When Gary Shteyngart was hard at work on his debut novel, back in the early aughts, he struggled for a long time to come up with a title that suited the playful, globetrotting, maximalist prose inside. Along the way, he dreamed up some truly awful ones.
Pyramids of Prava. (“Horrible stuff,” he says now.)
The Adventures of Gunter Goose. (“What the hell was that?”)
Shteyngart eventually settled on The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and the resultant book launched the Russian-American émigré into the forefront of the North American literary scene. He followed it with 2006’s Absurdistan—another distinctive title—which garnered similarly glowing reviews.
For his third and newest novel, Super Sad True Love Story, the 38-year-old Shteyngart admits that, unfortunately, the naming process hasn’t gotten any easier.
“We had terrible titles. My editor and I kept going through them,” he says, on the phone from his home in New York City. “I was reading in front of some U.S. troops—the libraries of the U.S. army invited me [to their base in Germany]. I said, ‘My new book, The Army of Love.’ And they were like, ‘Sir! That is the worst title ever!’”
In Shteyngart’s defence, you can see where he was coming from. Super Sad True Love Story has both war and sex on the brain, and it’s all filtered through a dystopian lens. The novel takes place in an eerily recognizable New York of the near future, where all-pervasive technologies broadcast your credit rating and “fuckability” to the world at large. The dominant form of entertainment is watching other people broadcast their entire lives as 24-hour talk shows, complete with awkward product placements.
Meanwhile, America as a country teeters on the brink of implosion, though its policies and international persona have only gotten cockier. When you attempt to cross the border, you have to fill out a digital questionnaire hosted by a cartoon otter in an Uncle Sam costume, who exclaims “Welcome back, pa’dner!” before demanding that you fill in the names of every foreigner you’ve had sex with.
No matter how far he pushed the satire, however, Shteyngart was disheartened to find the culture more than keeping pace. Over the years his novel-in-progress became almost clairvoyant: he described the collapse of firms like Lehman Brothers, and then it happened. He imagined GM and Ford being absorbed into Land O’Lakes butter, just before the car companies had their real-life meltdowns.
“It pissed me off,” he says. “I started writing it in 2006, and by 2008 half of the book had already come true. It wasn’t dystopian fiction—it was the present. I had to make it worse and worse.”
Even something as far-fetched as an imaginary brand of jeans called Onionskins—which are completely transparent, and which in the novel have taken America’s fashionable-female demographic by storm—are creeping their way into today’s culture. Shteyngart points out that a recent fashion show in Paris featured a nearly identical product.
“I don’t want these things to happen,” he insists. “When I’ve been doing my tour, people come up to me and ask me to sign it, ‘None of this will actually ever happen.’”
Yet even Shteyngart’s worst predictions retain a fundamental lightness. That’s in large part because Super Sad True Love Story is, at heart, just that: a love story. The novel is epistolary, told through diary entries and online messages written by one Lenny Abramov (Russian-American, 39) and Eunice Park (Korean-American, 24). Both Lenny and Eunice are outsiders, to varying degrees—he with his wall of musty old books, she with an emotional reservoir slightly deeper than those of her peers. Their immigrant backgrounds give them added familial bonds that the shallow, live-streaming American populace at large can almost literally no longer imagine.
By definition, dystopian novels must keep one foot firmly planted in the present. That’s the true source of their power—taking a piece of contemporary life and stretching it out to terrifying proportions. And it’s easy to see glimmers of iPhones, Facebook, and Botox in Super Sad True Love Story’s monolithic culture of images and immortality. (Lenny works in a field called “Post-Human Services”; his job is to try and convince the ultra-rich to sign up for a complicated procedure that will, in theory, keep them alive forever.)
The same goes for the novel’s view of the United States, which takes many a cue from the good-old-boy cowboyisms of the Bush administration—particularly those from the years following the 9/11 attacks.
Signs of this diplomatic double-speak abound in Lenny and Eunice’s New York. Surrounding the poles that loudly announce your credit rating are placards that send very different messages, depending on your nationality. To the influential Chinese citizens: “America Celebrates Its Spenders!” Spanish speakers, on the other hand, get “Save It for a Rainy Day, Huevón.”
For these sections, Shteyngart drew from the more subtle shifts he’s noticed as a traveller. “You used to approach the U.S. Embassy as this sort of centre of power abroad,” he says. “But after 9/11, approaching an embassy became more like approaching a castle with a moat around it. You went from this position of power to this defensive crouch.”
Random House, 352 pp., $30, hardcover
(interview originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, November 15, 2010)