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Saturday, March 19th, 2011
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Super Sad True Love Story

by Gary Shteyngart

Who Wants to Live Forever?

A review by Nathan Weatherford

Super Sad True Love Story isn't an entirely disingenuous title. By the time the ending rolls around, the two main characters have experienced the epic highs and ghastly lows expected in any realistic relationship. But Gary Shteyngart is at heart a humorist, and his adept, ironic tone lends the reader a certain comic distance from the emotional outpourings of Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park.

The story is set in New York City in the not-too-distant future, where Shteyngart has taken our collective obsession with technology to its logical extreme -- everyone walks around completely absorbed in their apparats, devices that connect them to the global computer network and are constantly updated with streams of information about everything from financial crises to attractiveness ratings of members of the opposite sex. One day while abroad in Italy, Lenny meets Eunice at a party. When Eunice returns to the U.S., she moves into Lenny's apartment in New York, and their ensuing relationship plays out against a backdrop of ever present technology and the resultant cultural wars between the haves and have-nots (or as Lenny's boss calls them, "Low Net Worth Individuals").

Lenny is approaching 40, while Eunice is still in her 20s, and Shteyngart emphasizes this age difference through their different forms of narration, which alternate from chapter to chapter throughout the novel. Lenny's story is told through his diary entries, with long, flowing sentences and lush descriptions, in keeping with his own love of literature and formal writing; Lenny is one of the few people in the world who still has books on the shelf and actually enjoys reading them -- and actually can read them. In sharp contrast, Eunice's perspective is conveyed via emails and instant-message transcriptions to friends and relatives, necessitating to-the-point statements and producing ever more ridiculous acronyms (I'll let you read the book and find out for yourself what "JBF" stands for). It isn't until near the end of the novel that she shows even the slightest interest in taking a book from Lenny's shelf, and, even then, has Lenny read it aloud to her. Lenny's character is always perceived as more studious and thoughtful, while Eunice comes across as brash and vivacious, solely from their different forms of diction. That Shteyngart's writing allows these vastly different narrative styles and perspectives to maintain their individual emotional power is testament to his authorial prowess.

While Lenny and Eunice's romantic relationship forms the core of the plot, Lenny's job allows Shteyngart to also explore how this future society relates to a much more sober aspect of life -- death. Lenny works for a massive corporation that specializes in life-extension. To be eligible for the necessary procedures, one must be not only extremely wealthy, but also deemed worthy of living forever. At the outset of the story, Lenny constantly frets over not having enough money to begin the preliminary procedures, as he is petrified of death and can't bear the thought of having his existence so utterly nullified.

My hair would continue to gray, and then one day it would fall out entirely, and then, on a day meaninglessly close to the present one, meaninglessly like the present one, I would disappear from the earth. And all these emotions, all these yearnings, all these data, if that helps to clinch the enormity of what I'm talking about, would be gone.
Lenny's musings on death, while charmingly naive in the beginning, take on more gravity as the story progresses and form an effective counterpoint to the wild ups and downs of his relationship with Eunice. Indeed, he seems to be the only character in the novel capable of having complex thoughts regarding death. Everyone else is too absorbed in themselves and their technology to consider their eventual demise.

Super Sad True Love Story is exactly what it says it is (with the exception of the "true" part, of course). But it's also a call to pay attention to the world around us and a reminder that nobody lives forever. Lenny gains this necessary perspective through his relationship with Eunice, but also through the simple act of keeping a handwritten diary in a world of short electronic bursts of emotion. Whether anyone else deems him worthy of living forever is irrelevant -- his words have already immortalized his unique experience, and this is a powerful message to absorb. It's nice that Shteyngart makes the absorption process pretty hilarious along the way.

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