The present moment is witnessing a shift in familial relations that is perhaps unique in human history: the traditional mode of parent-child relations is being overturned (Shifflet-Chila 6). Our understanding hitherto has been that parents hold knowledge which is valuable to their children and which will help them navigate their lifeworlds when it is disseminated throughout childhood, adolescence and beyond. But a new generation of ‘digital natives’ are coming of age and stretching into a future to which their parents’ knowledge is inadequate. The natives are lighting the way for their digital immigrant relations.
‘Meanwhile…the Abramovs keep leaving all these desolate messages on GlobalTeens with illiterate subject lines reading “me and momee sad” and “me worry” and “without son laif lonely”’ (74). Sketching an anxious picture of his mental state which includes a looming financial crisis and fears over his ability to retain the mercurial Eunice’s affections, Lenny mentions his parents in a hasty afterthought. His filial obligation is a problem. Ensnared in the high-speed, technically-challenging world of Post Human Services, coupled with the prospect of negotiating the murky waters of a digitally-mediated relationship, his parents are not only useless to him. They are another thing to worry about.
Shteyngart ‘dramatizes the tension between what Werner Sollors calls “consent” and descent”, between those elements of our identities that we choose and those that we inherit’ (Trapp 56). Lenny struggles to forge a future for himself in the new America, a future which requires him to leave the descent elements of his identity behind. ‘A father should never outlive his child,’ (125) Lenny believes. His plans for eternal life do not include the parents who left Russian life behind to give him a better life. Lenny has only visited their homeland in the works of Chekhov and other literary masters.
‘I have to be a “roll model” according to Mom,’ (168), Eunice tells her sister, Sally. Eunice’s playful/cruel imitation of her mother’s patchy English highlights the scorn she feels for her parents, and suggests her desire to be liberated of the pain of her family’s turbulent daily life, and especially her father, ‘the violent podiatrist’ (35). More than this, she wants to leave behind her ‘unnecessary shell (the human body) and focus on the rarified human essence (its mind or soul)’ (Malewitz 113). Rather than treating her raw historical wounds, she wishes to escape the body which is emblematic of that history entirely. She immerses herself in digital culture.
Eunice’s mocking of her mother’s language use suggests that the native-immigrant gap between them extends beyond the realm of the digital: Eunice believes herself to be better-equipped to meet the demands of American life than her mother, whose language immediately marks her as an outsider. ‘I’ll keep Mom safe,’ (71), her sister repeatedly reassures her. The émigrée has left her life in Korea, rendering her isolated and therefore additionally vulnerable to her husband’s rages. Her daughter feels obligated to protect her.
Ironically, while the daughters hold cultural capital in their savvy knack for America-navigation, they still require their parents for actual capital. There develops a parasitic relationship which complicates the underlying emotional problems Eunice tries to eschew: ‘So because we leave for you everything behind, you now have big responsibility to Daddy and Mommy and Sister. J’ (45) Part of the rhetorical impact of this simply-expressed statement stems from the sender’s glaring misapplication of a smiling emoticon – a promise of financial capital accompanied by evidence of deficient cultural capital. Shteyngart uses Eunice’s dearth of alternative sources of income to dramatize the conundrum to which swathes of the digital native population are susceptible – a kind of status-disorientation stemming from simultaneous feelings of superiority and dependency.
Citing Illouz, Richardson explains ‘emotional capitalism’ (Richardson 76) as the diffusion of market-based logic and language into emotional life. Neoliberalism has seeped into the contemporary consciousness so profoundly that characters shrewdly calculate the potential losses and gains of emotional involvements. ‘Love is great for pH, ACTH, LDL, whatever ails you,’ Joshie tells Lenny (64). Enduring relationships are only useful insofar as they translate into ‘biocomputational success’ (Malewitz 116). Shteyngart asks us to assess our values and subject the motives that underlie our most intimate decisions to greater scrutiny.
When crisis strikes, Lenny, like Eunice, demonstrates ability beyond his parents’ to navigate the complexity of the new American reality. Using his connections to reach them after the economy’s collapse he finds his parents starving and afraid, ‘secretly hurt and ashamed that they could do less for me than I could for them’ (285). The unspeakable truth of their reversal of roles charges the whole encounter with a strange intimacy: Lenny experiences a paradoxical determination to be close to them while retaining his sense of personal liberty, fleetingly indulging in a rare moment of true contentment with his parents while simultaneously trying to escape ‘the burden of the emotional implications’ (Agamben 53). As in Eunice’s family, Lenny’s relationship with his parents is problematized by a delicate tension between directly oppositional affects generated by a subversion of the roles and attributes they expect of one another.
Silently fuming in a church, surrounded by Eunice’s family, Lenny composes an imaginary sermon:
‘Throw away your ancestors! Throw away your fathers and the self-appointed fathers that claim to be stewards of God…Accept the truth! And if there is more than one truth, then learn to do the difficult work – learn to choose.’ (188)
For Lenny, the pains of family life can be erased by the simple truth of a mutual obligation he and Eunice have formed together. Demonstrating the affective impact of familial role subversion, Shteyngart speculates on whether its presence in the consciousness alongside neoliberalist logic will culminate in a far-reaching renunciation of familial obligation. His novel does not provide an answer – neither Lenny nor Eunice is ever truly able to disentangle the knots that keep their parents close to them. Which forces are most capable of keeping the family together? Which are most valuable as foundations upon which a decent human society can be built? Which of them could erode, and which of them could contemporary American reality already be eroding?
Agamben, Giorgio. Nudities. Translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.
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 71 (2015): 107-127.
Richardson, John M. “The Promposal: Youth Expressions of Identity and ‘Love’ in the Digital Age” Learning, Media and Technology 42 (2017): 74-86.
Shifflet-Chila, Erica D. et al. “Adolescent and Family Development: Autonomy and Identity in the Digital Age” Children and Youth Services Review 70 (2016): 364-368.
Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. London: Granta Books, 2011.
Trapp, Brian. “Super Sad True Melting Pot: Reimagining the Melting Pot in a Transnational World in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story” MELUS 41 (2016): 55-75.
Metcalf, Stephen. “Neoliberalism: The Idea that Swallowed the World.” The Guardian. 18 August 2017. Accessed 11 November 2017.<https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/aug/18/neoliberalism-the-idea-that-changed-the-world>
Shteyngart, Gary. “Only Disconnect” The New York Times. 16 July 2010. Accessed 12 November 2017. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/18/books/review/Shteyngart-t.html>