Shteyngart’s Brave New World. (Dystopian Horror or Modern Nightmare)

Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is a prominent piece of dystopian fiction equivalent to that of Huxley or Orwell. Shteyngart’s technologically advanced dystopian America warns us of humanity’s impending doom as we lose ourselves further and further into technology and social media. The relationship between humans and information systems in this novel and indeed modern life as we know it has become increasingly one-sided. By this I mean, systems are controlled by the information that we give them, however, it is now the information that these very systems expel that now control us.

Shteyngart being the great satirist he is, generates some of the best meta-irony that I’ve ever seen in literary history by pioneering the use of a live-action trailer for his dystopian novel. The intricacies of this trailer are so relevant to the novel that it needs to be witnessed for yourself it truly is one of the most contemporary pieces of media. From Shteyngart’s own rendition of himself in a parodic Sacha Baron Cohen type performance as an illiterate professor to James Franco a prominent actor in modern cinema, even including Jay McInerny (an author who was in the Brat Pack in the ’80s). The trailer is ingenious by using this type of viral marketing that Shteyngart so enthusiastically trivializes in the novel, it is truly a contemporary piece of media, and what can be more bizarrely contemporary than James Franco starring in a trailer for your book…possibly Ben Stiller picking up the rights to produce and star in a TV adaption of the novel. The reason I enjoyed the trailer so much is that I watched it before I read the novel so it enlightened my sense of the novel and the depiction of humanity throughout by the objectively toothless acting of all that participated.

“Super Sad True Love Story (Trailer)” Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfzuOu4UIOU

“walls and thoughts and faces, which weren’t enough, he needed to be ranked to know his place in this world” (Shteyngart, 268).

To me, this is the biggest problem within Super Sad True Love Story it is a very telling synopsis of “apparat” culture in this novel and the zombification of social media users in general. The constant need for validation and placement within society allows for no individual thought and opinion as our collective mind is constantly fueled by the unexhaustive machine that is social media. The ratings within Super Sad such as “Fuckability” and “FAC” show the characters exactly where their place in society is and while not entirely as crude as Shteyngart puts it, we could compare this to our modern-day apps like Instagram, Facebook, Tinder, Bumble and to some extent Linked. While we can only observe these ratings via arbitrary virtual commendations such as “Matches”, “Followers” and “Likes”. Shteyngart’s “Data Streams” are always prevalent in every area and “Apparat” users are encouraged to keep their streams on at all times so users can view their scores. While this may seem like something entirely improbable in our world of data protection, it is an actual reality for China as of 2020. The Social Credit Score system has been adopted and works much the same as it does in Super Sad True Love Story, citizens are subject to having their social score displayed publically for scrutiny in all iterations of society even public transport in which they have the possibility to be ‘Blacklisted’ or ‘Whitelisted’ from anything that requires the use of their SCS. The true horror of the digital age is nigh and systems like these could possibly be introduced into our western societies soon.https://www.wired.co.uk/article/china-social-credit-system-explained

Source:.https://www.wired.co.uk/article/china-social-credit-system-explained

When researching for the novel, Shteyngart realised that “technology might make possible much more thorough forms of state tyranny” (Hamilton, 66). Which can be seen best in the government-controlled “GlobalTeens” accounts of the characters in the novel as well as the “Welcome back, Pa’dner” program, a scheme devised to analyse American relations with foreigners while abroad and to collect intrusive personal details under the guise of the cartoon friendliness of an anthropomorphous Otter. I think personally that Shteyngart has done a great job of prophecising this idea of government control in social media outlets, an example being the recent US election and the Coronavirus pandemic, governing bodies have tasked social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with incorporating ‘Fact Checking’ systems into their sites. This is to combat false information from being spread and to help show the truth in the media. However, I can’t help but think of how this would be used in Super Sad’s pseudo communist society.

