People of the Book: Moving Into the Super Sad Future

By | Jan 07, 2011

2010 could rightfully be called the year of interconnectedness. Phones are no longer just smart: Some of them seem to have Ivy League degrees.  Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg drew more attention than ever before, from The Social Network to his $100 million donation to Newark public schools to his designation as Time’s Person of the Year to his pledge to give away the majority of his wealth.  One-twelfth of the world’s population now has a Facebook account, sharing photos and events with a network of 550 million people.  No one is alone anymore—just log on to Facebook, hop on Gchat, fire up your iPhone, and find yourself instantly surrounded by a never-dormant virtual society.

If 2010 marked a new high for global togetherness, the world of Gary Shteyngart’s dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story, released in July, is hyper-connected.  Set in the near future, the novel features sad-sack protagonist Lenny Abramov, the reluctant son of painfully old-world Russian-Jewish immigrants who falls in love with the young and beautiful Eunice Park, a Korean-American girl who instant messages her friends incessantly and lovingly calls one “ass hoo-kah” and “betch.”

Central to the world Shteyngart has created is a device called an apparat: a sort of iPhone on steroids that allows its user to be linked to the virtual world at all times.  Apparati are worn around the necks of their owners as a pendant—having the newest and most sophisticated apparat is a point of pride for Lenny and his peers.  Bars are filled with men and women “FAC”-ing (“forming a community”) on their apparati as a way to numerically rate the attractiveness of the other bar patrons—a more sophisticated version of the informal judgments people now make on Facebook photos.  Individuals known as “Media” host shows on their personal apparati, blasting their opinions and observations to anyone who might be listening.

Lenny works as a Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator for a company that develops strategies for life extension; Lenny’s boss, Joshie, is pushing 70 but, having used his company’s products and services, has the face and physique (and even the diminutive name) of a much younger man—younger, even, than Lenny, who wants desperately to live forever but isn’t elite enough to avail himself of the company’s prohibitively expensive methods.

The book begins with Lenny’s bold declaration: “Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die.”  Lenny, at 39, is simultaneously obsessed with youth and death, the two opposing forces that govern his life.  At work, he is told that youth is the ideal, that the progression toward old age and then, inevitably, death should be fought at every turn.  This attitude has seeped into every aspect of Lenny’s life: when he and Eunice visit the zoo he spies an elephant “at the middle of his lifespan, much like I was.” He believes that the elephant “is aware of his eventual extinction and he is hurt by it, reduced by it, made to feel his solitary nature.”  Lenny sees the elephant as his parallel, comparing its sad physical demeanor and bulging nose to his own.  (He tells Eunice, as she grabs his nose, “I hab a long dose because I’m Jewish.  Dere’s dothing I can do aboud it.”)  He gives the animal and its fear of death a Jewish air, saying, “The elephant is essentially an Ashkenazi animal, but a wholly rational one—it too wants to live forever.”

Like Lenny and the elephant, the other characters of Super Sad True Love Story are repulsed and terrified by the thought of mortality.  Their constant communication with each other, their need to shout their opinions into the cyber-world of their apparati, to put on  displays to the vast, anonymous public—all of it signals a desperate desire to be seen, to be acknowledged, to create something lasting out of the fleetingness of life, to cheat death of its permanence.

The same could be said of our own use of Facebook and other public forums.  Much has been written about the way Facebook pages become memorials after a user has died, a place for people to talk to the deceased, to pretend that they can still be reached.  Like the elephant at the zoo, we are all Ashkenazi animals, wanting to live forever, wanting to believe that a place on the Internet equals a place in eternity.  Like Lenny, we are bound to be disappointed.

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