Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Curse of Prescience

Super Sad True Love Story Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Super Sad True Love Story offers a vision of the future that follows present day social, political and economic trends to their sardonically satirical dystopian conclusion. It is a novel that sets a star crossed romance against the backdrop of the decadent west in decline. The author, Gary Shteyngart, imagines his future dystopia literally rather than allegorically. This allows him to create characters that are more real than symbolic. But it also leads to some odd examples of a kind of warped literary prescience.

The emergence of an Occupy Wall Street type movement in the imagined future of the novel is probably the most prominent example of this prescience. The book was published over a year before the tents started to go up at Zucotti Park, but the parallels between the rolling campsite protests that occur in the novel due to the U.S.'s continued economic problems bear an eerie resemblence to what transpired in reality not so long after the book hit stores. Of course, it quickly becomes clear that Shteyngart's inspiration for his fantasy protests is the historical tent cities of bonus army veterans and other agitators that emerged during the Great Depression, and this is an inspiration he probably shares with some Occupy organizers. Art imitates life, life imitates art, life imitates life, art imitates arts, etcetera etcetera and so on and so forth.

But the prescience cuts both ways. In a throwaway gag near the end of the story, the protagonist's parents are less concerned with the apocalyptic breakdown of the political and economic system of the United States than with the recent passage of legislation permitting gay marriage in the state of New York. Shteyngart looks smart for having predicted Occupy-style protest, but the recent real world passage of gay marriage legislation in New York perfectly displays Shteyngart's narrow pessimism. It didn't take until the apocalypse to legalize gay marriage in New York, in fact it barely took longer than the book's appearance in a paperback edition for a once unthinkably radical expansion of civil rights to come to fruition.

Super Sad True Love Story is eminently readable. You could call it a dystopian page turner. And it succeeds in characterization, in narrative economy, and in razor sharp social satire. But it also shows some clumsiness that is difficult to wholly overlook. Its allusions to Chekhov and the other masters of nineteenth century Russian literature are naked to the point of embarassment. Its political satire is less astute than its social satire, particularly when it seems overly dated to the era of Bush and Rumsfeld. Its economic satire is admirably ambitious but only halfway successful. The protagonist narrator, clearly a stand-in for the author, admits he doesn't understand currency exchange and the other details of finance and economics. Based on the most literal explorations of dystopian economics that the novel takes on, I can only assume shares his protagonist's ignorance in such matters.

But the book's strengths overwhelmingly outweigh its weaknesses. Shteyngart's tale is by turns absorbing, incisive, hilarious, and emotionally wrenching. Books that manage such a delicate balancing act while imperceptibly drawing the reader forward page by page deserve high praise.

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