Gary Shteyngart’s new novel Super Sad True Love Story is set in a sort of New York 12.0. Technology has been supercharged. The iPhone is now a relic, replaced by a far more powerful device called the apparat, a gizmo that defines its owner as no other has done before.
As a result, the interface between the real world and the virtual world has utterly broken down so it is no longer possible to walk down a street without broadcasting your credit, personality and hotness ratings at those around you.
People no longer read books – indeed, the very physical presence of printed pages seems to make most nauseous. Instead, they scan information, stream video content, blog, instant message, or spend hours “teening” – like Facebook, but squared.
“I’d noticed how everything was trending digital and I was the last man on my block without all these technical emergents,” the author says – while speaking, not via a video conference call on a split new iPhone but on his old fashioned land line from his apartment in New York.
“And so I got a young research assistant who got me onto the internet, to facebook, an iphone – and made a man out of me.”
The experience wasn’t all bad – but certainly not all good – and it lies at the heart of what is Shteyngart’s third novel, a darkly comic dystopian satire that comes after the equally acclaimed Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
“The ‘ol’ intertube’ has been ok to me,” Shteyngart laughs. “Writing is very difficult but I found that it was very easy to put up pictures of my daschund and a little commentary on Facebook. “The ‘intertube’ is very conformist,” he adds. “It is touted as this great harbinger of individuality but I find myself constanty skewing to the medium of the norm. It’s in fiction that I find I am able to go bananas and say whatever is on my mind.
“The iphone is very helpful when you get lost in a foreign city – you ask it where to go and it tells you. But you can’t really discover anything anymore on your own so it has taken a lot of spontaneity out of my life.
“The dreams of democracy nurtured by the internet have not come true. You have to fight for democracy with your fists.”
While SSTLS might qualify as (extremely funny) sci-fi, Shteyngart makes it quite clear that he is writing about the present. In his warped version of Manhattan, the obsession with money, fashion and youth has become all pervasive and the pornographic has become norm: the women wear outrageous transparent skin tight jeans called onionskins, cupless bras and “Total Surrender panties”.
The hero of the book, Lenny Abraham, believes he is all but dead at 39 and dreams of being rich enough to be able to afford the dubious medical treatment he himself sells to “high net worth individuals” which promises immortality. “Lenny’s ‘Post Human Services’ is only a caricature of a something that already exists,” Shteyngart points out.
In this dystopian world, America’s economy has crashed, the dollar is pegged to the Chinese yuan, and politics is dominated by an incompetent one party government while the young generation sleepwalks its way into ever greater amounts of debt.
Interestingly, the starting point for this book came in 2006 when Shteyngart asked himself: “Hey what if the banks collapsed?” Then when they did he was left with the task of imagining a future extreme enough not to have come true by the time the book came out.
“It all seemed very unsustainable, especially the real estate prices in a city like New York, but really all over the country,” Shteyngart says of the credit boom years. “Secretaries with twenty thousand dollar salaries were suddenly putting down half a million dollar mortgages. The whole things seemed so ridiculous because if the salaries aren’t increasing then something had got to give. In the end something really did give.
“Economic and political decline are often connected,” he continues. “As America’s economy declines we will get the worse kind of politicians, in our case even more right wing.”
The result is a 21st century version of Orwell’s 1984. There’s also an intriguing layer of autobiography to it. The lead character, Lenny Abraham, is (like the author) a New York Russian Jew who loves reading books, and who falls in love with the incredibly young, amazingly thin Eunice Park, a Korean American with a troubled family history and a truly awful credit rating. Shteyngart himself is engaged to a Korean American and admits that he has “dipped from the well of the personal” to write his fiction.
Born in Leningrad in 1972 and who only moved to America as a seven year old child, the author admits his immigrant status and his experience of the collapse of the Soviet empire colours his view of the world. But he really does fear for America’s future.
“The best we can hope for is a gradual landing, like the Dutch Empire way back when: a loosening of our power but a maintaining of our standard of living,” he says. “The danger is that we become a large Argentina: a country which had a great middle class way of life a century ago, but which in a few decades turned into a developing country.”
· Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is published by Granta, £12.99 (blog as published in Big Issue Scotland, Sept 27, 2010)