Gary Shteyngart — author, essayist, friend of James Franco — is among our foremost satirists. His appearance on the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list and essays in The New York Times Book Review have earned him serious buzz. And now he’s the doomsayer behind “Super Sad True Love Story,” a near-future dystopia that foretells the collapse of the American economy and the ruinous decline of literacy. It’s a bleak world, in which books are known primarily for their off-putting smell.
Shteyngart’s own book, and its marketing campaign, have made him, in the parlance of his brave new world, “so Media.” You can find him online, on the air, on your iPhone, in your magazine of choice (don’t read Travel + Leisure? How about GQ?) and on any number of blogs and news aggregators, forecasting the gradual and inevitable collapse of what we quaintly refer to as “civilization.” The book is a darkly funny romp through a kooky, nightmarish America, where people are slaves to metrics and American expatriates are forced to divulge their most intimate details to the semi-authoritarian American Restoration Authority (“For statistical purposes only,” the regime’s sinister mascot, a cartoon otter, reassures).
Shteyngart is writing from experience: He was born and raised in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, and the authenticity of his dystopian vision is apparent. “I sort of know when an empire reaches its end,” he said in a recent interview.
And yet, Shteyngart also guards a secret, a quintessentially American affliction: He is an optimist.
“I do believe that things go up and down,” Shteyngart said. “My secret hope is that we’re so overwhelmed by this technology, but soon sanity will prevail, and we’re going to say, Okay, we need to retreat and create a space for ourselves that’s quieter, that isn’t just an endless bombardment of information. We need to create a space where we can take stock of who we are, where we are in life, what the world is around us. And just looking at blogs is not going to do it. And just looking at my Facebook page is certainly not going to do it.” (Shteyngart looks often at his own Facebook page: “I feel like it gets lonely if I’m not on it,” he said.)
“Super Sad True Love Story” is, on its face, an indictment of our information-overload culture. But there may also be something more fundamental on trial: the loss of personal identity. In a world of relentless data and unforgiving statistics, where all the facts of one’s life are judged and scored and broadcast to everyone else, personal identity is an elusive — and, to many, uninteresting — concept.
Shteyngart’s balding Luddite protagonist, Lenny Abramov, struggles to preserve a modicum of self in a world of rapid and relentless change. “Every moment our brains and synapses are being rebuilt and rewired with maddening disregard for our personalities,” Lenny explains, recounting the mantra of his boss, Joshie, whose “dechronification treatments” have allowed him to extend his life indefinitely (a service available only to High Net Worth Individuals). This process of reinvention is one that Lenny tries desperately, fruitlessly, to halt.
At the heart of this struggle is an improbable romance, and like the famous “ghost in the machine” of Cartesian dualism, Shteyngart’s love story serves as the spark of life in an otherwise coldly materialist world, where no one amounts to any more than the sum of his or her parts. Eunice Park is 15 years younger and thoroughly co-opted by the new Media. She talks in online slang, and we are allowed glimpses of her inner thoughts only through her account on GlobalTeens, a stand-in for Facebook. Lenny and Eunice communicate, but not in the same ways, and so, not really at all. She spends most of her time drawn into the digital world of her “äpärät” device, a stand-in for the iPhone, shopping on commercial “streams” like “AssLuxury.”
“Our brains are sliced and diced a million ways by information,” Shteyngart said. “There’s no way for any major thoughts to cohere, and that’s the relationship between Lenny and Eunice. All that separates them is 15 years, but those 15 years might as well be 1,500 years.”
There’s also an argument in Shteyngart’s book for rational agency. At a mass sermon in Madison Square Garden, which Lenny attends with his girlfriend’s devout Christian family, the pastor lectures menacingly, “Do not accept your thoughts!” In response, Lenny mentally exhorts the parishioners, “Accept your thoughts! Accept your desires! Accept the truth! And if there is more than one truth, then learn to do the difficult work — learn to choose. You are good enough, you are human enough, to choose!”
In the end, this is perhaps Shteyngart’s most unnerving notion: that we lack the will to choose, that technology is lulling us into intellectual complacency, corroding our capacity to make informed, autonomous decisions and robbing us of our will to argue, to fight for important ideas. In Shteyngart’s dystopian America, there are no opposing political factions, merely a ruling coalition called the Bipartisan Party. And though the Bipartisans are oppressive, they are by no means the firemen of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” In “Super Sad True Love Story,” books are not burned or banned — people simply choose not to read them.
The decline of literacy, in Shteyngart’s view, requires no government interdiction. It’s simply how technology has changed us, and how we’ve allowed ourselves to be changed. “Someone who comes home from a white collar job — text and images have stormed through his mind or her mind for the last 12 hours, all he or she has been processing is bits of information — the last thing they want to do is pick up a book,” Shteyngart said. “And the thing is, we’re not ready yet. Technology sometimes outpaces humanity’s ability to process it. And I think that’s where we are right now.”
“Super Sad True Love Story” will be available in bookstores on July 27.