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.

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