Super Sad True Love Story: Humans, Posthumans and the Inevitable Dystopia

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).

Image depicting the future of digital technology. From The New York Times.

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.

From The Atlantic Magazine

Bibliography

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.

9 thoughts on “Super Sad True Love Story: Humans, Posthumans and the Inevitable Dystopia

  1. Gary Shteyngart does seem to be looking at the future in a rather bleak way. I don’t think that he addresses this dismal view of the world as he should. The attempts at comedy certainly downplay any impending negative post-apocalyptic ideology that he could be positing.
    All in all, I agree that the novel’s use of technology does represent the major problems that the future could hold for our society at large; but Shteyngart could’ve written the novel in a more straightforward and less-comical way if he wanted his writing to be taken more seriously.

    1. Whilst I do agree that the views depicted of the future are rather bleak and pessimistic, I feel that this is Shteyngart’s way of exaggerating the truth of contemporary society. For me, this is the reason why the comedy is used. I think he is trying to use comedy in a situation which is completely far fetched in order to highlight the bigger picture of the ever growing dominance of social media. I also don’t believe this novel was meant to be ‘taken seriously’ in that way, for if anything, I think it posits more questions than it does answers; something which may have been very different had he removed the comedic elements.

      Thank you for your comment!

  2. You have raised some very interesting ideas in this post, particularly in relation to what constitutes ‘human’ and ‘post-human’. Is it problematic, however, to say that Lenny is a ‘physical manifestation of human’, while Eunice is a ‘physical manifestation’ of the post-human? Can we deem Eunice less human, just because she exhibits more of an interest in social media than Lenny, and less of an interest in books? I’m not necessarily saying you are wrong, but I do think Shteyngart is raising some very profound philosophical questions here. What constitutes a human? What is humanity? At what point does one cross the threshold into ‘post-human’? Can engagement with social media really define one person less human than the next?
    Another interesting question to pose here, is whether Shteyngart’s exploration of the human and posthuman is already outdated. ‘Super Sad True Love Story’ was published in 2010, when social media platforms were just about gaining significant traction, and the smartphone had not yet reached the level of influence as what we see in the contemporary moment. Considering the direction these technologies have taken over the last 8-9 years, and the fact they have not yet rendered the human race a post-human army of anti-social robots, could we say that Shteyngart’s fears for humanity were melodramatic? Or was he right on the money? Does humanity exhibit more post-human tendencies now as it did in 2010, when Shteyngart was publishing his novel? Again, these are difficult, philosophical, speculative, problematic questions. I do think Shteyngart tackled them quite while in ‘Super Sad true Love Story’, as have you in your post.

    1. Hi Amy, thank you for your comment!

      I enjoyed reading this reply as I think it really puts into focus the aims Shteyngart had for the novel and the questions that are posed because of it. For me, the consideration of human and posthuman is more of a metaphorical idea rather than necessarily deeming Eunice to be less of a human because of it. I am more referring to the difference between the ‘analogue age’ and the ‘digital age’ and how Lenny and Eunice represent them in the bigger picture. You are right though, I have mentioned in a previous reply that this novel asks more questions than it answers and I think that this was the purpose considering there are so many varying views on the content!

      To address your second comment: in simple terms, yes, Shteyngart’s depiction of the future is of course melodramatic and highly exaggerated, but it is my view that this was intentional. Whilst I understand what you are saying regarding the content being outdated, I do not necessarily agree that it is and in fact I would nearly consider the novel to be more significant now than it was in 2010. The reason being that yes, social media at the time of publication was not yet as popular, but the current social media trends resonate more with the novel with numerous social media sites and the growing trend of ‘blogging’ and ‘vlogging’; things which have only gained traction in recent years. For me, an important thing to note is that whilst Shteyngart says this novel depicts a very near future, we are never truly given a time frame of what he constitutes ‘near’. Is it 10 years? 20 years? 50 years? Also, the use of the Äppärät and the way in which people live in a highly publicised manner produces the idea of the split self; something which is produced in reponse to the growing social media popularity. Overall, I think that this is more prevalent today than it was back then.

      For me, the novel has posited ideas and perhaps fears regarding the rise of social media, but in the 8-9 years that it has been out, I feel it resembles humanity in this culture more than it did back then. If this is the case, how long will it take before humanity reaches a point in which it resonates even more with the novel than it does now? Like you said, there are many questions posed by this novel and I hope that I have somewhat clarified my views on them.

