Super Sad True Love Story, By Gary Shteyngart

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The Independent Culture

Following the success of his last uproarious novel, Absurdistan, which mashed together an unlikely American romance and a military farce in an ex-Soviet oil republic, Gary Shteyngart returns with another love story delicately spun out through the chaos of a collapsing American economy. About a generation hence, America has disastrously invaded Venezuela, and its feeble dollar is pegged precariously to the rampant yuan. China and Europe are threatening to disengage from the moribund American economy, which is primed only by a continual exhortation to consumers to spend. Britain is known as HSBC-London and reading physical printed matter, instead of surfing digital data, is seen as a shameful perversion.

Lenny Abramov works in Manhattan in the "Post-Human Services" division of a megacorp that combines state security, property management and the steady procurement of immortality for those few "High Net Worth Individuals" able to afford the genetic treatments. At 39 and balding, Lenny is a tenuous candidate for preservation himself, despite his surprisingly high standing with the firm's rejuvenated old boss. But a burgeoning love affair with Eunice, a spiky and damaged Korean woman 15 years his junior, gives Lenny a new surge of vitality.

The future context is a persuasive blend of extrapolated current trends and comic social dystopia. "GlobalTeens" is a universal messaging platform that connects each individual via a ubiquitous "äppärät" – a tiny gizmo and search engine that "knows every last stinking detail about the world" - as well as broadcasting a wealth of personal information. Pointing one's äppärät at a person instantly yields their vital metrics (wealth, health, job, family, transactions, sex rating, popularity), which gives Shteyngart's creations the same cartoonish attributes as characters in a computer game.

On the surface, Shteyngart's plausible technology shares the slick, familiar usage of William Gibson's cyberpunk futures. Once "the Rupture" occurs, and Chinese withdrawal sends America's economy into a tailspin, the ensuing anarchy has the entropic feel of Gibson's post-apocalyptic All Tomorrow's Parties.

But while Shteyngart might share Gibson's enthusiasm for sifting streams of data as a plot-driver, his cultural context is altogether darker. These äppäräts, if pointed at women, reveal a "fuckability" rating which, coupled with a digital lack of privacy and transparent clothing, presents a satire of willing sexual commodification whose naked misogyny is both caricatured and disturbing.

Beyond this comedy of the banal is a deeper, almost Forsterean theme of connectivity. Lenny cites his father being "a janitor from a poor country" as his own main genetic defect, but what really marks out both Lenny and Eunice is that they love their families. Preserving this golden thread of contact lends Shteyngart's principal characters their dignity.

Some of this provocative novel's strongest scenes sustain this snatched intimacy in defiance of the debased, wired world around. None is so allusive or erotic as when Lenny's indulges his taboo addiction for reading actual books, as opposed to superficially "text-scanning for data". He gives oral pleasure to Eunice in part by reading from his precious, antique copy of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.