Ever since I read “Super Sad True Love Story“, reading newspapers feels like being faced with Nostradamus’ prophecies. Gary Shteyngart’s novel “Super Sad True Story” is set in the future but it’s not science fiction. It’s a prophecy and if juggernaut of politics and economics heads along the path that it seems set upon, Shteyngart’s novel may become the defining one of our times. That is, if anyone has any inclination for books.
Everything and everyone is online all the time in “Super Sad True Love Story”. Phones are passe and the apparat is the gadget of this generation. It’s small enough to hang like a pendant around your neck and is a combination of a phone and a computer. Walk into a crowd and the crowd scans you using their apparat. Strangers rank your Fuckability depending upon how you dress and how advanced your apparat is. People can see how much money you have because all information is available on the web. Instead of advertisement hoardings, there are digital signboards that stream ads and broadcast your credit rating when you walk past them. No one reads books (they’re considered stinky). At best, they stream books. Most of the time, they’re on a Facebook-like website called Global Teens. People spend most of time, they’re buying items like Onionskin jeans, which are transparent and skin-tight. It’s a manically sexual culture, obsessed with being anorexic and not caring about how everything is going to pieces all around them.
Shteyngart doesn’t tell you when “Super Sad True Story” is set but it’s close enough to our present. The hero Lenny’s parents emigrated to America from an anti-Semitic Soviet Union. He’s in love with Eunice, whose parents came to America from Korea because when they were young Korea was poor and America was rich and strong. Now, things have changed. The yuan is the strongest currency in the world. Korea is another superpower and those who could have left America for Korea have done so. America is bankrupt, on the verge of civil war and fighting a Vietnam-esque war in Venezuela. Incidentally, India’s not doing too bad either. No, reading of Indian intellectual triumphs didn’t make me puff up with patriotic pride. I was too busy getting scared at how familiar this so called future is to my present.
Shteyngart has always been a wonderful writer but I lost interest in “Absurdistan”, his last book, quickly. It was so clever, so funny, it was exhausting. The sharpness of his humour and the absurdity of the situations and people he was writing about made “Absurdistan” feel like it was clinically excellent and completely distant from reality even though it was set in the present. “Super Sad True Love Story”, on the other hand, becomes more and more tender and real with every chapter. I didn’t champion for Lenny getting Eunice only because he loves and reads actual books. Shteyngart infuses wonderful, warm humanity to his characters. And of course there’s the world he’s described in “Super Sad True Love Story”.
Which is really too close to where our world seems to be hurtling. I watched the footage from the recent G-20 summit in Seoul and remembered Eunice’s mum talking about the Korea they left behind. President Obama tried to be his most charming best as he travelled around India and in South Korea, while the American economy tried desperately to liven up. Shteyngart’s haunting descriptions of New York’s Central Park turning into a ramshackle homeless shelter and then the site of a massacre kept surfacing in my mind. Then I came across this article from The Globe and Mail. Here’s an excerpt:
Mr. (George) Soros devoted much of his talk to China because the country’s rapid rise is taking place at the exact same time that the U.S. is losing its global economic dominance. “There is a really remarkable, rapid shift of power and influence from the United States to China,” Mr. Soros said, likening the U.S.’s decline to that of the U.K. after the Second World War.
… Mr. Soros even went so far as to say that at times China wields more power than the U.S. because of the political gridlock in Washington. “Today China has not only a more vigorous economy, but actually a better functioning government than the United States,” he said, a hard statement for him to make because he spent much of his life donating to anti-communist groups in Eastern Europe.
Emphasis and chills down spine, mine.