It has been eight years since Gary Shteyngart’s dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story was published. At the time, a reviewer from Kirkus Reviews stated that the book was a “cyber-apocalyptic vision of an American future [which] seems eerily like the present, in a bleak comedy that is even more frightening than funny.” If “Super Sad True Love Story” was eerily like the present in 2010, in 2018, the world has taken a truly horrifying dive for the worse which has made the satirical bent of the novel read more like a current events report.
Shteyngart’s novel follows Lenny Abramov, a middle-aged Jewish-American New Yorker. He lives in the near future, and he is obsessed with both the very old and the very new. Shteyngart’s future, much like the present, is primarily digital. Physical books are essentially shunned by the general populace, yet Lenny has a peculiar fixation with their materiality. Particularly, he is obsessed with the smell of books, as he says on page 52 of the book. “I thought about that terrible calumny of the new generation: that books smell.”
Lenny’s fixation on materiality carries over to his romance with the novel’s other main character, Eunice– or Eunhee –Park. Eunice is a Korean-American woman in her late twenties who is caught in a sort of love triangle. Her real affection for Lenny may not be able to compete with the financial security which “Joshie” Goldmann, Lenny’s 70-year-old wealthy boss who is obsessed with remaining eternally youthful, can offer. Lenny’s fixation on her is primarily due to her youth, her materiality– which proves his previously mentioned obsession with the very new.
Every character in Super Sad True Love Story is obsessed with youth, however. Even Eunice and her friends, who are already young, are fixated on an oversexualized near-adolescent view of youth. They shop at stores called “TeenyBopper” and use a messaging system called “GlobalTeens.”
Overt consumerism, overt profanity, and overt sexuality mix in this futuristic world. Eunice’s favorite store is called “JuicyPussy,” and people are rated almost exclusively on their Net Worth and “fuckability,” both of which determine individuals’ worth in the world.
The economic state of the U.S. is rapidly changing in the world of Super Sad True Love Story; major metropolitan areas such as New York City are becoming “lifestyle hubs,” and only the young, rich, and beautiful are welcome to live within (280). Joshie Goldmann explicitly states this on page 280 of the novel, writing: “I think the idea is to rebuild New York as a kind of ‘Lifestyle Hub’ where wealthy people can do their thang, spend their money, live forever, blah blah blabbity BLAH. So every inch of space is going to be accounted for, and the prices are going to be absolutely PREMIUM.”
On the other hand, those who do not fit the image of the new “lifestyle hubs” and cannot afford to remain in the City are forced out, as Eunice bemoans on page 299 of the novel, writing to Joshie Goldmann: “I can’t believe you said they’re going to clear out our co-op buildings… what are they going to do with the old people? Where are they going to move them? They’ll die.”
Immigrants, in Shteyngart’s novel, are deported from the United States if they are poor and are able to stay in the country only if they are wealthy or if they have connections to wealth. Eunice’s family is only able to stay in the country due to Joshie Goldmann’s financial support.
All of this sounds far too familiar. Lenny’s love of a medium in its death throes– books — is made all the more pertinent by the financial issues which many bookstores been facing in the years since Super Sad True Love Story‘s was published. As was stated by David Leonhardt in an opinion piece for The New York Times:
“Barnes & Noble is in trouble… It’s depressing to imagine that more than 600 Barnes & Noble stores might simply disappear — as already happened with Borders, in 2011. But the death of Barnes & Noble is now plausible.”
If Barnes and Noble goes under, Leonhardt implies, it’s only a matter of time before smaller book retailers begin to die off in droves.
Leonhardt quotes an independent bookstore owner named Oren Teicher as saying, “‘It’s in the interest of the book business,’ Teicher says, ‘for Barnes & Noble not just to survive but to thrive.’”