War and Peace lovingly and obsessively, he does not read it well (more on this later). Shteyngart, however, clearly has, and the presence of Tolstoy’s masterwork in the novel is no accident (nor is the brief mention of 1984).
Like War and Peace, Super Sad Love Story takes place during the waning of an Empire in a dystopian near-future New York City where characters scramble to make sense of what is happening and find a place for themselves in the new world order. Here the Napoleonic Wars are replaced with the skirmishes of international capitalism; America’s economic weakness is being exploited by international conglomerates disguised as nations. State-sponsored capitalism is clearly the boogeyman here, particularly Abramov’s employer Staatling-Wapachung, a Sino-European corporate griffin poised to profit from a financial coup de grace in toppling the good ol’ U.S. of A.
Against this backdrop, Super Sad True Love Story follows Lenny as he tries to get the girl---a beautiful, vapid second generation Korean immigrant who is attracted to Lenny initially only for his salary (more than “239,000 yuan-pegged dollars a year”).
A late 30s schlub working for a “life extension” company, Lenny reads Tolstoy obsessively and furtively, for in this New New York, printed books are embarrassing relics, read only by the tragically uncool. If going “viral” is our metaphor for digital popularity, social networking here has gone positively bubonic. People are continuously and addictively tuned into their “apparat”, smartphone-like devices that track the information of those immediately around them. Its killer-app (and model name) is RateMe: a steroidal Facebook/Twitter amalgam that gives users access to each other’s age, weight, personal and financial history, and a constantly update desirability index, rating a “personality” and “fuckability” on an 800-point scale. (It is an information orgy that spills over into consumer products: women’s clothing comes from two primary companies: AssLuxury and TotalSurrender.)
The Lenny-Eunice union is draped over a digital divide: his old world romanticism strains against her immersion in the electron-crazed zeitgeist—a tension exhibited in the structure of the novel itself, which shifts between his handwritten diary entries and transcripts of her email and online chats.
Readers might be tempted, being readers, to side with the bookish and old-fashioned Lenny, though I think his War and Peace fetish is a signal from Shteyngart to be wary. Lenny’s belief in his own agency (he stresses on the first page that his mission is to be immortal) becomes comic as the larger forces of culture and history crash on the rocks around him; no amount of Enlightenment thinking is going to provide him a harbor in this storm. For as much as digital narcissisim and global capitalism are the overt targets of Shteyngart’s satire, it is the paradox of information that I find the most fascinating.
The more information Lenny, Eunice, and the rest of the characters accumulate, the more their helplessness and limitation are laid bare. Does it do Lenny any good to know that he is generally regarded as one of the least attractive man in the room? Or does Eunice profit from watching her fuckability score oscillate depending on the cut of her clothes? Of course not. All this self-voyeurism only distracts from the ineluctable forces, both private and public, that shape their lives. For all of her beauty and youth, Eunice cannot escape the shadow of her father’s abuse. For all of Lenny’s self-inspection and optimism, he, like everyone else, is flawed and mortal. Their desire to enumerate their being is a desire for control: of their image, of their fortunes, and of their lives.
As it so happens, Tolstoy’s second epilogue to War and Peace might be thought of as a primer for understanding the worldview of Super Sad True Love Story, all of its own distractions and inventions notwithstanding:
[I]t now seems as if we have only to admit the law of inevitability, to destroy the conception of the soul, of good and evil, and all the institutions of state and church that have been built up on those conceptions…it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist, and to recognize a dependence of which we are not conscious.Somewhat dizzingly, what is articulated here is a call to be-aware of our self-deception, to transcend solipsism not by asserting our ego, but by acknowledging our limitation and fallenness.
Those whose interests align with a resistance to technology (ie most writers and reviewers) will probably praise Shteyngart’s critique of the digital age. Those who see themselves at the vanguard of contemporary culture will probably accuse him of literary grumpsterism. They might both be right, but I suspect they would both be wrong. The object of terror here is neither the medium nor the message; it is the clear-eyed awareness of what we cannot do.