The Super Sad State: Shteyngart, Zamyatin and Dystopias

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>



About Steve Mentz 650 Articles
I teach Shakespeare and early modern literature at St. John's in New York City.

13 Comments

  1. I think your final suggestion that distopian novels are always driven by the “allure of a better tomorrow” is worth debating or at least discussing tomorrow. It’s also worth recalling that utopia — the word was invented by Thomas More, the patron saint of St John’s chapel btw — has two punning etymological meanigns: ut + topos = no place and also eau + topos beautiful place in Greek. More sometimes spells them differently: utopia v eutopia, but they would be pronounced the same, and the frame-structure of *Utopia* is a conversation.

    For More, part of the point of such a text is an impetus toward political reform. I don’t think Shtengart shares than impulse on any level larger than the very small community, and I think that difference is important.

  2. Very interesting post Thomas! I enjoyed your commentary on the dystopian nature of the book and look forward to our discussion on it tomorrow. The thing that struck me the most about SSTLS was how desensitized the youth was to so many things. The names of the retail stores (which I rather not name) and the type of attire they offered (Onionskins for one) were so sought after and common in their world and it really showed how there’s really no privacy left from any angle. It’s one thing that everyone can see everything physically but also the apparat that they wore around their necks was such a cruel device, especially considering that everyone in the room could see your ranking. The sad part is though, like you say in your post, it’s not such a far fetched idea. I couldn’t help making a lot of connections to our life today while I was reading the book. With social networking sites such as Facebook (which has 800 million active users according to their Statistics page) and Twitter, the apparat doesn’t seem like a device that would never be introduced. Then when reading about David and his fellow veteran soldiers living in tents in Central Park, you can’t help making a connection with Occupy Wall Street where people were in tents at Zuccotti Park, and how there seems to be no end in sight, considering the movement is spreading to other cities like L.A. and Philadelphia. Jenny a.k.a ‘Grillbitch’ and Eunice scoff at the idea of Lenny reading Tolstoy in print but there are so many people who use Kindle and Nook; books are always being transferred from print to other media sources. The truly super sad thing about Shteyngart’s book is that it is much closer to reality than we would like. Nevertheless, as frightening as it was, I truly enjoyed the book.

  3. I think one of the aspects of dystopian/utopian literature that draws me in over and over (and over) again is the notion of a “near future”. There is the “lure of a better tomorrow”, which reminds me of Dineyworld’s ride Carousel of Progress. Incidentally, the slogan attached to the ride (sponsored by GE) is “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day.” With dystopian/utopian literature, there’s always the discussion of progress. What I find intriguing, however, is not that tomorrow could be better, it’s that tomorrow could be a lot worse. I’m quite fascinated in this type of literature with time-frames. How long did it take for society to morph? Who is a part of the last generation to remember the time “before”. In 1984, Winston has muddy memories of a previous life. Changes to society, in this context, are typically couched in the notion of “progress”. Progress and technology are presented as good things, yet ultimately are what is rooting out free-will, individuality and autonomy. In thinking about the way our society is structured, it’s not at all outlandish to imagine telescreens or a hyper-capitalistic society. The works in the genre that I believe to be the most effective, are the ones that, like Shteyngart, seem realistic and plausible, with just that slight tweak to tip things over the dystopian edge.

  4. It’s been a while since I read More’s Utopia in my sophomore Renaissance Lit class, so I found an interesting article to refresh my memory. Titled “Utopianism and Education: The Legacy of Thomas More” by David Halpin,,this article about utopianism’s long history of connection to education touches on some of the ideas that have driven our class this semester, making Super Sad Love Story a fitting final read. More schooled his own children in an enactment of his utopian ideas of embracing the technology of his day, equal education for women (within patriarchal norms—he was a man of his time) and a philosophy of education’s “role…in promoting moral probity” (Halpin 305.) His publication of Utopia in 1516 gave rise over the centuries to a legacy of communitarian living projects that included education of children. According to Halpin, “where there is utopia there is, more often than not, a progressive plan for (schooling’s) reinvention along different lines” (306.)
    As More did five hundred years ago, Shteyngart uses satire and literary play to enable enough distance from his version of society for us to see ourselves—and we do—who doesn’t recognize with a slight shiver the obvious jab at higher education in Eunice’s Major in Images and Minor in Assertiveness? Personally, my favorite image of current college culture was the armored Fung Wah bus. Those careening, student-stuffed vehicles rendered aggressive and militant! According to Halpin, More was creating “a call to action to his fellow humanists” (308.) and perhaps Shteyngart is doing the same thing. Halpin describes the necessity for conducting “utopian thought experiment” on social problems. “How would social reality look if we configured it in radically different terms?” (311.) Shteyngart shows us what it would look like without concerted thought experiment. He might be said to issue, like More, a call to action to people situated where we are, aiming for careers in the academy. How do we visualize society in the future? How do we balance new technologies with the preservation of literary culture? How do we include and globalize in humane ways? Shteyngart raises these and many more in his book. I’m looking forward to our discussion tonight.

