My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Despite the book’s designation as a satire, Super Sad True Love Story is, well, super sad. Perhaps six years ago, a reader could find humor in Shteyngart’s projections of the future. Perhaps I am a somewhat depressed individual who has been slowly losing faith in the American way of life for a while now. I laughed infrequently in reading this book, but it gave me a lot to think about: namely, how true might this dystopia prove to be if we continue on the path we’re on?
For all its ridiculous qualities (as if Statin Island could possibly become the hip place to go bar-hopping), Shteyngart’s New York doesn’t feel that far off to me. The book throws us into a universe where America is completely indebted to China and other countries, where citizens are ranked by Credit Poles stationed around NYC, and the unwanted poor can be forcibly removed in the name of “Harm Reduction.” In this version of a failing America, the iPhone is replaced by the äppärät, a powerful form of technology that replaces all human interaction with text and data stream—even going as far as to stream a stranger’s financial data and personal information, as well as rating them on an attractiveness scale that’s openly sexual. Individuals are so addicted to their äppäräti that actually speaking with another person is termed “verballing,” a communication technique that’s reserved for the older generation, as it makes the younger generation uncomfortable. Books are smelly, “printed, bound media artifacts” that are somewhere between passé and deplorable. Meanwhile, the so-called Bipartisan government struggles to keep the country together, using increased force from the National Guard and ordering citizens to “deny & comply” with increased security measures.
The story is told in an alternating accounts of the two main characters: the diary entries of 39-year-old Lenny Abramov, and the back-and-forth “GlobalTeens” (the social media conglomerate) communications of his love interest, 24-year-old Eunice Park. Lenny’s biggest fear is death; he works for “Post-Human Services,” which offers High Net Worth Individuals a chance at “dechronification treatments” designed to eventually make one live forever. Lenny’s boss, Joshie, is somewhere in his 70s, yet looks like a 20-something, and surrounds himself with actually-20-something sycophants. It’s unclear what these people actually do at work, but it seems they spend most of their time in the “Eternity Lounge,” sharing gossip and imbibing vitamins, green tea, and other allegedly life-extending substances. Employees of Post-Human Services are ranked according to the results their blood work as well as their mood, from “playful/willing to contribute” to “doesn’t play well with others.” Positivity is an absolute must in this environment, despite the obviously failing country. As a balding guy with bad cholesterol and high stress hormones (as well as potentially the last reader on Earth and the most introspective character), Lenny lives in constant fear of being deemed unworthy of the “dechronification treatments” that will allow him to extend his life.
While on an extended work trip in Rome, Lenny fails to interest any potential HNWI in the life-extending product, but he does meet the love of his life, Eunice Park, a young, beautiful, aloof Korean-American. Although both the products of immigrants, they’re an unlikely couple. What draws them together? They each need something from the other. Lenny needs to feel that he’s not alone, that he has someone to take care of, that he’s not doomed to death. Eunice, despite her college degree in “Images with a minor in Assertiveness,” can’t seem to assert herself beyond endless online shopping—so of course she’d agree to live with Lenny, since he doesn’t expect her to do anything. Their “love story” made me cringe throughout; while I want them to be together, I also recognize that they will never truly connect. In fact, I didn’t really connect with any of the characters, aside from occasionally feeling some pity for their bumbling attempts to survive. As a reader, I wanted the characters to make better decisions, to stand up to the ridiculous government shenanigans, but I also recognize that their actions are believable.
Having finished Super Sad, I can remove myself from the story and remember that Lenny’s America is not my America. I comfort myself with the knowledge that we are nowhere near creating a single-party “Bipartisan” system of government—we, in this country, can’t seem to agree on anything. Our economy isn’t nearly as fragile as it was in the early Obama days, when Shteyngart presumably wrote the book. I can’t really envision today’s America allowing a totalitarian government to take over a failing economy.
While the political implications of the book seem far-fetched, the technological bits of the story seem very realistic to me. Shteyngart’s “äppärät” is not so different from the iPhone we have today, aside from the äppärät’s ability to parse others’ private financial information. And yet, aren’t we slowly losing bits of our privacy every day in modern America? People update their Snap Stories from the most ridiculous of locals, just as Lenny’s friends Noah and Amy (the “Mediawhore”) stream their “shows” almost constantly, to the point that they’ve ceased to have real interactions with people. I’ve often imagined a situation in which everyone’s iPhones stopped working; I wasn’t surprised when everyone’s äppäräti break down, young people commit suicide, unable to interact with a world without their trusty device flashing data at them constantly.
So yes, this book absolutely terrified me on a certain level. It made me question a lot of things: can love save a failing world? or will that, too, be eaten up by a society that’s forgotten how to truly communicate? Read, and decide for yourself.