Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

01 Mar 2013

(Novel) Super Sad True Love Story by: Gary Shteyngart

(Reaction) End Life Crisis by: Antonio Conejos

Super Sad True Love Story is a bildungsroman, a coming of age story. At first this seems funny because the protagonist of the novel is anything but young; in fact he feels himself over the hill, a codger, a geezer; someone whose hip refers to his bones, not the state of his cool. Yet Shteyngart's story is just that, a tale of someone who finally grows up.

Lenny is afraid of death. His entire life is focused on beating the reaper. There is his job as a salesman for the scientific fountain of youth. There is his outlook on life, cynical and dejected because he feels himself too old to be of worth, don't let them tell you life's a journey. A journey is when you end up somewhere.

The protagonist's anxieties (and does he have a lot of them) are merely reflective however of his social setting. Everyone in the novel's culture is obsessed with aspects of youth. Thus everyone has a Global Teens account, and writes like they are early adolescents, even though most users are well past their teens. Moreover the networked nature of the world is centered around the desirability of the young, male hotness, fuckability, ranking amongst your peers.

What's a guy growing old got to do to in this near future which is fixated on smooth skin, even blood pressure and eating/thinking/breathing right? Lenny can't afford the treatments he is hawking. More specifically he's mediocre at his job and so doesn't merit the treatments. As such, Lenny needs to find an amulet, some sort of magical something or someone which will confer the blessing of the young on his sagging ass.

Enter Eunice Park.

Eunice fixes Lenny up, tells him what to wear, who to stand up to and ultimately who to trust. More importantly though Eunice improves Lenny's state of mind. With her by his side he can beat death itself, Even death,my slender indefatigable nemesis,seemed lackluster compared with the all-powerful Eunice Park.

The whole setup is Lolita-esque, perhaps deliberately. There is a certain, light of my life, fire of my loins feeling to Lenny's mooning over Eunice, especially in the beginning. There is adoration (his), scorn (hers).

More than the plot similarity of an older man chasing sexually after a younger girl, this dynamic of the male being animated, aflame, because of a nymph, is evident in Nabokov's novel as well as in Shteyngart's.

Moreover, just as in Nabokov's novel Lolita comes to depend (at least in certain aspects) on Humbert Humbert, so too does Eunice increasingly eventually come to rely on Lenny (at least in certain aspects).

The glamor of the relationship ultimately fades though and Lenny realizes that, even with Eunice, death is still always lurking around. No matter the youth of his partner, or the youthfulness of his own outlook, How far I had come from my parents,born in a country built on corpses... And yet how little I had travelled from them,the inability to grasp the present moment, to grab Grace by the shoulders and say 'Your happiness is mine.'

This realization is the first sign that Lenny is growing up. His coming of age means making peace with death, its inevitability and even acknowledging the blessings which the end brings.

An interesting device used to illustrate the pervasiveness of death in Lenny's life is his atypical (for the setting) obsession with books. Clearly the people of the near future despise these relics, I noticed that some of the first class people were staring me down for having an open book. Yet Lenny insists not only on reading books but even maintaining a library. I thought about that terrible calumny of the new generation: that books smell.

In fact books are Lenny's only act of rebellion. There are references to The Quiet American and Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tolstoy and Chekhov. In all other aspects of his life he is timid and docile. He cannot even hit Joshie when it is clear that his boss is/was heavily involved in the massacre of the Rupture. No matter how society looks down on them though, Lenny can't give up his books.

Books are, in many ways, artifacts of death. Paper is the preserve of dead trees. The content of the pages comes from an author who most likely is dead or inevitably will be. The medium itself is static, flat, slow paced, in a word, dead. Books are nothing like the whiz-bang apparats which everyone in Super Sad True Love Story fondle like pebbles from God's own beach.

Lenny's devotion to books is a subtle hint that his views on death and mortality will change as the novel progresses. In a way, as he has embraced books, so too he will learn to deal as well with death and with endings. Thus it is fitting that the ending of the Eunice Park relationship is set amidst books.

But she clasped her legs around my swollen torso, and we were instantly together, two lover on a tiny bed surrounded exclusively by boxes of books, weak light from the square porthole of a window illuminating nothing about us, save for the fact that we were one.

This is how Lenny grows up, by accepting death and endings. Thus it is a very different Lenny who, at the novel's conclusion, finally admits, 'We're all going to die,' Grace Kim once said to me... If any part of my diaries yields anything resembling the truth, it is Grace's lament. (Or perhaps it is no lament at all.

That Lenny does not see death, old age, as reason for lamentation is a sign that he has come up of age, that he has left the trappings of youth (physically and emotionally) behind.

The peculiar characteristic of books though is that while they may be dead, they contain life within them. After all this is how Super Sad True Love Story is brought to light. While Lenny and Eunice have long since split up, their relationship refuses to die because of the leaking of their diaries. Books are artifacts of death which, paradoxically and magically, also bestow life.

Review:

This novel was well liked by a whole bunch of critics. I couldn't get as warmed up about it. Super Sad True Love Story is a sad puppy dog read. The reader alternates between being sorry for Lenny and wanting to slap him.

The satire itself seems hyperbolic, as if every feature that could be exaggerated is magnified by a hundred. For example, Americans love shopping so in the novel there are specialized poles which check the credit rating of passersby while billboards associate patriotism with spending. While satire is inherently born out of exaggeration the premise and setting of this novel seem particularly shrill.

In the end, I can empathize with the super sad part of the title but I found the story wanting in terms of truth and love.

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