Literary Flashback: Reading ‘Super Sad True Love Story’

Kimberly Tolleson


Super Sad True Love Story

By Gary Shteyngart

Random House

331 pages


Editor’s Note: In the “Literary Flashback” column, Kimberly Tolleson will look at modern literary works that may have been overlooked by readers or books that fell under the radar when they were initially published and are worth a read.


Proving that a dystopia can still be a fun read, Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story is set in the not-too-distant future of New York City, providing many parallels that hit disturbingly close to home.


Our hero Lenny Abramov, a nerdy and overzealous 39-year-old, is a relic of the recent past: He loves reading bound books; his body, nose and hairline are not perfect; but most of all, he is striving for some authentic human connection in a world of self-absorption. He works in sales for Post-Human Services, a company that creates technology to make their clients live forever (for a hefty price). The technology is “almost there,” and his old-friend-turned-boss Joshie is a living example of it, looking younger each time they meet.


Thanks to a myriad of dechronification treatments, Joshie looks like a fit 30-year-old, though he is technically about 70. Lenny himself is terrified of death and is determined to live forever, though he isn’t a High Net Worth Individual (HNWI) and thus not a desirable client. His cold look on the brevity of life is enough to make the reader feel a little depressed too, describing humans as, “Lovely and fresh in their youth…and then a brief almost century later: drooling on some poor Mexican nursemaid in an Arizona hospice.” However determined he is, Lenny is already older and shabbier than almost everyone left at the company, and he is routinely disrespected for his shortcomings, both in physicality and job performance. At one point, Joshie reprimands him, “You need to stop thinking and start selling. That’s why all those young whizzes in the Eternity Lounge want to shove a carb-filled macaroon up your ass. Yes, I overheard that. I have a new beta eardrum. And who can blame them, Lenny? You remind them of death.”


And Lenny isn’t the only thing slowly falling apart – the United States is on the brink of collapse, wholly dependent on their Chinese creditors. The yuan-pegged dollar has become the new unit of currency; check points and credit poles line the streets, which register and display your credit ranking when you walk by, sorting the HNWIs from the Low Net Worth Individuals. Almost everyone wears äppäräti, pendants worn around the neck that can look up anything, project a screen, and rate you among others, allowing people to be constantly engaged into their own digital worlds. Even when Lenny and his friends “verbal” face-to-face, the conversation is bleak, moving from “the near collapse of AlliedWasteCVSCitigroupCredit, the ensuing failed bailout by the Fed, our faltering portfolios, the ‘wah-wuh’ sound of the doors closing on the 6 train versus the resigned ‘sheeesh’ sound on the L, the life and bizarre death of the deviant comic known as Pee-wee Herman, and finally, inexhaustibly, the fact that, like most Americans, we would probably lose our jobs soon and be thrown out onto the streets to die.”


Amidst the decline of the United States, an unlikely romance unfolds. Lenny travels to Rome on business, searching out new HNWI clients. Across the room of a party, he spots the lovely Eunice Park, a Korean-American girl in her early 20s and instantly falls for her. By a stroke of unimaginable luck, he leaves the party and spends the night with her. On his äppärät, Lenny is able to check out Eunice’s digital footprint: He can see her cholesterol levels, family photos, a history of childhood abuse, credit scores, shopping habits, and life expectancy. (Again, it is sometimes easy to wonder, are we that far off?)



When he returns to the US, he messages her often, declaring his love and offering her a place to stay should she ever want to come to New York City. Eunice writes to her best friend about the “old, gross guy” she met in Rome, but she later admits to weirdly thinking about him.


Eventually, Eunice takes up Lenny’s offer, wanting to be closer to her family in New Jersey and keep an eye on her dad’s abusive track record. Her brief visit turns into an indefinite move-in, and she and Lenny soon become a couple. Lenny is ecstatic and effusively in love; Eunice warily enjoys their relationship, but also instigates much of the fighting and cruelty.


Sections of the book alternate between Lenny’s diary entries and GlobalTeens correspondences between Lenny and Eunice, Eunice and her best friend, her family, etc. The whole story is told through at least one of their perspectives, which can make the reader feel like a friend in the middle of a couple’s fight, sympathetic to both sides. (Eunice might complain to her friend about how Lenny ruined dinner with her traditional Korean family, while Lenny tells his diary how he thought dinner went really well.)


It’s difficult to tell who is a more reliable narrator, though Lenny certainly writes in the more novelistic style. Eunice’s correspondences can be off-putting but authentic; she’s the typical media- and retail-obsessed young woman of her time. The messages can be even grotesque between her and her friend, with greetings like, “What’s up, twat/betch/meathole?” Their culture has become so oversaturated with sex that it’s mostly meaningless, and girls think nothing of wearing see-through pants and nipple-less bras, breaking into orgies for attention, and using terms like “jizz-monkey” endearingly.


It seems there’s no questioning Lenny’s devotion to Eunice: “The love I felt for her on that train ride had a capital and provinces, parishes and a Vatican, and orange planet and many sullen moons – it was systemic and it was complete.” She too has genuine feelings for him but is deeply confused and unpredictable. One moment she’ll tell him how smart and special he is, and the next minute she’ll tell him he’s pathetic and weak.


When Lenny observes Eunice with her college friends, he muses, “They seem like decent girls, effervescent but unsure of themselves, lusting after big-ticket items and some measure of identity, confusing one for the other, but basically in no great hurry to grow up.” Though it would be easy to write off their relationship as an older man pining after a beautiful young girl, Shteyngart does such a magnificent job creating a heartfelt and complex scope of their bond, that readers can’t help but deeply care about characters that are, at times, awful, each in their own special way.


When the Chinese creditors eventually pull out, the United States falls into total collapse; money, food and water are scarce, riots break out; people are kicked out of their homes; and worst of all, all the äppäräti stop functioning due to a rumored Nonnuclear Electromagnetic Pulse. As the country’s future becomes murkier, so does Lenny and Eunice’s relationship. Aspirations like eternal life seem to be forgotten in the struggle for basic survival of self and loved ones, and the reader never ends up finding out, as Lenny’s social worker would often ask him, “Why do you think you would be happier if you could live forever?”


Author Bio:

Kimberly Tolleson, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, writes the ‘Literary Flashback’ column.


Photos: Barnes and Noble.

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