Us On Steroids: Why "Super Sad True Love Story" Is The Best Novel About Digital Life Yet
Where are the novels about our digital lives?
When Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story was published in Fall 2010, I was teaching a course to first-year students at Oberlin College on new technologies. I'd been teaching the class for over 10 years and always assigned one novel — it used to be Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2. That semester, I decided to swap the Powers book for Shteyngart's. Fifteen 18-year olds, more geeky than literary, read the book. I expected about half to skip it, another half to say it was too difficult. Instead I got one unanimous round of applause. They all loved it. "Why?" I asked.
“It’s like us on steroids,” said one. Fourteen other heads bobbed in agreement.
It's unusual to find a contemporary novel that deals with or even seems to understand technology. We can count on a Big Think book about tech every season, be it Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows or James Gleick’s The Information. And we can count on a highly touted novel by a rockstar author with the same regularity — think Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom or Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot. But too many of our working novelists sidestep tech, setting their stories in the past or insisting their characters talk on the phone.
This is not the way we live now.
I am hungry to think about how tech runs through our veins, and look to literary fiction to help me think about how my blood flows. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from The Good Squad plays in the technological sandbox a bit, as does Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. But more often than not I find myself asking of novels and characters, even realist ones set in the 21st century, what world do you live in?
Super Sad true Love Story is one of the few in recent memory to tackle this theme head on — and it's the one I think we’ll be reading in 10 years from now, after the award winners are forgotten.
It's set in an alternative future where Lenny Abramov works at Post-Human Services, a company that helps High Net Worth Individuals cheat death. Lenny loves books — but to make sure they don’t smell bad, he uses Pine-Sol on them — and writes in his diary. But he dates Eunice Park, a Korean American who writes on Global Teens, a service that ranks people in terms of “Hotness” and “Fuckability.” Much of the novel is written e-pistolary, through “teens” from Eunice to her friends and family (“GLOBALTEENS SUPER HING: Switch to Images today! Less words=more fun!!!” or in Lenny’s old-timey diary. When they talk, they “verbal.” And they all carry around äppäräti — worryingly augmented smartphones, basically.
Sitting next to once another yet entranced by their devices (sound familiar?), characters fall into a tech-fueled, distant “äppärät reveries.”
"Shu descended into another äppärät reverie. I did the same," says Lenny at one point, "pretending it was something serious and work-related, but really I was just GlobalTracking Eunice’s location. She was, as always, at 575 Grand Street, Apt. E-607, my home, deep in her own äppärät, but subconsciously saturated by the presence of my books and mid-twentieth-century-design furniture."
Left without his äppäräti, one character tries to "reach out to life," but finds he can't:
There [were] only ‘walls and thoughts and faces,’ which weren’t enough.
He needed to be ranked, to know his place in this world. And that may sound ridiculous, but I can understand him. We are all bored out of our fucking minds. My hands are itching for connection.
In his just-about-too-clever-by-half style, Shteyngart mocks us as he pets us, laughing at and being one with our flawed but lovely desire to connect — to “FAC” (Form A Community).
And let’s face it: an äppärät reverie (or fifteen minutes tapping apps on our iPhone) is an immersive experience many of us know well. Like sex, we may feel guilty about it or revel in it, but we are all interested in it. Super Sad True Love Story helps us think through that spaced-out mental state — our smartphone reveries — we so often find ourselves in.
Shteyngart does not keep his digital theme to the level of everyday communication — he splices in terrorism, politics, capitalism, the financial crisis and the Patriot Act. It’s all rather wretched, the state of these things. But he's no cyberpessismist, even if the world he portrays may suggest misery. He gets it. He understands that easily derided obsessions with Facebook and Twitter — cue Jonathan Franzen—are what makes us human, not what spells our doom.
According to Super Sad True Love Story, we are obsessed with sex, ranking and writing (everyone in this near future writes, all the time). We are very funny, and, despite ourselves, we are quite lovable. The novel is cheekily set in the near near future — “next Tuesday” — and the fact that it's both painfully realist and obviously fantastical is what makes spot-on. Being both real and fantastic is a bit what life feels like right now.
To imagine "us" on steroids may be the best way to describe the function of fiction. In Shteyngart's world, we’re all slightly doped up, but our blood still runs red.
The ambition, energy and wherewithal to take animated gifs and unending upgrades and render them imaginary yet true is Super Sad True Love Story’s brilliance. Shteyngart looked around at our everyday life and took it on. I wish he were not so alone in this regard.