Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story

While I’m working my way through Infinite Jest, I’ll post a few more thoughts on other books that I’ve read recently. Speaking of Infinite Jest: I still don’t know what is different for me this time around, but I’ve become so attached to the narrative that I’ve actually started reading the book on my commute. This has involved developing strategies for holding the mammoth book at a readable distance while keeping myself upright in heels, and without losing my place in either the book or the footnotes. (I find that resting the book’s spine along the forearm that’s holding onto the subway pole works pretty well, as long as the train isn’t too crowded.) I’ve also had to come to terms with how pretentious it looks to be carrying the thing around. Which is to say, I really love this book.

Wallace’s voice captures the absurdities of contemporary American society so well that as I’m looking back at Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, I’m having a very hard time not comparing the two works–which doesn’t work in Love Story‘s favor. The corporate conglomerations (e.g., “ColgatePalmoliveYum!BrandsViacomCredit,” “LandO’LakesGMFordCredit” ) read like the subsidized time of Infinite Jest (e.g., “Year of the Whopper,” “Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar”), gesturing at the same sort of corporate pervasiveness. The empty and absurd political structures of Shteyngart’s American Restoration Authority and the bipartisan party are reminiscent of Wallace’s Office of Unspecified Services and the Organization of North American Nations. The cartridge viewer has been replaced by the äppärät, but the absorption that results, while more isolated, remains very similar.

The degree of isolation that the characters experience, either knowingly (in Lenny’s case) or blindly (most of the other characters) is one possible reason that Super Sad True Love Story appeals to me less than Infinite Jest, though the two consider similar themes. Perhaps Shteyngart’s portrayal resonates a little too much with my own discomfort with the possible outcomes that the combined forces of consumerism and technology can lead to; after all, in the fourteen years between the publication of Infinite Jest and Love Story, the way that we use technology has fundamentally changed, and Shteyngart captures that shift quite well. Instead of collective absorption in a weapons-grade film (more on this in a later post), the äppärat individualizes the addictive experience, deeply isolating the characters in Love Story. Rather than pursuing pleasure and entertainment, as in Infinite Jest, the characters in Love Story pursue the still emptier ends of money and eternal youth–even if no pleasure results from their gains.

Shteyngart’s portrayal is apt, but results in terribly repellent characters. The shallowness with which Eunice and her friend (whose real name I don’t recall) communicate on the network “GlobalTeens” may be an incisive depiction of text-message friendships, but it makes me cringe. Here’s the first exchange:


Hi, Precious Pony!

What’s up, twat? Missing your ‘tard? Wanna dump a little sugar on me? JBF. I am so sick of making out with girls.

The messages the two friends send to one another are poorly-written and crass, laden with superficial and hyper-sexualized expressions, plus unending comments on shopping, appearance, and landing a suitable partner. I can understand the message that Shteyngart is sending regarding the effects of changing technology on the way that people relate to one another, but it feels a little heavy-handed to me. Still, the vapidity of their written “conversation” does allow for a marked contrast with Eunice’s genuine attempts to connect with people, especially with her sister. Though that last passage doesn’t show it, Shteyngart does feel a clear affection for his characters, and he seems to lament the ways they are affected by social pressures, consumerism, and unfettered technological advancement. It just doesn’t always make for a compelling portrait.

Before picking up the novel, I had encountered Super Sad True Love Story in “Lenny Hearts Eunice” in the New Yorker, and also through an interview with Shteyngart on Fresh Air–and I really enjoyed these first glimpses. The story is sharp and funny and often endearing. In some ways I think the narrative worked better as a short story than it did in the full novel, though; Shteyngart’s ideas and characters are compelling in short form, and I’m not sure that they had the depth to sustain their intensity in the full novel. Then again, it may simply be that I’m deeply uncomfortable with the scenario that Shteyngart depicts, and have a hard time taking pleasure in what I see as a really bleak and not entirely unlikely future.