Sunday, January 23, 2011

Reading Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story in a Small Town

Abandoned railroad in small town.
A friend was kind enough to let me stay in his empty house in a small town. We'll skip the family emergency that brought me here, because everyone has them and you don't need me to describe it.  Let's concentrate instead on the place.  Founded in 1879, it was once a thriving railroad town and had a flour mill and a ferry.   Sometime in the 20th century the railroad and small industries died, the population dwindled, and it is now a bedroom community.  It still has a grocery store, a small downtown, a public library, a good restaurant, and a roller rink.  There are Victorian houses with porches, Arts & Crafts bungalows, ranch houses, trailers, Colonials, and pre-fab houses.  Some of it is pretty--blueish light on snow--some of it is junky and ugly.  There are meth labs on the outskirts.  One reason I've always hated Garrison Keillor country is that it doesn't exist.   It's a little scary to go to the restaurant and find that everyone in town has your "data."  They all know the drama. You cannot say anything without the whole town's knowing it.  It's like e-mail.

Everyone knew what had happened at the hospital almost before I did.  People brought coffee in the morning and called to find out how I was doing.  

People in cities are also kind, but the experience in a SMALL small town is different. People REALLY socialize.  It can be reassuring or devastating.

What was I reading?

Mostly I was observing people with their e-devices in hospital rooms. I saw iPhones, e-books, iPads, cell phones, and things I couldn't even identify.  In the evening I read parts of Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story.  This is a brilliant satire of a dystopian future where everyone is tuned constantly into  apparati (computer-phone-things which everyone has to carry or be arrested as a traitor).  The dystopia is a reality where attention is fragmented by cyber-lives and Lenny can't right away figure out how to use a new apparat (my problem with a borrowed sleek cell phone is because even the person who lent it doesn't know how to work it). Lenny, the 39-year-old youth-worshipping second-generation immigrant Jewish hero, works for an eternal life society.  He, however, does not qualify for post-human services because he isn't Aryan, isn't healthy enough, and his "fuckability" is measured on his apparat as low.  It doesn't help that he is the only person who reads books (a suspicious activity:  books "smell.)  
"I thought about that terrible calumny of the new generation:  that books smell.  And yet, in preparation for the eventual arrival of Eunice Park, I decided to be safe and sprayed some Pine-Sol Wild Flower Blast int he vicinity of my tomes, fanning the atomized juices with my hands in the direction of their spines."
His much younger new girlfriend, Eunice, is second-generation Korean and her father is abusive.  She and Lenny met in Italy whence they have returned to a fragmented totalitarian United States whose dominance has been usurped by China and even Korea.  Eunice is shallow:  she spends all her time sending GlobalTeens messages to friends and relatives, has flunked her LSAT, and does nothing except shop for underwear.  She is intimidated by Lenny's reading.  She "scans" books occasionally.

Booksellers should market this both as literary fiction and science fiction.  Shteyngart is a 20-under-40 New Yorker writer and doesn't need that genre support, but this is cross-over, and my science fiction club would like it.


Anonymous said...

I read this book last summer, appropriately enough it was my first Kindle download. I was alternatively laughing at the ridiculousness of onion skin jeans and appalled at how on-target the apparat and bookless household descriptions seemed. His first novel, "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" was great, too. Very different, but very good.

Hope your drama/emergency is over soon...

Frisbee said...

It is very funny! Yes, I have my apparatus e-reader now, too. I'm still behind on cell phones, though, and will probably get arrested someday if I don't learn how to use one.

The trailer for Super Sad True Love Story is also very funny.

Anonymous said...

I now have a cell phone -- it was a birthday present this past November - and am only beginning to be comfortable using it. Ellen

Frisbee said...

Cell phones come in handy. It's more and more difficult to find pay phones anymore.