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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Super Sad True Love Story: Youth Is Wasted On the Old

Here's a shocker: We're all going to die. Here's another one: Getting old sucks. So Lenny Abramov does what any self-respecting 39-year-old plagued by these sudden realizations would do: He falls in love with a much younger woman who has some serious daddy issues, and leans on her to be his fountain of youth while she leans on him for money, a place to live and security. And now you've pretty much read the entirety of Gary Shteyngart's new novel Super Sad True Love Story.

Well, I guess the novel has slightly more to it than that. The story takes place in a dystopic near-future New York City, and America is on the brink of collapse due to its massive debt to China. Books are known as  "bound, nonstreaming media artifacts," American is losing a war with Venezuela, and people use Blackberry-like devices called äppäräti (the umlauts are Shteyngart's) to stream data and learn basically anything about anybody (like Credit Rating, for one). Shteyngart's is a pretty easily recognizable dystopia — a totalitarian version of America in which citizens are carefully watched. But it's this component of satire that really is the strength of the novel, and the most fun part about it.

Lenny, who is your prototypical lovable loser, tells us the story via his diary entries, and his girl, 25-year-old Korean-American Eunice Park, supplements his version of events with emails and IM conversations with her mother, sister and best friend. When we meet Lenny, he has just decided that he's going to live forever — he figures he might as well, since that's the business he's in. Lenny works for Post-Human Services, a division of a huge corporate conglomerate. His job is to find High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) who are interested in staying "forever young." (The crappy 80s song by Alphaville makes a few appearances in the novel too, just to make sure you are really getting Shteyngart's theme.) Lenny's boss is already well on his way in this process — he's a spry 70-year-old who looks like he's in his mid-20s. Lenny first meets Eunice in Rome while he's prospecting for clients, and through a series of too-convenient maneuverings and odd justifications, she comes to live with him in New York.

So, a novel about the youth-aging dichotomy moves on to a novel about a sad middle-aged man clinging to scant hope that his lady will be able to talk herself into loving him — instead of staying with him because he treats her well and takes care of her. It really is sad, in the sense that you want to feel badly for Lenny, but does anyone ever really feel bad for "that" guy? And it's also sad in the sense that we've seen this trope way too frequently. It's not original, and neither is the poor middle-aged guy scared of his own mortality. We get it, Shhhhhhteyngart. Aging sucks! And poor, mid-life crises-based decisions (like supporting a young vixen who doesn't love you) aren't the answer! And, again, the "love" story here is pretty predictable. Lenny loves Eunice unconditionally, but Eunice doesn't love him. But he's so nice and good to her, she wants to make herself love him. Will she succeed?

So as the novel rushes to its conclusion, and things change rapidly and dramatically, we're sitting here thinking "I already kind of know what's going to happen, and I've already solved all the 'mysteries.' This is probably going to end in a pretty anti-climactic conclusion." And it does. The cool, creative dystopian future isn't enough to carry the too-common, dull themes and its boring (though somewhat droll) caricatures of real people. Shteyngart is a clever, funny writer (almost too much so from time to time), but his jokes, winks and pop culture references don't altogether save this sucker. Three stars for the not-so-super, actually pretty sad, with elements of truth, love story.

13 comments:

  1. So I am reading your review and I first say "Ech. No thanks. Too many of these folks in my real life." Then, no, wait a minute. I love sarcastic, clever satire! But then, well, never mind. Too many five star reads out there, waiting to be discovered...

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  2. I started this book a few months ago, but couldn't really get into it. Maybe I'll try again, but maybe not.

    Really well-written review, by the way!

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  3. Love your review. I want to read this but I'm going to wait for paperback.

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  4. I'm bummed to hear you thought this so ho-hum - I've had it on my shelf for a while and was really looking forward to digging in. I suppose I still will, though not as much of a rush, now. Excellent review, by the way.

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  5. Is it me or it spells Woody Allen wannabee?

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  6. Thanks for reviewing this, and for doing it so well! I haven't been sure whether or not SSTLS would be worth reading, since I felt ambivalent toward Absurdistan. I'd actually be really interested in a comparison between the two.
    For now, I have plenty of books that I'm really excited about reading, so I'm not going to run out and buy this one. Thanks again for saving me the trouble!

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  7. I'm glad I read your review. Saves me the trouble! I've been hemming and hawing over the book and now it seems like for good reason... Anything I hem and haw over probably isn't worth buying.

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  8. This is pretty much what I wished I could say about this book, except said better. The only difference is that I felt more issue with the satire and cut Shteyngart some slack when it came to the familiar storylines. Other than that: yes.

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  9. Am in the middle of the audio-book and love it. I think I would find actually reading the book difficult (ironic). It's very well done and a riot. Loves it!

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  10. Nice review. You've got me backing away from Shteyngart, even though I really want to like what he's doing. So this one sits, and sits, in the middle of my TBR pile. As does Absurdistan, after reading reviews of that. I pretty much felt the same after reading The Russian Debutante's Handbook -- I like where he's going with it, but ... Then again, I should probably give the guy even more slack, because what he's trying to do is really tough to pull off.

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  11. Great review -- I enjoyed it much more than I did the actual book. It really was so sad, both in that I felt bad for Lenny and that the whole world was just so depressing, with no redeeming qualities--not that a dystopian world needs redeeming qualities, nor would I expect them, but the combination of that with the miserable characters and too-clever/funny writing was just too much.

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  12. I found your review through Amy at http://librarianslifeinbooks.blogspot.com.

    I'm glad I stopped by. I enjoyed reading your review. It was much nicer than mine (I gave it one star on Goodreads), but I like seeing what other readers see in books, especially if they see something different, like you and Amy did.

    Grace @ feedingmybookaddiction.blogspot.com
    (new follower)

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