I first heard about Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story (SSTLS) through Spark, the CBC technology podcast (abbreviated interview in Episode 120, full 20-minute interview) and hopped onto the library website to place a hold on it. My interest waned and I didn’t pick it up until I recently saw it again at the library’s Central Branch as a Fast Read (finish in 7 days or else!). I want to procrastinate from some real world stuff, so this time was as good as any. Further, I had recently been reminded that the love interest of the protagonist Lenny Abramov is Eunice Park, so there is this this intergenerational and interracial love story amidst the satire, dystopia, and speculative science fiction. Should be a winning combination for me and I would bite the bullet and do it for the blog.
It took a whopping 46 pages for me to start getting into it. I thought I was much more engrossed my some of my favourite dystopian books (1984, Brave New World, Handmaid’s Tale, etc.) long before that but at least I stuck it out. Until about two-thirds or further into the novel, the chapters alternated between told from Lenny’s voice, his narrative and kind of navel-gazing entries from his diary, possibly the last diary being written in the near future United States. The other chapters are taken from GlobalTeens emails and instant messages between Eunice and her sister, mother, or best friend. Think of GlobalTeens as a cross between Facebook and Google, your one-stop social tool and search engine.
In the near future SSTLS world, the credit crisis in the United States has continued and gotten worse or some truly bad decisions were made and now the big creditor is China and the world is pretty much upside down as we know it. The US dollar is now pegged to the yuan or euro, yuan being a much more stable currency for trade even in the U.S. As a result the U.S. pretty much bends over for China and the need and extent of learning Chinese and their culture is ramped up. I’m not so versed with the (real world) credit crisis and the effects over the years to be able to compare the accurate projection of the SSTLS economy and effects.
As for the state of media, technology and pop culture of the SSTLS world, I follow much better the progression from what we see today versus Shteyngart’s satirical and dystopic version. Today, people willingly supply and share personal data and activities on Facebook and Twitter. Let me also include Google+ to be on top of things. In addition to carrying devices that can update in real-time to a website all your stats (e.g., a pedometer and your smartphone), there are sites like Daytum where daily data down to the mundane such as how many glasses of water you have drank can be captured and shared. Everyone can be a “journalist” and there is no shortage of informative or useless blogs, podcasts, and vlogs. There is continued desensitization towards sexual references and visuals in mainstream media and how far will that go? Marketing is intensive but there are still voices of reason punching through the smoke. Any new medium prompts the widespread lament of another hit on formal language, just as text-messaging is blamed for decreasing attentiveness to communicative language that can stand alone. And information is being delivered more efficiently via RSS feeds and in shorter segments so driven by the 140 character limit of early text message-capable cell phones and Twitter. All of these services are vying to be your portal to the Internet, customized to your preferences and with the non-stop pace of life, information is delivered like on a stream. That is the state of things now.
In the SSTLS world, everyone with some means wears a pebble-size äppärät that is pretty much our smartphones in a few more (people) generations. Turn it on anywhere and (the exact description or mechanism is not provided) it’s your personal entertainment center providing all the streaming data of news and, most alarmingly, real-time vital statistics of people surrounding you. In SSTLS, data privacy pretty much does not exist from the employees’ vital signs being posted like a departures board at the airport to measure employee well-being to instantly accessing everyone’s information and ranking them on Hotness, Credit Rating, and the like when you enter a bar full of potential mates or social partners. The people simply known as Media aren’t so far-fetched, thinking they have such a unique take on the world to broadcast everything as they go about life. In SSTLS, books are retired from existence and generally reviled; no one reads every word in a literary work, referred to as “bound, printed nonstreaming Media artifact”, instead people “scan text” for words. The decline of language as we know it is apparent in Eunice’s “emails” (by then called “teens” for GlobalTeens) with her best friend–thoughts are choppy and jumping around and satire is apparent from the common acronyms tossed around JBF (you can look that up) and TIMATOV (Think I’M About To Openly Vomit). Youth are sexualized at a very tender age which is empowering (or the opposite) and more satire ensues in the kind of products women do not battle an eyelash towards wearing: TotalSurrender underwear that seems to scroll out of the way at the touch of a button and OnionSkin jeans that are translucent because… it’s acceptable to show off that region. My jaw metaphorically hit the floor when I read about Hartford’s video-casted news segments that are interlaced with scenes of him performing sexual acts with other men, then learned that it could be based on a real Japanese pornographic newscast!
There’s elements of 1984 with the encroaching totalitarian state and the unlikely relationship between Lenny and Eunice. It also hearkens Brave New World with the pacification and ignorance of the masses. And, although I never read it, the rejection of books has some strains of Fahrenheit 451.
While I was reading SSTLS, I worried tremendously that I wasn’t “getting it”. I think the satire that is additional to the dystopic fiction I like threw me off because I took it literally and got bothered. I couldn’t find myself feeling empathy for Lenny (who is a clingy, naive, defeated drip of a man) or Eunice (who has potential to not be a write-off like her generation, but not really). Their ill-fated cross-cultural relationship was painful to read about but it was their respective trials with immigrant parents–both sets struggled to came to the U.S. only to live through the U.S. collapsing–that touched me the most. In the correspondences Eunice has (separately) with her mother, sister, and best friend, I could see my own corollary communications with my mother, sister, and best friend. Given how Shteyngart (now 38 or 39) relied on a research assistant to introduce him to Facebook and “i-Telephone”, I was impressed how he can write in Lenny’s voice as a, basically, insecure man and then switch to the immigrant Korean (Eunice’s mother) voice, and a young, obsessive, hyper female voice.
I still don’t think I “got it” and that worried me. But since I like speculative sci-fi as a way to explore a different world, SSTLS certainly fleshed out a fascinating and aggravating potential future for this world.