Being in Japan these days means I am reading a lot more stuff in Japanese. I spend so much time buying stuff at bookstores, I feel wasteful if I don’t read as much of it as possible, as soon as possible. But I did bring a few English books along, mostly because I thought they would be fun on the plane, but also in case I felt sad for English novels. Sometimes, I just get this intense urge to read a novel in English. I don’t know why, but it is a feeling that cannot be placated with any other kind of written word.
But honestly, I think I need to get over this feeling because English novels are letting me down these days! Among Others, the book by Jo Walton I read on the plane, felt like three hundred pages of some girl’s reading list. And this was a book I was really excited about reading, but in the end, it left me completely cold. Now another book I was expecting to really get into has left me feeling kind of meh. Interestingly enough, both books have several pages at the beginning dedicated to reviews extolling the greatness of the words to follow. A greatness that failed to materialize for me.
Which is not to say that I hated either of them. I just… didn’t care. Super Sad True Love Story was definitely the more interesting of the two, if only because I was not subjected to a recitation of every single book the main character Lenny read. Seriously. I get that Among Others is this exploration in a way of how books can influence and shape a life, but page after page of books picked up from the library or borrowed from Mori’s estranged father is just tiresome. Although if you are looking for a good grounding in earlier science fiction (Mori’s story takes place in 1979 and 1980, so don’t expect anything more recent than that), this book would be a good place to start.
Maybe it is the structure of the books? Both are written in diary/confessional format, which I know is supposed to bring me closer to the characters, but actually feels like cheating to me, like the author can just tell me everything the character is thinking/feeling without having to put them in a real situation where I can figure these things out from their reactions/actions. I also find the total recall of characters writing in their diaries completely unbelievable. Who writes down full scenes in their journal complete with every line of dialogue and all actions accompanying said dialogue? Who are these people with superhuman memories? (I say this as a lifelong journal keeper. I have some experience with the keeping of a journal and I have never in my life written a verbatim conversation.)
In Super Sad, half of the story is told through Lenny’s new diary (which starts on the first page of the novel), and the other half is told through assorted messages to and from his love interest Eunice at her Global Teens account, which I assume is like MySpace for the dystopian future they live in. The US is on the verge of becoming a failed state and being taken over by its foreign creditors, the dollar is a disaster, and a movement to move out from under the oppressive thumb of capitalism has started in New York’s Central Park. To be fair, he did write this thing before the whole Occupy movement started, but it still reads kind of derivative if you already know about Occupy.
Lenny is pretty old school, still reading things like books, even though he works for a super future-thinking company that works to keep people alive forever. And he hopes someday to be able to take advantage of his company’s services himself, since dying is not something he wants to do. On his last night on a business trip to Rome, he meets Eunice, a tiny, flat-chested (yes, mentioned a million times) Korean-American with Daddy issues, and falls head over heels in love for little-to-no reason. He begs her to move in with him in New York and she does.
Why? I don’t know. Her character is very flat and without any understandable motivation at the beginning of the book. As the novel develops, you get a sense of who she is, but the book centres on Eunice and Lenny being in a relationship, being a sort of odd couple, and while that seems understandable from his perspective (desperate aging man detailing his anxieties in his journal), it does not make sense from hers (young, attractive woman with food issues). Yes, she has family stuff from the start. But the sudden move to New York to live with Lenny doesn’t feel plausible. As they live together, you start to get a sense of why Eunice is with Lenny and it does feel genuine, but man, those first fifty pages or so were read with seriously raised eyebrows.
Basically, I was entertained by the book, I wanted to know how it turned out, and Shteyngart is a nimble writer with clever phrasing, but when I turned that last page, I found that I one hundred percent did not care. The whole thing was gone from my head the minute I was done reading the last line. Which is not a thing I love in a book. Maybe because all the loose ends were very neatly tied up. The last few pages explain what happened to who and where everyone is now, so there was really nothing left to wonder about. Plus, everything ends up the way you’d expect it to? Which is probably the most disappointing way for a novel to end.