I love a good dystopian novel. Super Sad True Love Story is one of those great “This is what we’re becoming” stories that makes you as uncomfortable as it should.
Super Sad True Love Story is, as one might guess, a love story. But the love story takes place in a sort of dystopian United States some few decades into the future. Anyone who knows me, knows I love dystopian novels. They tend to shed more light on the here and now and on human psychology and sociology than any other genre of fiction.
There are usually only two types of dystopian novels: those that suggest we are moving away from something good (the ones that romanticize the past), and those that show Today in a spotlight by overemphasizing the Truths about the world as it is today (indirectly romanticizing about the future that could be by showing the terrible future we’re building). Very few step outside this realm. For instance, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale does not romanticize about the past, because it was/is bad for women. Nor does she romanticize about a future to come, because, as she points out, even the pseudo-counter culture that is created in response to the over Puritan principles is just as ugly and womanizing.
Super Sad True Love Story is the former.
Shteyngart’s portrayal of overemphasis shows us that we’ve begun to care more about preserving our own life–our body–that we’ve given up attempting to preserve our future or our legacy. In a way, one could think of it as a New Age Fountain of Youth.
There’s also strong overtones of the over-sexualization of everything and the instant gratification of social media. These two things could be separated, but I’m not sure Shteyngart would want to separate them. He’s holding on to a time when women wore clothes that “left something to the imagination” as if doing so changed the simple fact that he was still undressing her in his mind. The only positive I have to mention here is that, though Shteyngart denigrates to over-sexualization of the U.S. culture, he doesn’t get gratuitous like one might expect.
It’s clear that Shteyngart has some sexual issues of his own. A middle aged Jewish man feigning over every tiny, “boyish” Asian girl, like some Anime nut that just wants to live out the Manga wet dream fantasy. Perhaps he was attempting a sort of “Love in the Time of Cholera” experience where the “love story” was actually the OPPOSITE of love while still duping the reading into thinking “real love” was playing out. Though, somehow, I doubt it.
Sexual frustration aside, this is Shteyngart romanticizing for the past. A past before social media, before Brittany Spears and Miley Cyrus sexualized Disney and young women, before books were uncool. A world where all was a little bit better. Yet, like with most romance, this is a farce. Books have never been the rage, teens were ALWAYS sexual, whether or not the Cleavers or the Brady Bunch cared to talk about it, and social networking has almost always been about self-promotion than about social-anything.
The dystopia he creates is two fold. First is the super social media, everything has to be live and recorded for the world to see, world and the hyper-sexualization of everything like Onionskin pants and nippleless bras and pornography for children. But then there’s the Marxist look at the U.S. system of economics.
Shtyengart builds a world where all the U.S. corporations have joined in mega-corporations and the economy is tanking because of some force unknown to the reader. There’s mentions of Marxism and capitalism, but I don’t recall a reason given for the fall the U.S. Empire other than China and Korea taking over. The Dollar has lost almost all value, and the violence and sensations the characters feel are best described as what anyone in states where economies go to shit.
Once violence is finally exposed to the reader, it’s too late to fix anything. As much as I hate to say this, this can’t be closer to the truth. The Occupy Movement, tanks being purchased by local police stations, drones flown over U.S. soil for surveillance, and NSA data mining of EVERYTHING, is taking place at this very moment. And who gives two healthy shits?
Sure, there are protesters floating around state capitals and D.C. Sure, we’re kind of talking about these things in the periphery. But they are in the periphery. Nobody not being arrested or hunted down for leaking the truth about ILLEGAL UNCONSTITUTIONAL government actions or protesting the bailout of corporations (they have time to protest because they’ve lost their jobs and people attack them for being “lazy” and homeless…the irony makes me vomit) even gives a damn.
Shtyengart is saying what needs to be said. You think you care about things, you don’t. You only care about yourself. And all those “others” dealing with “their problems” will become your problem only after it’s too late for you to stand up! By the time the people with the power to change things get it through their thick heads that things are bad, they will be running from the stream of bullets.
France said it was everyone else’s problem until Germany came knocking on their door. Then what? The U.S. will do the same. The U.S. will fall apart and those with the power to do anything will wait too long and then take what they can and jump ship to leave the poor and ugly to deal with death and poverty and tyranny on their own. Just the way it has been for centuries.