Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story tries to be many things—tragicomic 1984 update, poignant May-December romance per the title, heartfelt tribute to the nostalgic joys of plain ol’ books—and succeeds at most of them. But primarily, it’s the finest piece of anti-iPhone propaganda ever written, a cautionary tale full of distracted drones unwilling to tear themselves away from their little glowing screens long enough to make eye contact, let alone an actual lasting connection, with another human being. It’s super sad ’cause it’s true, but that also makes it hilarious.
It is the very near future, and the United States, saddled with crippling debt and terrorizing its citizens with draconian anti-terrorism measures, is in ruins, now more or less entirely owned by the Chinese (for starters), dotted with “Credit Poles” that broadcast your financial status so as to weed out Low Net Worth Individuals (LNWIs) and/or anyone not mindlessly lugging around an “äppärät.” (“What is this, an iPhone?” sneers one young buck, eyeing our hero’s laughably primitive model.) Ah: Your hero is Lenny Abramov, an aging, self-loathing Russian Jew (surprise!) on Italian sabbatical from his job in Post-Human Services, which offers, via highly questionable science peddled by his Steve Jobsian messianic boss, the chance to live forever. There he meets the love of his life, Eunice Park, a young, insolent, but secretly heart-of-gold-ish Korean-American who, back in the crumbling States, slowly consents to a highly unlikely love affair.
Dystopian hijinx ensue. The narrative bounces from Lenny’s melodramatic, yearningly literary diary entries to Eunice’s “GlobalTeens” chats (a sort of Facebook/instant-message mashup heavy on lewd jargon and such brand names as JuicyPussy, AssLuxury, and TotalSurrender), both characters sweet and confused and likeable in their own way, both the entropic surrounding world and their tenuous place in it entirely believable. Super Sad skillfully balances our actual present with our worst-case-scenario future, Shteyngart’s wit mercifully overpowering his despair. A bravura set piece, in a thoroughly gentrified Staten Island (!) bar named Cervix (!), finds Lenny and his scummy pals using their äppäräts to precisely measure their attraction to all the women around them via blood-pressure sensors and farcically precise social-network-derived data: “FUCKABILITY 780/800, PERSONALITY 800/800, ANAL/ORAL/VAGINAL PREFERENCE 1/3/2.”
It’s a shame when the long-foreshadowed “Rupture” finally comes: LNWIs killed en masse in Tompkins Square Park, China finally collecting on its debts, and, worst of all, everyone’s äppärät briefly rendered useless (“I can’t buy anything,” Eunice laments). From there, we swing inward, to the dissolving love affair we’ve been promised, imperiled by sci-fi menace without and charmingly retro clashes—over their age difference, their tortured family backgrounds, Lenny’s pathetic love for his “smelly” book collection, etc.—within. That Shteyngart, who thoroughly explored his own Russian-Jewish heritage in widely hailed previous novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, can now read messages on his iPhone from his younger, Korean-American fiancée during press interviews makes clear how close to the bone he continues to cut. He writes what he already knows, but also what he fears he’ll know all too soon. Super Sad ain’t Tolstoy, but it argues for the analog pleasures of Tolstoy in an increasingly, detrimentally digital world, and that’ll do. Read it as an eBook, and you’re part of the problem.