Gary Shteyngart’s satire in Super Sad True Love Story works best in small doses. The segment presented in the June 14, 2010, issue of The New Yorker “Lenny Hearts Eunice” is brilliant. However, the complete novel is a difficult read because the satire is the only redeeming feature; there aren’t intriguing characters or a plot worth mentioning. Once the setting is established, Shteyngart breaks no new ground and struggles to drive the story. In short: A low confidence “nice guy” channels his intense fear of death into a fixation on youthful Eunice Park. He convinces her to live with him in New York where she responds tepidly to his slavish devotion. If there is a love story here, you need to dig for it. These characters are shallow, narcissistic, and tedious.
I struggled to describe how the satire in the book fails and stumbled over a WaPo review by Ron Charles who so perfectly sums up my dissatisfaction:
Perhaps the saddest aspect of this ‘Super Sad True Love Story’ is that you can smell Shteyngart sweating to stay one step ahead of the decaying world he’s trying to satirize. It’s an almost impossible now that the exhibitionism of ordinary people has lost its ability to shock us. Just try coming up with something creepier than middle school girls wearing shorts with the word “Juicy” across their bottoms, or imagine a fashion line cruder than FCUK (Shteyngart comes close). His description of friends getting together after work to text other friends is taking place today in every D.C. restaurant. And how can you parody the TV news coverage when George Stephanopoulos has already presented a straight-faced report on Lindsay Lohan’s obscene fingernail stencil?
And that’s the crux of it. Shteyngart is pushed to the extreme which is less interesting than insidiously subtle satire. Worse still, he characterizes his future dystopia through rampant sexuality, and only sexuality. There are nods to financial issues: the U.S. is owned by China, all the big box companies have merged together, and social media is the new reality . . . but he resorts to cheap sexual shocks again, and again, for his biggest laughs. There is a scene in which three women are characterized by their shaved or pierced genitals, plainly visible through their transparent pants. Eunice sends emails: “‘When I see you I’m going to give you a big, big kiss right between your little titties, my one and only cum-slut, princess of all that is good and right in the world!’… [and the response:] ‘Waka-waka, ass sucka! Whut-a-happenin?'” (146). Consider Brave New World and its own rampant sexuality—preschoolers playing sex games at recess—that had the capacity to shock without resorting to unfiltered crudeness. This is part of the point, I’m sure, that he has to go so far to be shocking, but he is trying too hard. The writing gets in the way of itself.
Here were the famous nippleless Saaami bras that Eunice had shown me on AssLuxury and the fabled Padma corsets that the Polish porn star wore on AssDoctor. We stopped to look at some conservative JuicyPussy summer cocktail dresses. (208)
Is there any other way to read “JuicyPussy” than as a more extreme version of Juicy Couture? While he is willing to amp up our culture, he doesn’t go anywhere with it. Where is the plot amongst this? Where is Lenny’s conflict as he tries to fit into the sexy techno culture? Surely this can be expressed some other way than explaining how he isn’t getting laid. He struggles to keep up with social media despite working for a company where he is assigned to ascertain an individual’s value through their stats and online presence, but he seems unqualified to even be a cog in the larger machine.
Usually in these books, the oddball misfit is used to present a counter to the messed-up world, to be an example that not everything has gone downhill: Winston in 1984, John in Brave New World, Montag in Fahrenheit 451 . . . but maybe it is my mistake to have had these seminal works anywhere in my head as I read Shteyngart. They encapsulated the creeping horror of a world gone wrong—a few tweaks from our own—and gave us struggling individuals worth cheering for. Lenny is not a hero, not even when compared to the fellow slackers of his culture. Eunice is no prize. Because the only thing in this book that attempts to wear the mantle of “Plot” is their fumbling luv cxn, there’s nothing here to get behind, no one to root for, and no reason to continue reading. Sure, Super Sad True Love Story is not so serious as 1984, but it still needs to eke out an ending and produce a single compelling character. I finished it only so I would have something to say here.
Lenny fears dying. If you want to read a book about the fear of death, read Don DeLillo’s White Noise. If you want a dystopian fantasy, read any of the three I mentioned earlier.
Overall: 2.5 (out of 5.0) There are flashes of brilliance. Condense this whole sloppy mess into a short story where the satire can shine and it’d be something. As is, it isn’t satisfying.