    Halpin, David, “Utopianism and Education: The Legacy of Thomas More”, British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 49,No. 3 (Sep., 2001), pp. 299-315

  5. Great post Tom. I disagree with one aspect of your post though, the idea that “language is dead.” This book is a metatext on the power of language just look at the many ways language varies throughout the book! The characters of Shteyngart’s dystopia struggle with communication just as much as we do. I found it hilarious that Euni’s mom’s letters to her read exactly like my mom writing to me in broken Trinidadian English (my mother does that deliberately…what is it about familial communication that forces one to conjure their mother tongue?)

    Isn’t the proliferation of Global Teens and all the data that uploads on the apparat a reminder of how important language is and how it drives this society rather than something that is replaced? I think Shteyngart does distinguish between the power of written language vs. spoken language – written trumps spoken except in books…it’s an interesting paradox. If books are worthless why does Euni force Lenny to save his books in the end? Why are there so many references to books in this book? I don’t know all the answers, but I’m excited for our discussion tonight.

  6. I am certainly no expert in dystopian/utopian literature nor was I fan of SSTLS but I would like to add some thoughts if I may on what it means to search for a Utopian society which perhaps, unfortunately, according to many of the readers, exists solely in our mind. I am reminded of HG Well’s Time Machine (1894) which was written during a period in time in which many believed that progress was capable of solving many, if not all, of society’s problems. Wells however, believed that progress did more to hamper man’s ethics and morals than help or improve them and he satirizes man’s search for answers including one of a Utopian society through his novel The Time Machine. And nowhere is this more evident in the text than when the time machine lands in the year 802,701 A.D. As the Time Traveler arrives in the future he is struck by the desolation and the destruction that greets him and sadly he comments: What if cruelty had grown into a common passion? What if in this interval the race had lost its manliness, and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful?
    After meeting the Eloi and Morlocks and realizing how little the world had actually advanced in the struggle for a classless society, he sadly laments: I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword, it had attained its hopes—to come to this at last. Once, life and property must have reached almost absolute safety. The rich had been assured of his wealth and comfort, the toiler assured of his life and work. No doubt in that perfect world there had been no unemployed problem, no social question left unsolved. And a great quiet had followed.
    It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble.
    And he along with the reader wonders how far society has to advance before it can no longer truly advance and instead begins to revert back to a society we no longer recognize. “There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change”. And yet he (the Time Traveler) “thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as thought it were not so”.
    And although Wells may not exactly fit into our discussion I just wanted to throw it out there..
    I am looking forward to tonight’s discussion if only to have others shed some light on this soul of mine as to why we don’t have more faith that society one day may actually be able to achieve a (somewhat) utopian state of existence.
    Wells, H.G., The Time Machine

  7. While I read SSTLS I complained the whole time. Yet once i finished the book, set it down and processed, I realized my distaste was that of someone who does not want to address the fact that this text is coming a bit too close to reality for comfort. I acted resentful that the back cover claimed that the book is hilarious and was put out that I found the content depressing to the extreme. This is the impact of a dystopian novel, it is not a utopia in any way. Though there is certainly a place for and a need for technology, the idea that it could take over to this extent is frightening for anyone who loves books as much as those of us in this class obviously do (or we would not be in this program).
    I found the obsession with youth an extremely interesting thread throughout this book. The fact that the social media site is “GlobalTeens” speaks volumes in and of itself. No one seems to want to act their own age, the younger the better.
    As someone who has been described as a true luddite (resentful of the Facebook takeover, refusing to acknowledge twitter, no smart phone, preferring vinyl to MP3, actually writes letters on paper (occasionally) etc), this book left me with the feeling of spiders crawling up my spine. But it is a valid point of view, though it is a theory, it could indeed happen.

  8. Kathleen!

    Time Machine has everything to do with our discussion. In fact, Zamyatin was a contemporary of H.G. Wells and they both wrote from novels focussing on the role of technology and the political and movements of the day. Wells’ most popular bestseller “Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought (1901)” addresses many aspects of technology as a means of transportation , sexual freedom at the expense of morality of common good, and militarization. Wells and others like him conducted experiments in “social prophecy”. Some would even attribute the idea of the atomic bomb to one of his works.

