As Gary Shteyngart's third novel begins, Lenny Abramov is seated on a "UnitedContinentalDeltamerican" flight to New York after a year in Rome. Taking out a collection of Chekhov's stories to pass the time, Lenny receives harsh stares from his fellow passengers. "Duder," one tells him, "that thing smells like wet socks." Perhaps America has changed during Lenny's sojourn in the capital of the ancient world.
On landing, he discovers that his old college friend Noah Weinberg will be airing his welcome-home celebration live on GlobalTeens—a Facebookish social-networking site. "Before the publishing industry folded," Lenny explains, Noah "had published a novel, one of the last that you could actually go out and buy in a Media store. Lately he did 'The Noah Weinberg Show!,' which had a grand total of six sponsors. . . . The show got hit about fifteen thousand times a day, which put him somewhere in the lower-middle echelon of Media professionals." Lenny has some reservations about broadcasting this intimate occasion but realizes that "this is exactly the kind of thing I have to get used to if I'm going to make it in this world."
In the early pages of Super Sad True Love Story, Shteyngart has quite a bit of fun filling in the details of his postliterate near future, where "verballing" face-to-face feels quaint and everybody interacts instead by way of the iPhone-like devices called äppäräti. He is particularly good with Lenny's acquiescence—"the kind of thing I have to get used to"—illustrating how unthinkingly our needs adapt to technology, rather than the other way around.
As it happens, Lenny has an added incentive to "make it in this world." On his last night in Rome, he met Eunice Park, a beautiful young Korean American who traveled to Europe to escape her abusive father. Soon, she follows Lenny to New York, and the love story of the book's title begins in earnest. It is told from the viewpoint of each participant, passages from Lenny's diary alternating with e-mails and instant messages sent from Eunice's GlobalTeens account. The difference in the forms neatly encapsulates the generation gap between the thirty-nine-year-old Lenny and the twenty-four-year-old Eunice: For Lenny, private reflection still seems desirable, if impossible; for Eunice, no thought or feeling is real until it is broadcast or put on display. Shteyngart movingly contrasts Lenny's efforts to fit into this diminished world with Eunice's struggle for more thoughtfulness and authentic emotional connection. For all the broad comedy that will be familiar to Shteyngart's fans, he nonetheless handles the ebbs and flows of the relationship with great subtlety. Eunice is as surprised as the reader by her emerging love for Lenny, writing, "I feel safe with him because he is so not my ideal."
Unfortunately, profound changes have altered more than America's cultural landscape in Shteyngart's dystopia. A single "Bipartisan party," led by a Cheney-like puppet master named Rubenstein, rules the country. Spurred in part by a misguided war with Venezuela, national debt has crippled the dollar, leaving it nearly worthless unless pegged to the Chinese yuan. Shteyngart's political impulses have always felt halfhearted, as if dutifully honored so as to lend his shaggy, picaresque comedies a sharp edge of satire. The lampoonery in Super Sad True Love Story isn't unconvincing so much as uninspired. Noah's desperation to stay in "the lower-middle echelon of Media professionals," like the sheer "Onionskin" jeans that Eunice's peers take to wearing in the hopes of increasing their GlobalTeens "fuckability" ratings, has a terrible specificity, showing us just where the hands are on the clock. But shadowy organizations like the American Restoration Authority might have been imagined by any Orwell imitator putting forth a standard-issue dystopia.
The war in Venezuela is a case in point: Shteyngart invokes the conflict throughout, as a kind of touchstone, but never tells us anything significant about the campaign except that it isn't going well. At first this feels almost appropriate, since the social and cultural developments that the author dramatizes can discourage serious political engagement. But the lacuna becomes a critical problem as politics increasingly comes to dominate the book, Lenny and Eunice's love story giving way to targeted assassinations and revolution in the streets. Shteyngart may be an acute social observer, but the more he writes about politics, the less he seems to say.
This turn is disappointing not merely because it leads Shteyngart away from his strengths. It is no accident, I imagine, that Lenny reads Chekhov, of all the Russian masters, on his flight home. Tolstoy painted broad canvases that included both Napoleonic battlefields and drawing rooms. Dostoyevsky used his characters to take on the most fraught political and moral questions. But Chekhov's genius lay precisely in revealing the complex interiority that energizes the most mundane human moments.
Shteyngart makes a compelling case that we lose that interiority—the very thing that gives us depth and richness—when we abandon literary culture. It may be, as so many want to tell us, that this loss is bad for democracy. But that is almost beside the point: It is bad for our souls. As an eloquent lament for this loss, this novel stands as both super sad and true. It is a shame Shteyngart decided this wasn't enough.
Christopher R. Beha is an editor at Harper's Magazine and the author of The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Have Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else (Grove, 2009).