Source: https://www.irishexaminer.com/world/arid-40075775.html

The aspect of eternal youth within this society is one that I would like to look at in further detail. Lennie’s abstract announcement at the start of the novel “I am never going to die”(Shteyngart,1) shows the necessity to remain youthful is something that seems the most prominent and profitable in their society. The company Lenny works for, “Post-Human Services”, promises the extension of life to those who can afford it, yet the heavily satirical name exposes that these people are not quite human anymore and have become an amalgamation of chemicals keeping them upright and “youthful” in appearance, which will ultimately fail: “There was no way to innovate new technology in time to prevent complications… of the old” (Shteyngart, 327). I see similarities in our modern culture from hairline transplants and cosmetic plastic de-ageing surgery to the anti-ageing creams and other forms of grasping onto lost youth. The profiting of insecurity and the need for youth in the modern age is something that will only excel in the near distant future like Shteyngart predicts.

“Why is it so hard to be a grown-up man in this world?” (26). Later he seems to answer his own question by giving up his books and joining the new tribe of a hypermediated digital culture.”(Malewitz,117) To succinctly provide an answer to Meliwitz’s point there is no way to be a grown-up in apparat culture or even modern digital culture as youth/youthfulness sells to everyone no matter the age group.

Sources:

  • Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story: a Novel. Great Britain: Granta Books, 2011.
  • Hamilton, Geoff. “Super Sad True Love Story.” Understanding Gary Shteyngart. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2017, pp. 57-76. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv6sj85n.8
  • Raymond Malewitz, ‘Some New Dimension Devoid of Hip and Bone’,  Arizona Quarterly, 71, 4 (Winter, 2015), pp.107-127.

4 thoughts on “Shteyngart’s Brave New World. (Dystopian Horror or Modern Nightmare)

  1. Conor, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this novel, especially your point about the exploitation of youth as a saleable product. You refer to the world of Super Sad True Love Story as a “pseudo communist society” and I would like to dig into that a little more, as I’m not quite sure what you mean? The novel for me, with its hyper-consumerist culture, corporate capitalism and focus on individualism to the extreme seems to me much more like an expansion of the neoliberal western capitalism than anything else. I would be interested to know what you read as communist in this novel? Is it specifically the algorithmic data tracking and detailing of citizens, in a specifically authoritarian surveillance state tone? Is this confused by the ways in which it impacts the creation of social identity in the novel?

    1. Thank you Lerato for your comment! Yes, I think what I was getting at when I was calling it a ‘pseudo- communist state’ is the combination of American politics and Chinese politics that seem to go hand in hand especially with the authoritarian control of the populous through such systems in the novel like the “Welcome back Pad’ner” programme and the various tracking systems and rating systems. I definitely feel that the communist and capitalist aspects of the novel are continually confused and mixed to give this dystopia even more of a horrific feel and identity. I personally feel that social identity is no longer controlled by the individual in this society but rather it is conflated by the disparaging governing powers that maintain control within the novel.

  2. Great essay Conor, I’m glad you brought up ‘fact-checking’ on social media platforms and related it to Shteyngart, as I made a similar connection myself. Prevalent throughout the novel, to me at least, it is apparent that unlike Orwell’s dystopia, where the government physically forces a surveillance state upon the population, Shteyngart is showing us that it is, in fact, us who are enforcing it upon ourselves. Social conformity in Super Sad True Love Story is enforced, not brutally, but through pleasant titles, such as “not a team playa,” and “FACing” really meaning “forming a community.” Shteyngart, through his satire, is suggesting that technological innovations that bring us harm, may come with supposed good intentions. Do you see something such as the relatively new implementation of “fact-checking” on social media as a possible step towards a conforming agenda in our real world? A tool that appears innocent but has the potential for suppression? Like many tools in Super Sad True Love Story that Shteyngart prophesied.

    1. Thank you for your comment Ryan! I definitely do think that some of these “fact checking” systems and others like the Social Credit Score system in China have the potential to be a form of societal control and suppression. However, within our current climate of conspiracy theories surrounding western governments and their supposed attempt to “track” us with vaccines etc. It seems almost ludicrous to see why government power would want to track our every movement as there is no gain for them within this (and for one they can’t properly run our country in NI’s case). However, I think in countries that have such authoritarian control like North Korea for example these systems can be used heavily for population suppression.

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