“I have my own dying empire to contend with, and I do not wish for any other.” –Lenny Abramov
It is the fate of every narcissist to believe he is the last gasp of a dying empire.
I started noticing this human tendency for the apocalyptic while growing up in an evangelical church. For those of you who did not grow up thus, here is the only piece of information relevant to this article: at pretty much every single point in the Church’s history, its members have been convinced they were living in the end times. It took me a good fifteen years and a lot of late nights spent worrying about the Rapture to figure this out. In fact, one of the better aspects of apostasy was leaving behind the ominous pronouncements every time there was so much as a tremor in the trans-Asiatic belt. Or so I thought. As I found out, secular progressive America is no less given to narcissistic prediction of its own doom, but, being liberals, we do it in as elitist of a way as possible.
Which brings us to the book. Now, I’ve never been much for Shteyngart’s slightly manic style of writing. He tends to get so caught up in the accessories of the societies he imagines that he loses the plot for its details. Nonetheless, its catchy opening line (“Today I’ve made a major decision. I’m never going to die”) in combination with its dystopian setting and aesthetically pleasing cover convinced me to give it a shot.
Turns out, the same things that annoy me about most of Shteyngart’s fiction are just as prevalent in this book. The glee he takes in naming everything in his fictionally constructed world is especially tiresome – he frequently loses the story in the chaos of his shiny new toys, the most notable of which are the ubiquitous äppäräti, the smartphone-like devices that broadcast everything from an individual’s credit score to their “fuckability” ratings. The plot, such as it is, involves Lenny, a nebbish Luddite that works as a salesman in the Life Extension department of a transnational corporation (there is of course a lengthy title for both his position and the corporation, but I can’t face looking it up again), and Eunice, a Korean-American girl 15 years his junior. Eunice is a complete product of her overexposed generation – a heady combination of blithe and vulnerable, an emotionally guarded open book, speaking in text-cronymns and shopping constantly at online stores with names like Ass Luxury. Lenny, on the other hand, is apparently the only man left on Earth who still reads actual books. It should surprise no one that Lenny is clearly a stand-in for Shteyngart himself. Lenny and Eunice are thrown together during the last months before America’s ultimate collapse, and their unlikely love story forms the axis around which the story turns. I use the term “love story” lightly, because there’s really nothing about love in here. Lenny’s treatment of Eunice typifies the Nice Guy™ school of beleaguered manipulation. The climax of their love story is when she considers, just for a moment, reading Lenny’s dusty old copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I am not kidding.
The reason the love story aspect reads so false is because, let’s get real: the story is about neither Eunice nor Lenny. Eunice and Lenny are just puppets, a convenient venue for Shteyngart to display writing like this:
“Remember this, Lenny… develop a sense of nostalgia for something, or you’ll never figure out what’s important.”
This is only one of many examples that conspire to make the whole thing read like a commencement speech for the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I once got a great piece of advice from one of my writing instructors: he told me that most of what I will consider my best writing should end up in the trash. Had Shteyngart a better editor, they would have given him this same advice, told him to stop pontificating wildly and invest that energy in drawing more complete characters. But they didn’t, and even more curiously, most critics didn’t seem to mind. Super Sad True Love Story, despite its lazy love story and dystopian setting that added absolutely nothing to the genre, made a lot of critics’ “Best Of” lists.