  3. Hi Stephanie

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. I think the discussion of education and reading is a really interesting one, especially as it is being discussed in the format of a novel. I read an article where Shteyngart justifies his writing style, including the messages sent by Eunice, by saying, basically, that society is becoming less literate and so his novel is just a reflection of this, and that it gives it more appeal. However, I think that, if the format of the book itself supposed to be satire, it has failed entirely. Instead, I think that it dumbs down Shteyngart’s opinions, as he doesn’t allow himself a full vocabulary, or a more objective character. I think that this is especially evident in Eunice’s writing, as so much of it is vapid and false. I understand that there is, occasionally, depth in her writing, and that this vapid nature is reflective of many characters in the novel, but Shteyngart seems to over-do Eunice’s insipid writing to the point that, if she does have something intelligent to say, the reader is no longer interested in reading it. This is furthered by spelling mistakes and cringe-worthy acronyms. Although Lenny is, as you have said, ignorant of trends, there is no doubt that he has still given in to the culture of the äppärät, allowing his relationship with Eunice to draw him in even further. Do you think that this lack of intelligence and insight, for lack of a better word, by the characters is destructive to the effectiveness of the satire in the book?

    Interested to hear what you have to say!

    Sophie

  4. Hi Sophie,

    I watched an interview with Shteyngart where he basically said the same things and I actually think that this is reflected within the novel. I do understand your point of view though, particularly regarding Eunice. Similar to what I have mentioned in a previous reply, I think this is done to exaggerate the true state of things and to add comedic elements, however this style of writing will not appeal to everyone! To a certain extent, I also agree with your views on the unnecessary speech that Eunice has and at times I feel that it was put in to extend the length of the novel rather than having any intelligent input to the story. Finally, in regards to your last question, I quite enjoyed the satiric elements of the novel, so I would have to say no. I think Shteyngart has written Lenny as a love struck fool who will follow Eunice no matter the affect it has on his own views and opinions; but for me, that is just the character’s traits as opposed to being directly related to the satire within the novel.

    Thank you for your comment!

  5. Hi Stephanie,

    Thanks for your post! My essay topic is greatly influenced by the idea of the posthuman, so it was insightful to read about similar things from another perspective.

    Your use of Judith Butler’s phrase ‘a social network of hands’ in light of the novel was really quite interesting. Shteyngart, as Amy has already said, really does put forward some big questions about humanity, and analysing the language of others who do the same was a good take on that.

    I’m glad that you clarified your reference to the ‘analogue age’ and the ‘digital age’ through Lenny and Eunice, however, as I too had similar issues to Amy.

    You deal with the virtual world and the internal well here, so I’d be interested to hear if you have any thoughts on Shteygart’s dealings with the physical world and the body?

    Overall, an informative read.

    Best,

    Amy

  6. Hi Stephanie,

    I thought this was an incredibly interesting blog post particularly given that in class we touched repeatedly upon “Nosedive”, an episode of black mirror. If you haven’t seen it, the main character is desperate to increase the social rating she receives by others, it is measured through a device not dissimilar to the apparats in the novel. It is influenced by those she knows, the more high ranking people she interacts with and gets high rankings from the better. Every detail of her life is given a value.

    What disturbs me most about this system is that it is already being implemented in China: https://www.businessinsider.com/china-social-credit-system-punishments-and-rewards-explained-2018-4?r=UK&IR=T_

    How do you think the fact that this system is actually becoming a reality in some places informs our readings out Super Sad True Love Story? Does the novel become a warning in this way? Is it a satirical comment on how fleeting our society is? Basically what I’m asking is can we sustain the split between the social self and real self any longer?

    Best,
    Lara

  7. Hi Stephanie, I really enjoyed this blog post, it was very interesting to read a different perspective from my own on this text. In my blog spot I concentrated on the female experience, so it was intriguing to see your analysis on the impacts on Lenny as well as Eunice.

    I found your focus on how this futuristic society, and its technological advances, acts to change concepts of the self and individuality. Do you think Shteyngart depicts a different world for men and women in this future society? For example, do you think this world is equally disadvantageous to men and women, or does he depict this world as patriarchal?

    Best,

    Carys.

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