Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: ‘Super Sad True Love Story’ by Gary Shteyngart

Chris Palazzolo rereads Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Random House 2010.

super sadThere is nothing super sad about the love story in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. In fact it seems so slight, flim flam and narcissistic it barely qualifies as a story at all. It’s curious that a tryst so uncompelling is expected to pull us through a full length novel about the decline of the United States, but that is exactly what its function is; an ephemeral love affair set against a backdrop of (future) historical events; the liquidation of the US financial system and the takeover of the US economy by Chinese capital, and the military repression of a popular uprising in New York.

Super Sad True Love Story is an epistolary novel, told entirely in diary entries and email and Facebook type exchanges. The story is this – Lenny Abramov, the son of Russian immigrants, now resident New Yorker falls in love with Eunice Park, a Korean/American girl 20 years his junior; they date, they cheat, they split up. And that’s it; the two have nothing in common and passion is little more than aching ambivalence. The age gap between the lovers, as well as the Russianness of the author, can lead one to think that the story is a kind of post-modern Lolita. But as Eunice is 22 years old, the relationship, while questionable on the grounds of taste, is not illegal, and hardly transgressive.

It’s left to the vividly realised, satirical details of the near future New York to pull us through, and it is here perhaps where comparisons with Nabokov actually make sense. There are the same preoccupations: the haute bourgeois tastes of the European emigré reduced to a barely tolerated private vice; the pervy pleasure in the pornified naiveté of American youth culture and the pathetic infatuation for a young girl. There are the same tropes: expressionistic clouds of pop; in Nabokov’s case, neon, television and jukebox rock ‘n roll; in Shteyngart’s, a sci-fi extrapolation of mobile phones, ipads and twitter, all collapsed into a personalised virtual cloud device called an äppäärät where personal and civic identity is stored.

In Nabokov’s America, the distinction between classes of people and the status of cultures that he regarded as Europe’s most precious heritage barely existed, levelled by popular culture and democratic blandishments (D.H. Lawrence complained extensively about this mediocratising levelling in his book about Australia, Kangaroo). The shock of Lolita was meant to be instructive. Intellectuals were supposed to safeguard this distinction between high and low. So when the academic Humbert Humbert is seduced by US teeny bopper sexiness he invites the harshest and most ruinous judgement on himself, not because he’s a paedophile, but because he threatens the subsidence of distinction. In Shteyngart’s America, Abramov’s education and cultural tastes have no value whatsoever. He works for a company that offers life extension services to High Net Worth Individuals, in effect a combination of online streaming youth simulations and plastic surgery. Abramov himself, a Low Net Worth Individual, exists only in his smelly aging body and nothing is at stake if he stuffs up. Even democracy has been abandoned by a politically inert youth culture so degraded books are seen as smelly anti-social things that, if you wish to remain socially connected, employed, and unmolested by government agents, you dare not possess them.

Super Sad True Love Story has none of the anguish of Lolita. Humbert Humbert loses everything. Lenny Abramov only loses Eunice Park, which is really not a loss at all. The city crashes into civil war and much of what was detailed in the novel is lost, but that’s hardly a loss too. Perhaps what’s most interesting about this book, and certainly its most abiding impression for me, is its contention that the extent of senescence of a culture is the degree to which it fetishises youth. The unhappy bubble-headed young people whose beautiful bodies wallpaper this text, their pudenda pornographically exposed and framed by world consuming personalised media are nothing more than handmaidens to an invisible class of geriatric billionaires and technocrats who have no solution to the nation’s dwindling supplies of food and air.

 – Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.

Super Sad True Love Story has it’s own website: http://supersadtruelovestory.com/

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