Satire is hard. If you don’t think so, watch a whole episode of Saturday Night Live—I’ll even spot you: pick any year you like. So here’s a big hat tip to Gary Shteyngart for having the nerve to write a novel-length satire in Super Sad True Love Story. He doesn’t always make you laugh when he means to, but he’s shrewd, observant, snarkily funny, and if it sometimes seems as though he’s picking easy targets, remember that he didn’t make the world he’s sending up. Easy targets “R” us these days.
Shteyngart (Absurdistan) sets his latest novel in the not-too-distant future and suggests a world not all that different from ours, only a lot worse. Governments and big business have more or less merged, and the Chinese are calling the shots. Telephone poles have been replaced on sidewalks by credit poles that broadcast your financial picture as you walk by. New York subway trains have business-class cars. For news you can choose between reading The New York Lifestyle Times and watching FoxLiberty-Prime or FoxLiberty-Ultra. Otherwise, the “news” is made by people texting and streaming about themselves. Business careers seem to be concentrated mostly in Retail (always capitalized), paramilitary security, or the arts. In college, one character had a “major in Images, minor in Assertiveness.” Most chilling are the checkpoints and other security measures erected everywhere by a state obsessed with protection from terrorism, which of course becomes its own form of terrorism, right down to the bulletins warning citizens of the danger du jour and ending with the boilerplate statement “By reading this message you are denying its existence and implying consent.”
It’s all very clever, but the laughs come harder and harder as the story unfolds—and maybe that’s the point. But Super Sad is so depressing that about halfway through, you might be thinking seriously about bailing out on Shteyngart’s chilly vision of things to come. That would be a shame, because the second half is so much more powerful than what’s preceded it that it could be an altogether different novel.
Maybe it’s because in the first half Shteyngart spends so much time being clever that he forgets to care about or illuminate the inner lives of his pair of lovers, Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park (and no, he doesn’t get a free pass here just because he’s suggesting that people in the future have anemic inner lives). But then comes a scene—roughly halfway—unlike anything that’s come before: Lenny, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, goes with Eunice, the daughter of Korean immigrants, to visit her parents, and they all attend a Christian revival service at Madison Square Garden. The hellfire evangelist has his audience cowering in no time—all but Lenny, who silently begins preaching his own sermon. “You have nothing to be ashamed of,” Lenny imagines himself saying. “You are better than this angry man ... Your heart is all that matters. Throw away your shame! Accept the truth! And if there is more than one truth, then learn to do the difficult work—learn to choose. You are good enough, you are human enough to choose!” Of course, the person Lenny is really preaching to is himself.
Suddenly, he’s an interesting character. He’s had idiosyncrasies from the beginning—for one thing, he owns and reads books, or “non-streaming Media artifacts.” Now those quirks bloom into character traits, and Lenny adds a couple of dimensions to his profile. He learns to care about others, and he becomes interesting as he learns to see himself in those around him, particularly his parents: “I had not lost the capacity to care—incessantly, morbidly, instinctually, counterproductively—for the people who had made of me the disaster known as Lenny Abramov.” It’s not as simple as saying that we care about Lenny because he cares about others. More accurately, we care because in Lenny—a man who has to fight his way out of a youth culture so obsessed with technology and wealth that it has forgotten how to feel anything—we have recognized the future, and he is us.