I have a theory of why that is, and it’s explained partially in this quote from Shteyngart himself, from a New York Times Magazine interview about the ubiquity of social media: “Silence has been destroyed, but also the idea that it’s important to learn how another person thinks, to enter the mind of another person. The whole idea of empathy is gone. We are now part of this giant machine where every second we have to take out a device and contribute our thoughts and opinions.” Putting aside for a moment the illogic of this statement, considering the fact that social media platforms exist solely so we can read another person’s (albeit 140 character long) thoughts, it is clear that this attitude affected Shteyngart’s entire premise for Super Sad True Love Story. There’s a reason that Lenny is the only man left who reads books. And there’s a reason that Eunice is constantly on her äppärätus projecting her manufactured self to the world. It’s because Super Sad True Love Story isn’t a love story at all, it’s a metaphor for how Shteyngart views his relationship to society. Clearly, Lenny represents the last of a nobler species, and Eunice represents a species hastening towards its own demise. The problem is, the principle on which this analogy depends is a fundamentally flawed one, because it rests precariously on the assumption that social media will slowly drive out more traditional forms of media like books and newspapers, until our entire culture exists only in tweets. Jonathan Franzen made the same monotonous point a few weeks ago, a point that was brilliantly contested in this article from the New Yorker. Money quote:
“Two pernicious fallacies embedded in criticism of Twitter—and, by extension, blogs, tumblrs, and GIFs of catbots who kill with laser eyes—are that non-traditional forms of expression can wipe out existing ones, and that these forms are somehow impoverished. The variables unique to the Internet—hyperlinks, GIFs, chat, comments—have enabled new writing voices with their own distinct syntaxes. But we are not dealing with fungible goods—the new forms will never push out older ones because they’re insufficiently similar. You might overdose on unicorn GIFs and go to bed too tired to read ‘Freedom,’ but unicorn GIFs will never replace ‘Freedom.'”
Shteyngart’s book bewails our cultural obsession with projecting ourselves to the masses, and predicts it will lead to our unsubtle doom. But here’s the thing: projecting ourselves for mass consumption is not a new phenomenon. This is also what makes Franzen’s point that serious writers “don’t like to yak about [themselves]” so laughable. Because what are most books, if not an author’s desperate attempts to define himself and the world around him, and to find an audience to validate him? We’ve always been narcissistic and needy creatures. Only the medium that has changed. Shteyngart and Franzen both make the same mistake in confusing the vehicle with the product. In the article above, the interviewer points out that all futurists predict the death of reading, and Shteyngart responds with the following point: “Maybe we’re all wrong and there’s going to be a huge comeback in 10 years where all the kids are going to drop their iKindles and start reading like crazy. ‘Dude, did you read the latest Turgenev? It’s so sick.'” Here’s my question: what does he think kids are doing on their “iKindles,” if not reading?
Kindles might be destroying the traditional publishing industry, but you have to be a fool to argue that they’re leading to a decline in reading. Similarly, Twitter and Facebook aren’t destroying more traditional forms of communication – in fact, I would argue they are promoting them more than ever before. I have learned of at least 15 new books I had never heard of since undertaking this project. Twitter regularly leads me to articles and journalists I would probably not have discovered otherwise. Are these new forms of communication changing industries like publishing and print journalism, sometimes for the worse? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean it’s changing communication for the worse. It’s just changing it, and in many cases, it’s making it more democratic. You don’t have to have a literary agent to get published anymore – all you really need it a Twitter account.
At heart, I think that’s why many writers like Franzen and Shteyngart have a problem with social media. To them, it is only for people who aren’t “serious writers,” aka people who aren’t worthy to be read and appreciated by a larger audience. But the fact is that, socially speaking, we live in a democracy and social media platforms have done nothing if not promote that kind of social democracy. The internet is boundless – it was never supposed to be a meritocracy, because it doesn’t have to be. There is literally room for everyone. That might mean your stupid-ass 16-year-old cousin has a platform with which to LOL and LMFAO, but theirs is just one of many voices in the democratic cacophony of weirdly specific interests, political opinions, and narcissistic ramblings that make up that gloriously level playing field we call the internet.
In the end, Super Sad True Love Story is none of those things – it’s not sad, or true, and it’s sure as hell not worthy of the moniker of love story. Instead, Shteyngart’s pearl-clutching dystopia with its vague villains (China! Corrupt politicians, whose politics we won’t get into except to give them a very specific name!) and its obsession with the soul-destroying world of social media is just another Southern Baptist preacher, railing fire and brimstone because he’s scared that he and the world he understands is becoming irrelevant. It happens to everyone, and it’s really one of the more beautiful things about human nature – every generation thinks that the generation following theirs is sure to ruin the world. One day, maybe we’ll be right. The good news is my morally corrupt ADD culture probably won’t notice, because we’re too busy checking Facebook and tweeting unicorn GIFs. LOL, y’all.
Recommended for: Narcissists. Preferably those who are super freaked out about China, and look down with disdain on Twitter.
Read When: You’re finished watching the eleven o’clock news on a slow news day. The unsubstantial fear mongering will get you in the right state of mind.
Listen With: Katy Perry. Just to fuck with him.