Love and Hardship: On Gary Shteyngart

Love and Hardship: On Gary Shteyngart

Is Super Sad True Love Story the kind of novel Gary Shteyngart might previously have held in contempt?


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.

* * *

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.

What is not subtle is Shteyngart’s characterization of the country in which Lenny and Eunice live. His Americans spend all their time fussing with mobile wireless devices called äppäräti. They’re obsessed with weight and age. They think too much about finance. The government has been hijacked by an entity called the American Restoration Authority, which is in the pay of big business and has orchestrated a losing war in Venezuela. Children watch pornography, women’s clothes are revealing to the point of transparency and no one reads books, which are said to smell. The country is ungovernable and bankrupt. It can’t last, and it doesn’t.

"Satire" is one way to describe this portrait of America. "An expression of tired outrage" is another. There are a few good moments—the description of the war in Venezuela is excellent, and so are the American Restoration Authority’s misspelled slogans and the media personalities who broadcast the news only in the context of deeply personal monologues. But a good satire should provoke thought, and very often this one provokes only embarrassment and irritation. Much of what Shteyngart attempts to caricature is so cartoonish already that he manages only a kind of rephrasing. We don’t need him to tell us that it isn’t great to think too much about our weight, spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need and elect politicians who want to kill us. We certainly don’t need him to tell us these things in exhausting detail. What we need from satire is the alienation of the familiar. We need a new perspective or a real insight. Shteyngart offers little more than a catalog of grievances.

In the end, readers who have reason to be dissatisfied with any aspect of American culture or politics will find corroboration of their feelings here. Readers who also look to literature as a means of escape, or who require escape from literature of this sort, will be relieved when Shteyngart’s America collapses and characters are free to do and think about more interesting things.

* * *

One aspect of the satire that is not infuriating is Lenny’s profession. He works for a company that offers its clients "indefinite life extension," a process of physiological renovation that amounts to eternal youth. Part of his interest in Eunice has to do with the fact that because she’s young, she also looks young. Youth and the appearance of youth are not the same thing, and the distinction becomes a central concern for Lenny when Joshie Goldman, his boss, begins to display the effects of "dechronification" treatment.

All at once, Joshie looks young and feels young. In truth he’s in his late 60s. How is an old man in the bloom of youth supposed to behave? That is to say: is it the obligation of those who look young to act young? Joshie thinks so, and he begins to imitate the vernacular eSpeak of American youth. "Talk young, live young," he says. But he can’t get it right—even Lenny, never the most in tune with pop culture, has to remind him that no one says "home slice" anymore—and his failure in this respect is symptomatic of a more general problem with indefinite life extension.

What obsesses Joshie is not life but death, and his desire to conquer death is also a desire to be free of that obsession. He wants to be young again because he imagines that youth is a condition in which he won’t be tormented by his fear of death. But if his desire for eternal life is born from an obsession with death, and if he imagines that eternal life is a condition in which one is not worried about death, the desire will preclude its own fulfillment unless he discards the preoccupation that has been a central feature of his personality. To get what he wants, he has to give up what he is. His refusal to grow old has less to do with the indefinite extension of his life than with the willful repudiation of his past—a repudiation of a mind or self shaped by a knowledge of its own fragility.

It’s Eunice who becomes the hero in the second half of the novel, and she distinguishes herself by doing what Joshie is trying to undo: she grows up. She begins to understand the scope of her existence, to distinguish between what she wants and what she believes she should want; most of all she decides that she is entitled to her own happiness. It’s a quiet kind of triumph, but one of the best things about the novel is that it values these things as much as they should be valued. In a world that exalts immaturity and superficiality as much as hers does, honest self-reflection is a heroic thing.

* * *

What happens when your country falls apart and you lose all your money? If you still have what you’ve got in your head, life goes on. And what happens when you have to say goodbye to someone you’ve loved? Life goes on then, too. The best ideas in the novel are part of the same idea—the belief that internal life is valuable. This is the real payoff; the reason, we must assume, that Shteyngart has made the choices he’s made. But is that payoff enough? Does it counterbalance the things he does badly? Are any of his good ideas necessarily inexpressible in a comic novel like Absurdistan?

There is a deep ambivalence in Super Sad True Love Story. By choosing to use two narrators, Shteyngart gives his book a kind of binocular vision that enriches the love story and emphasizes the profound changes that Eunice undergoes. At the same time, he relinquishes the breezy and coherent narrative voice that carries us past dull moments in Absurdistan and that might have made the dull moments in this book more tolerable. He also seems confused about how the two narrators should go about revealing the details of his alternate reality. Rather than risk any ambiguity, he has both characters contextualize their observations by repeating the same descriptions of products and people. Maybe this is plausible when Eunice is writing to someone who might need reminding, but it’s not plausible if Lenny is writing in a private diary. It suggests that Shteyngart is not certain of the world he’s tried to create.

The prose—especially in Lenny’s sections, which make up the bulk of the story—is hesitant and bland. This may be partly accidental. Lenny is American-born, which means he must speak English with fewer clever idiosyncrasies than the protagonists of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. But because Shteyngart has always been most comfortable when he’s imitating broken English or writing something that reads like an off-key translation, this is a big sacrifice. Lenny has his moments—"you could drown a kitten in her blue eyes," "the sky was the color of ghosts," New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport looks like a "gray Lagos slum"—but too often his language is nothing more than station-wagon prose that gets us from here to there. In the end he’s not an interesting guy, and his voice lacks the jittery, anarchic quality that makes his predecessors compelling. To adapt Eunice’s evaluation, "I know his heart is in the right place. It’s always in the right place. But after a while, who cares, right?" The truth is that Super Sad True Love Story is not compelling at the sentence level. For a novelist whose appeal to many readers is his ability to be compelling at the sentence level, this is a problem that threatens to scuttle the book.

"Comic novel" is a very general term, and in many ways it must be understood to mean a novel that seeks primarily to entertain. But it can also mean a book in which heart and soul emerge in a careful interrogation of the ridiculous. It seems to me that Super Sad True Love Story could have been, and should have been, a comic novel in the same style as Absurdistan. The failure of the satire makes it hard to appreciate what the novel does well because the failure of the satire is above all a failure of tone. Shteyngart’s American dystopia is ridiculous—it needs to be treated that way. The more extravagant and enthusiastic the tone, the more credible the satirical elements would become. Instead, the writing is pedantic where it should be brisk and ingenuous where it should be sarcastic. There is no reason to imagine that the love story and the story of Eunice’s personal development require a more subdued tone. Both would profit if the rest of the book were less clumsy. The fact that Absurdistan avoids real sentiment doesn’t mean that real sentiment is inaccessible to a novel written in that style.

In his first two books, Shteyngart seems to suggest that part of what’s wrong with contemporary American fiction is the idea that certain topics—love, hardship, etc.—must always be discussed in an appropriately serious register. Jerry Shteynfarb gets famous for cynically manipulating this fact. He casts himself in the role of the unhappy immigrant writer, and his dour tone is apparently what makes his writing marketable. Whether or not Shteyngart is guilty of that crime, Super Sad True Love Story looks like an attempt to conform, to write quieter, less distinctive prose. And why should he feel he has to do that? Why should he feel compelled to rein in his gift? Comedy is valuable, and it may be especially valuable to a culture in which it’s marginalized. It can teach us all about love and youth and death, but it can also teach us what other kinds of writing can’t: it can teach us that literature should not always try desperately to teach us things. There is value in entertainment, and there is virtue in entertaining others.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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