It would be beneficial to most, if not everyone, to read a dystopian novel at least once in their career as a graduate student whether he or she was exposed to the genre in high school or not. Out of them all, the novel Super Sad True Love Story is perhaps closer to reality than fiction. Shteyngart moves away from his two previous, more humorous novels and creates a world where this humor hangs by the gallows and transitions from being barely perceptible in the first few chapters to morbidity in the end.
Why dsytopian fiction? The word dystopia is the polar opposite yet synonymous form of the word utopia. The root of utopia comes from the Greek ou ‘not’ + topos ‘place’ word, literally meaning a place that does not and cannot exist. In literature, a dystopia is a construction of a utopian world made by man, thus unpleasant and malformed. Zamyatin’s We, inspired and anticipatory of the Soviet rule that was to come in Russia during the 1920s, expressed such a malformed utopia by projecting the social equality and machine-like hand of communist rule into a society without class, monitored by every eye as a means of keeping the machine stable, where relationships do not exist and sex is a mere registered act through government sanction and privilege, a narcotic to keep the masses in check.
The fascination with the world at large – culture, governments and political powers, technology, and the obsession with youth – drive these novels across the boundaries of the genre into a much too clear reality beyond the pages of storytelling. My experience with dystopia begins with Huxley, Orwell, and Bradbury, respectively. What is unique about Shteyngart is that in his attempt at satirizing the future, he literally grasps for it – “you can smell Shteyngart sweating to stay one step ahead of the decaying world he’s trying to satirize. It’s an almost impossible race now that the exhibitionism of ordinary people has lost its ability to shock us” (Charles). In other words, the future is already here.
In the world of S.S.T.L.S the haunting genius of Shteyngart is his ability to anticipate a perceptible and eventual state of the U.S. and the global economy. “He’s blended the competing nightmares of Sarah Palin and Nancy Pelosi to imagine the worst of both worlds, ruled by a bureaucratic monster called the Bipartisan Party” (Charles). The American Dollar has no value aside from it’s being pegged to Chinese Yuan. The youth are sunk in their äppärät – iphones on steroids with no off button, streaming data about sexual preferences, style and pornographic entertainment. What is humorous is that if anyone were to look at their facebook or youtube, or watch the news, this future is now and it only is going to get much worse and continue it’s plummet.
And what of our beloved books? Lenny Abramov, the protagonist, seems to be the only man left alive in New York City who reads them, moreover, owns a bookshelf. He keeps these treasures to himself not wishing to betray his “uncool” attachment to them, thereby betraying himself in his fight to stay young in the eyes of others and himself. Eunice, his significant other, is aghast as she describes to her media friend the time spent reading to her. “I was so embarrassed I just stood there and watched him read which lasted for like HALF AN HOUR.” Her friend texts back: “Maybe you guys can read to each other in bed or something. And then you can sew your own clothes. HA HA HA.” The literary culture is dead. Language is dead as well. Ads like “Switch to images today!” stream through the äppärät at blinding speeds encouraging the decline of literacy and the emergence of a truly image based culture.
The allure of dystopia is the exploration of the allure of a better tomorrow. Within the superfluous speeches of politicians, the promise of technology making life easier and forming connections of the world around us, and the hope that peace is possible, lies the very sad and true fact that humanity, in grasping for hope, only have themselves to hope in, and humans, as a rule, fall short continually. The office terms of presidents come and go with little accomplished nor with their word kept, the campaign trail now lackluster. Technology brings the darkest parts of our humanity into our homes and the pitch black of our desires are freely lived out, separating us and destroying our ability to relate to each other or even scratch the surface of each others’ lives. War continues as man strives against man for power, dominance and wealth. The dystopia exists as a testament that utopia (paradise) cannot exist in this life, which is the saddest, but truest of love stories.
Charles, Ron. Rev. of Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart. The Washington Post (2010). <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/27/AR2010072705665.html>