Gary Shteyngart Reading Super Sad True Love Story
This write-up was another post that I’ve struggled to release. I wanted to write something interesting and preferably humorous about the evening because Gary Shteyngart and his novel, Super Sad True Love Story, are intelligent and funny. I found myself unable to create a coherent message about what I was reading, what I witnessed and felt, and how that interacts with who I was and what I was doing. Some sort of blockage was happening, as paralyzing as it was frightening.
I’m going to probably stray into maudlin territory. I apologize; this was the only way I could get something out.
My girlfriend, and sometimes co-writer, goes out of her way to share the things I enjoy: literature, readings, insults, corgis. She is my conspirator in many of these signings, sitting next to me in hard plastic seats, chatting and offering a little shove of encouragement to wait in line for an insult. She’s the extra motivation I often need to even board the train out to Brooklyn after a 9-6 day of wageslaving.
On what was an otherwise amazing evening, with Shteyngart sounding easy and relaxed, entertaining his Brooklyn neighbors, I’ll remember Gary Shteyngart’s reading as the first time I fucked up bad enough to make my best friend cry.
They were quiet, frustrated tears. Probably embarrassed, weeping in a crowd — though weeping is too strong a word. There was no keening on knees, no dramatic explosion. Just tears. The evening’s lesson was: selfishness — it’s for the birds.
Shteyngart’s Super Sad True is similarly about time, greed, and love. It’s also about ownership, consumption, and the danger in need vs want.
The story splits time between two narrations. Their combined testimony keeps a 4/4 beat for a dueling banjoes narrative structure: Lenny’s diary, Eunice’s emails, kertwang kertwang kerplang. We eventually discover that the diary framework is part of the book’s plot, though it feels tacked-on.
Eunice’s “GlobalTeens” email log is particularly important in terms of balance, but also annoying in a “young, selfish woman finding out there’s more to life than spending her parents’ money” sort of way. Without it, her character would’ve papered out, flimsy and flat, an Asian-American object of Lenny’s desire, a metaphor for a society that emphasizes youth and consumption, a foil for a protagonist who simultaneously rejects and embraces those same ideals.
The book’s dystopian tomorrow is filled with multiple corporate conglomerations like “LandO’LakesGMFordCredit” and “ColgatePalmoliveYum!BrandViacomCredit,” as well as acronyms like NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Center) and HNWI (High Net Worth Individual). Add the hat reek of trying too hard. The cheeky setting never reaches the creepy humor nor the unsettling realism of a George Saunders dystopia. On the other hand, maybe Saunders’ bite-sized dystopias are easier to swallow than a novel-length feast. Whatever the case, Shteyngart’s Super Sad True never reaches the joy of Russian Debutante.
Shteyngart writes angst and “other”ness with a strength and familiarity that strikes through the vulnerability of his characters. His prose seldom strays into sentimentality, perhaps he doesn’t love his characters as much as he loves finding the truth in his stories. He reads with a controlled humor, obviously practiced and familiar with the lines.
You might guess he’s similarly accustomed to the major themes he often revisits in his novels: hidden anger, desperate need and resentment for being needed, “other”ness and a certain kind of comfort that comes from that estrangement, palpable frustration from being different and wanting to fit in. It’s something that I identify with, especially the weird balance of love/ownership, freedom/jealousy that he so often works with.
Despite the differences in setting and character, however, Shteyngart’s protagonists have a tendency to lose their definition in my mind, the ghost of books past melding and blending with the current narrative. There’s a jolt when Lenny is described as having a slight, pigeon-chested frame rather than the luxurious bulbousity of Absurdistan’s Misha Vainberg. They’re both from some conglomeration of Semitic self-loathing, intelligence, awkwardness, mama’s boyishness, with a tinge of an immigrant’s hope-against-hope pluck. Shteyngart is undoubtedly one of our best young literary hopes. I’d just like to see something completely different from him, because he’s a damn good author.
The best writers help us see our blindspots. Though I won’t go so far as damn myself and claim my selfishness runs as deep as Eunice Park’s, the truth is that my SO’s tears came from me inherently valuing my time more than hers, something I’ve either ignored or forgotten to address from previous relationships’ lessons. Shteyngart reading from Super Sad True Love Story was a fitting accompaniment to a moment of transcendent self-realization: I’m not as good a person as I’d like to believe, but knowing it helps hold me to the standard.
Plus, Shteyngart gives good insult.