    Amazing response. I cannot wait to discuss at greater lengths tonight.

  9. In thinking about Shtengart, I’m reminded of William Gibson’s recent novels (*Pattern Recognition* is the best one), sometimes described as “science fiction in the present.” I don’t really think we’re all that far from SSTLS’s technologically-mediated emotional world. I do still think, as the great Thomas Pynchon once said, that it’s OK to be a Luddite, with the caveat that, as in Lenny’s case, you’re likely to end up alone, “talking, placidly despite the wine intake, about global warming and the end of human life on earth.”

  10. In order to generate a response this week, I looked up some Gary Shteyngart interviews on Super Sad True Love Story. I was struck by how the terms “closer to reality than fiction” which appears, in a lot of the posts, relates to Shteyngart’s personal experiences present in his novel. For example, in a May 13th 2011 interview on National Public Radio Shteyngart states, “I grew up in the Soviet Union, and then we came to a Hebrew School in Queens. So I know about dystopia.” (http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=136240501). His statement reveals, how to some degree, he used autobiographical understandings of dystopia in this book, making this account very “real” in some instances.

    Shteyngart also states, in the aforementioned interview, how “alarmingly” correct it is that this book is closer to reality than fiction for others in society as well.

    In relation to the prior statement, I’m thinking of both Tom and Neelam’s comments on the failure of the “promises of technology.” In an October 26th 2011 interview with What Matters Shteyngart says, “We want to believe that technology will deliver us from all these different problems and create things that didn’t exist before, but that’s not how it works. It’s worrisome to see how much faith we place in technology at the expense of more humanistic enterprises”
    (http://whatmatters.mckinseydigital.com/marketing/social-media-run-amok-an-interview-with-gary-shteyngart).

    While Shteyngart is not anti- technology, he does caution us against the over use of technology and always being so interconnected. In his story there is the apparat, in our society there is Facebook, Twitter, iPhones, etc. Therefore, the fiction does reflect some realities.

    Going off what Neelam has said technology makes it difficult for people to be alone or have privacy; this correlates with Shteyngart’s critique that technology has, in some ways, replaced book reading. In an interview with The Nation on July 18th 2011, Shteyngart says, “And just the inability to ever be alone. You know, that’s the difficulty. You want to read a book? That requires introspection. It requires time away from people and time away from the constant need to communicate and to connect”
    (http://www.thenation.com/blog/162097/gary-shteyngart-interview).

    Shteyngart adds to his discussion of the relationship between technology and book reading in The Nation interview by telling a story: “A young man in his early 20s came up to repair my cable, and he said “Oh man, why you got all those books here?” Then he looked at my television: “… and you only got a 25 inch TV!” It was very emasculating.”
    (http://www.thenation.com/blog/162097/gary-shteyngart-interview).

    I think his statements say a lot about the future of books, in the face of an increasing technology, which the aformentioned posts discuss.

  11. Furthermore, I was also interested where Tom writes “the future is already here” the future is now.” In the aforementioned interview Shteyngart says, “There’s no present left. This is the problem for a novelist, is the present is gone. We’re all living in the future constantly.” Giving an example, he states, “I started writing this book in 2006 before the financial crisis. In my original draft, horrible things happen: Lehman Brothers fails, GM and Chrysler fail. Two years into writing this, all these things were actually happening. So I had to make things worse and worse. That’s one of the difficulties of writing a novel these days—there doesn’t seem to be a present left to write about. Everything is the future.” (http://www.thenation.com/blog/162097/gary-shteyngart-interview).

    I’d be curious to discuss this point a bit further in our class tonight, as Professor Mentz has suggested.

    Works Cited:
    Davies. Dave. “Gary Shteyngart: A ‘Love Story’ In a Sad Future.” National Public Radio. 13 May, 2011.
    .
    “Social media run amok: An interview with Gary Shteyngart.” What Matters. 26 October 2011.
    .
    Wiener, John. “Gary Shteyngart Interview-The Future, With Fox Prime Ultra and the Bipartisan Party: A Super Sad True Love Story.” The Nation. 18 July, 2011.
    .

  12. Kumru, thanks for posting that additional quote. As a reader of dystopian and science fiction – I think both genres becomes umbrelled under “speculative” fiction – I always find it somewhat alarming how close to reality the events in the books find themselves to the covers of the newspapers. We’ve arrived at a point in time where I think we’ve learned to be shocked at relatively little. This becomes problematic when we speculate on the future, and subsequently try to write about the future. The present is its own conundrum of inexplicable events, and to write about them would be to be seemingly take some Stance on something. The future is the only place where we can speculate on a future we believe in, hope for or dread. (Erin)

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