Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story writes with a vaguely familiar and all too realistic narrative depicting a ‘very near future’ in America. This novel centres on two entirely opposite characters: Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park. The former is a middle aged, middle class American man of Russian descent and the latter is a 24 year old Korean-American woman. Both characters are inflicted with low self-esteem and insecurities only healed through the realisation that each character represents what the other doesn’t have, what the other isn’t, and what the other believes they want. The narrative unfolds through a series of diary entries and online messages in an entirely illiterate America, highlighting a binary opposition between the ‘old world’ (the analogue age) and the ‘new world’ (the digital age). Lenny and Eunice then, are the vehicle in which this is detailed; they are the physical manifestations of ‘human’ and ‘posthuman’ in this worryingly accurate dystopian future.
Judith Butler discusses the idea of the precarity of human life, and for her, all life is precarious in that it is always vulnerable to death. She argues that “precariousness is coextensive with birth” and survival is dependent upon a “social network of hands” (14). In this instance, it is a particularly interesting phrase given how Shteyngart underscores his novel with this same idea of the human life becoming increasingly more precarious with the rise of social media and digital technology. Super Sad True Love Story highlights the notion of the ‘split self’ or the idea that we become two different versions of ourselves through the use of social media: the ‘real’ self and the ‘virtual’ self. The increased use of social media exposes this notion of self by opening individuals up to constant critique and judgement. An example of this is through the use of the Äppärät, a futuristic smart phone like device which hangs around the users neck at all times. This is frequently used to control and take command of all social interaction, holding (and sharing) all information about the owner, including medical history, personal attributes and credit ratings. Raymond Malewitz describes this era as a move from “liberal humanism to digital posthumanism” (111).
Lenny Abramov is a 39 year old male living in an era where he is old and ‘uncool’ due to his love for books and his ignorance towards the current trends. Shteyngart emphasises the increasing illiteracy, particularly amongst the younger generation by detailing Eunice’s GlobalTeens chats as highly simplified and heavily loaded with acronyms. Eunice represents the younger generation who often use this style of writing to communicate affection towards one another. This reflects the destruction of a previously literate society; a further emphasis on this stems from the primary occupations being credit, retail and media. Furthermore, Lenny uses vocabulary which is ceasing to exist within the younger generations and at one point reminisces of how things used to be when a woman refers to the weather as “blustery”. He relishes in the “precision and simplicity” and the fact that they “were communicating with words” (304). Similarly, Stephanie Li explains how the “obsessive focus on youth makes history seemingly irrelevant” (103). This is evident through Shteyngart’s satirical method of representing how the future (seemingly not that far away) will be, highlighting the ideas and issues that he is trying to raise, of how the “digital hive is growing at the expense of individuality” (Lanier 26).
Jaron Lanier posits that the “most important thing about a technology is how it changes people” (4). This quote firmly aids what Shteyngart is attempting to do with this novel and returning to the idea of individuality and the concept of self, it is important to note the differences between the online/virtual person and the real world person. Not only are people able to openly judge, discriminate and critique others, they are also able to perform anonymously. At one point Eunice mentions how she “gave him a photocopy of who I was, without telling him that I was unhappy and humiliated and often, just like him, all alone” (134). An example of a contemporary teenagers struggles with self worth and the depiction of happiness on social media. Furthermore, Lanier metaphorically explains the dangers of this impending dystopia and how it can affect both our individual selves and the society in which we live in. He writes “you can believe that your mind makes up the world, but a bullet will still kill you. A virtual bullet, however, doesn’t even exist unless there is a person to recognise it as a presentation of a bullet” (27). This idea of the virtual self and the anonymity that accompanies it is so much more than the ‘younger generation taking over’ but rather a highly dangerous, completely illiterate and media obsessed society that is, as the saying goes ‘taking one step forward and two steps back’.
Super Sad True Love Story is an ironic and deeply concerning novel making the reader feel anxious about what the future may be and what it may become (does posting a blog on the internet submit to all the horror that Shteyngart illustrates in his novel?). There are undertones of various different thematic issues which run through this novel, namely capitalism and political agendas, however, I find the most interesting and disturbing element of it to be that this narrative is so familiar for a contemporary reader. This is evident through Lenny’s departure from the United States; he explains, “I wanted to be in a place with less data, less youth, and where old people like myself were not despised simply for being old” (328). This serves as not only a warning but also as a reminder; something to consider about a future which will greatly impact us all.
Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? London: Verso, 2009. Print.
Google Talks. “Gary Shteyngart: “Super Sad True Love Story” | Talks at Google.” YouTube. 13 January. 2012. https://m.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=mrlaqvH6bzU Web. Accessed 15 November 2018.
Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget. London: Penguin Books, 2010. Print.
Li, Stephanie. “Techno-orientalism and the end of History in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.” Dis-Orienting Planets: Racial Representations of Asia in Science Fiction. Ed. Isiah Lavender. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2017. 102-116.
Madrigal, Alexis. “Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad Blueprint for a Post-Literate Future.” The Atlantic. 12 August 2010. Web. Accessed 19 November 2018.
Malewitz, Raymond. “Some new dimension devoid of hip and bone”: Remediated Bodies and Digital Posthumanism in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory. 71.4 (2015): 107-127.
Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. London: Granta Publications, 2010. Print.
Wood, Michael. “Never Say Die.” The New York Times. 6 August 2010. Web. Accessed 19 November 2018.