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.