Gary Shteyngart’s first novel, published in 2002, was called The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and apparently it causes him some embarrassment. In Absurdistan (2006), his second novel, there is a character named Jerry Shteynfarb. He is a hack, a "perfectly Americanized Russian émigré" who has written a novel called The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job and is now "playing the professional immigrant game" in the New York literary world. He is vain, calculating and sexually indiscriminate, but he is also contemptible because he exploits the popular notion of what good fiction—serious fiction—should look like.
The Shteynfarb riff is something other than self-deprecation. It reminds us that Absurdistan is different, and what makes it different is that it ignores or parodies the severe manner that characterizes so much of what we now call "literary" fiction. The story is not easy to summarize because it’s never more important than the bawdy set pieces for which it serves as pretext: Misha Vainberg, the outsized narrator, wanders around drinking and eating and making solipsistic observations. His epiphanic moments are ridiculous, his romantic entanglements are ridiculous, his haughtiness and his outrage and his language are ridiculous. Everything is ridiculous, but everything is unapologetically ridiculous. Absurdistan is an authentic comic novel, and it insists that we should not take it seriously.
What does this mean for Shteyngart’s new novel, Super Sad True Love Story, which is not primarily a comic novel and which wants very badly to be taken seriously? Its antagonists are Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park, mismatched castaways in a dystopic America, and the novel follows the course of their relationship as it proceeds across uneven ground toward its inevitable dissolution. What will be striking to anyone familiar with Shteyngart’s writing is the sobriety with which he approaches the subjects of love and mortality. What will also be striking is the degree to which he has abandoned many of the tonal and structural features that distinguished his first two novels. The writing here is utilitarian rather than exuberant; story is more important than scene; the men are not always fools and the women are not always beautiful cartoons. It is an altogether more conventional book, which is not necessarily good or bad, but it means that it’s the kind of book Shteyngart might previously have held in contempt.
It also means that the stakes are higher. If Super Sad True Love Story is a good book, we can say that the move toward a more conventional style is justified. But if it isn’t a good book, we can say that Shteyngart has abandoned the style that made him unique in favor of a style that ambivalent readers are less likely to find challenging. That would put him in Jerry Shteynfarb territory—opportunistic, conservative and not as much fun.
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Shteyngart’s intention at the outset is to establish the many ways Lenny and Eunice are not suited to each other. Lenny is middle-aged, Eunice is young; Lenny has a good education, Eunice graduates from college with a major in "images" and a minor in "assertiveness"; Lenny is a man out of time, Eunice seems comfortable in her cultural moment; and although both characters are the children of immigrants, Lenny is preoccupied with this fact to the point of intellectual debility and Eunice is not. They fight constantly and they seem to have little to say to each other.
But they are also in love, and their attempts to make sense of that feeling are genuine and affecting. Shteyngart has given both characters a hand in the narration—Lenny is supposed to be writing in a diary, and Eunice writes e-mails and has instant-message-style conversations with her sister—which means that we know less about the actual character of their relationship, if such a thing can ever be said to exist, than about each character’s private understanding of that relationship. This produces a melancholy atmosphere in which they seem to speak to themselves more than to each other, and everything we hear about their life together is colored by an individual sensibility. The novel is an exercise in romantic parallax; it is a way of illustrating the uncomfortable fact that a relationship must always consist of two separate ideas, and that those ideas shift and change and may become more or less compatible with time. This vision of their improbable love is certainly the best thing about the book—subtle, supersad and true.