Last week when I reached to pull Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story from the squeezed edge of my crowded bookshelf, I was in search of something fun after weeks of lackluster reading. Since the winter’s highlight that was Moby Dick, it’s been downhill. I was in the mood for some fruition of Super Sad’s promising blurbs: “Devastatingly funny”, “snarkily funny”, “a wildly funny book…” I had no idea that the story took place in New York City, nor could I know that the hounds of serendipity had chased me to this title. Super Sad True Love Story is devastating alright, a darkly humorous and truly sad meditation on the fate of America’s greatest city and possibly the rest of us along with it.
Two weeks ago I was in New York for the first time. My five days there were relaxed and perfectly timed. I toured my son’s future college, took in a few sights, and enjoyed being with friends where we could play at fitting in while burnishing the thought of our quiet homes and the luxury of space and beauty that is life on the prairie. It seems a tiny bit unfair, flitting into a city to take pleasure from it and leaving only dollars in return. That’s tourism, but in a magnificent place like New York it somehow feels extra gratuitous knowing that many of the people who keep New York alive cannot afford to live there. As our happy little group (a psychology professor, an expert hospital consultant and me, a public health nurse) walked to dinner one night, the thought came to me that each of us is exactly the sort of person a big city can overwhelmingly benefit from. In New York there is seemingly no room for the norm, only those on the way up and those at the very top.
Super Sad True Love Story takes place in a future, scifi-like New York, one where the dollar is permanently pegged to the yuan and the real currency is youth, wealth, and sex appeal. The up-and-coming each wear a glistening, amulet-like “äppärät” that flashes their credit score, income, health, personality score, fuckability, all the data that allows them to FAC (Form A Community) with one another in the street. “Learn to rate everyone around you. Get your data in order,” are the instructions Lenny Abramov receives from his boss at Post-Human Services where he is a Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator. Lenny’s job is to find high net worth individuals (HNWIs) and sell them his company’s line of concoctions and procedures to permanently reverse aging and thus live forever. Even as Lenny and his cohorts flash their high credit (if not always likeability or attractiveness) scores, the city services around them have been privatized and conglomerated into a network of shady mercenaries that protect only the few while brutalizing those who resist occupation.
Lenny embodies nostalgia for another New York, one that exists in movies and possibly never was real except for the people who should have been able to keep it – New Yorkers. He owns a 740 square foot apartment that holds his “Wall of Books”, cherished even though his co-workers sneer that books smell. Lenny is 39 and becomes smitten with a 24 year old Korean woman, Eunice Park, whose cold shoulder drives him to great lengths to win her. He woos Eunice with passion, sincerity, and some old fashioned goodness. Eunice spends her vacuous days scanning her äppärät for labels commanding the utmost prestige: JuicyPussy, AssLuxury, and Onionskins, a ubiquitously worn, transparent fabric designed to parade women’s clean shaven genitalia for inspection and ranking. Eunice barrages her friends and sister in texts about clothing and an obsession with her weight of eighty three pounds, her degree in Images and Assertiveness instantly clashing with Lenny’s hardscrabble NYU education and old world sensibilities. They are natural enemies in a relationship that is fraught and tired from the beginning and worth more than a few cringes for its age gap and differences.
Just as the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam was a wild throw-down of disparate types from all over the world, the love story Shteyngart writes is one of an almost violent mismatch that grinds together out of desperation and need. Lenny grovels while Eunice demands and withholds. Each presents as a stereotype of the culture from which they spring; Lenny is the son of incessantly worrying Russian Jewish immigrants and Eunice the daughter of a Korean family mired in a cycle of abuse from a tyrannical father and subservient mother. As the stories of the lovers’ families unfolded, I began to view Super Sad True Love Story as something other than a human love story, rather a love letter to the City. It’s possible to read the whole novel as an allegory, the yuch factor of the relationship emblematic of the discord with which New York exists.
As in the 17th century when the melding of like minded Puritans and Pilgrims begat the early symmetry of Boston, a genuine love story can unfold when two fairly well adjusted people meet and simply like one another. Lenny and Eunice can’t possess that luxury, even when they incessantly seek status and beauty. But this is New York, so they give it an uneasy and not completely unlovely try.
Last night I read a snippet about some asinine celebrity swearing by a process of alkalinization, or maybe it was de-alkalinization, who knows? “I thought of Eunice Park and her pH-balanced body, healthy and strong.” It was then that I really laughed at the novel I’d just finished. I can’t be a New Yorker, but as a reader I can recognize literature that is simply longing and nostalgia for something or someone who isn’t there anymore. Gary Shteyngart’s love for his city is the story here, and it’s a brilliant satire of how we all live now and what we stand to lose even more of. What Lenny wants is not Eunice.
I wanted to go home. I wanted to go home to the 740 square feet that used to be mine. I wanted to go home to what used to be New York City.
What Lenny has is something like her.
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