up

Huh. I put down my pen (OK, my red pen. I'm marking, not writing) and pick up my laptop for five minutes and an hour later, I am still online, having read articles or parts of articles on the following:
  • the death throes of traditional publishing
  • the rules of blogging for writers
  • the rules of social media for writers
  • should you tweet (if you're a writer)
  • Jonathan Safran Foer's newest project, a book that is a story that is also a paper sculpture with holes cut in the pages (hard to explain, please Google "Tree of Codes" for description that makes sense)
  • copyright and what it's good for
  • the best writer's websites
When does a person find time to write a novel if they have to be blogging and tweeting and social networking, for the purposes of both self-promotion (but only in the kindest, gentlest, most self-aware way) and wry, unstudied self-expression, while worrying about the collapse of the industry, the defection of readers, the erosion of copyright, and what the market wants?

I get this same sinking feeling sometimes when I look up in a bookstore and see piles and piles and tables and tables and shelves and shelves of books, and I wonder why I want to add to them. The question fades the minute I look back down at the book I am holding. Asking why I want to write is like asking why I want to read is like asking why I am standing on the ground beneath my feet. (Is there somewhere else to stand?)

Note to self: don't look up.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

He Might Have a Point

If there is a word connected to the act of writing that is uglier than "blog," I don't know what it is. "Blog" smacks of something both shapeless and wooden. Possibly also swampy.

I tell my son I'm going to start one. A blog. "Ugh," he protests. He says blogs and tweets are examples of people insisting on saying things in spite of the fact they have nothing to say, or more likely, insisting because they have nothing to say. Either way, he finds the emptiness clamorous.

"And they're always updating them," he says. "That is the worst!"

It's true there is a lot of noise out there. It can be hard to hear yourself think. And yet, I don't know of a better way to figure out what I'm thinking than to sit still and try to write it out. So maybe a blog can be a quiet place too.

It's also a good place to hide from much harder writing work, like the chapter I'm supposed to be working on. Speaking of which.