OK I GIVE UP

Super Sad True Love Story

Book cover image

Lenny Abramov is a nerd who fears death. He works at Post Human Services, a company that aims to fight death through high-tech means. This company has been founded by a character mixture of Steve Jobs and the youth-obsessed Abercrombie & Fitch CEO, and bought by the international conglomarte Staatling-Wapachung Corporation. Lenny’s job is to find high net worth individuals (HNWIs, in contrast to LNWIs), sell them the technology, and also screen the applicants to make sure that they are mentally and physically fit for immortality. The company is housed in an old synagogue, and has its own religious ceremonies, like the prayer chanted when someone is bestowed the honor of having a desk of his/her own. Lenny himself cannot afford the technology, though, which makes him all the more nervous, because immortality is seemingly in his reach, but he doesn’t have enough money to pay for it. Lenny fears death, because he is a nerd, and thinks that the life he lived (and the ones lived by his immigrant parents) just wasn’t good enough; he was an average student, and average man as per sexual conquests, and an average capitalist individual as per bank account. His life might just get better if he at least knew that it would last forever.

Eunice Park is a beautiful Korean-American girl, daugher of immigrants from Korea. She fears her father, who has a history of domestic violence, the most. She escapes for a while to Italy to keep away from her poisonous family relations, returning to help her mother and younger sister. Due to her youth and beauty, she is coveted by society, but she doesn’t know what to do with this interest, and is clueless about her future. She wants a job in retail, which is difficult to get.

Lenny has met Eunice Park in Italy, and fallen in love with her. He wants to pursue her in the US, to convince her to live with him. In order to be close to her sister, who she wants to protect from her father, but keep her distance to her father, she accepts Lenny’s offer to stay at his place. We follow their worlds and tortured relationship through Lenny’s diary and Eunice’s correspondence on GlobalTeens (the FacebookSnapchatInstagram of the future). Lenny’s writing is more literary, since he is also one of the last people who actually reads literature, whereas Eunice’s correspondence carries the popular culture and the slang –even more sex-laden than today– of Shteyngart’s future.

Lenny returns from his trip to Italy, excused as a hunt for HNWIs, to a USA which most (or let’s say many) US citizens fear they will wake up to one of these days. Personal digital assistants named apparats (advanced smartphones) have taken over people’s waking moments. The economy is tanking, which leads to the dollar becoming pretty much valueless, and getting pegged to the Yuan. Class differences are more pronounced then ever, with “credit poles” on street corners showing the credit score of every passer-by. USA has invaded another country, which again turned into a quagmire, and it can’t even take care of the veterans that come back. The police force has been disbanded, slowly replaced with a private and militarized force that has set up checkpoints every few kilometers, terrorizing innocent people. These checkpoints are designated with the notice “By reading this sign you have denied existence of the object and implied consent”. The violence perpetrated by the US military elsewhere has come back home, but the Americans who see themselves as indisposable, even as veterans protesting for their rights are massacred in Central Park, obey this notice and see these armed forces as a problem for others; they think that “these bullets would discriminate” (p. 155).

As Lenny and Eunice suffer through a relationship that is impossible from the beginning, Shteyngart tells an unravelling of the American society that reads really well as a fundamental criticism of the current one. A society obsessed with youth, data and money (“Money equals life”, p. 75) lets a big part of the population fall off the edge, because they are not relevant for market capitalism anymore: The old, the poor, “marginal classes” who can’t afford healthcare or even food, media people whose skills are not relevant anymore. As the CEO of Post Human Services tells his staff after the massacre in Central Park, “our primary obligation is to our clients. We have to remember that all those who died in the Central Park over the last few days were, in the long run, ITP, Impossible to Preserve” (p. 179); those that deserve to die, die.

The key event in the closing chapters of the book is the Rupture, a terminal event in which world capitalism (“sovereign wealth funds”, p. 238) gets rid of these people. Parts of New York are de-populized by simply shooting their residents in order to make place for a brand new city available only to the super-rich. Among these people are highly educated ones who, until the last moment, think that they are indispensable, that their lives are worth more than others’. In this sense, this novel could be seen as a wake up call to the accomplices of the modern discriminatory economic and social policies, a reminder that they are only temporarily indispensible, but the reactions of those that are left behind after the cleansing goes counter to such a reading. After a short period of asking around and puzzling over hand-wavy answers, life goes on. The separation of Eunice and Lenny is sealed at the welcome party for the heads of the sovereign funds, as the “media people” are forced to work for slave wages on the streets.

There are many other sub-plots and parallel themes in Super Sad True Love Story, making it a deep and pregnant novel that cannot be easily summarized. Nevertheless, thanks to its witty tone and light storytelling, it stays enjoyable throughout. I’m pretty certain that it will become a key novel when it comes to understanding the uncertainties and obsessions of our times.