Super Sad True Love Story: Gary Shteyngart

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.


9 thoughts on “Super Sad True Love Story: Gary Shteyngart

  1. It sounds like the diary format is akin to the use of voiceover narrative in film, something that I think is symptomatic of lazy/weak writing – “I’m too lazy or untalented to show you the character’s thoughts or feelings through their actions or the actions of other people, so I’ll just have you tell you them directly.”

  2. Yes, Mysterious Commenter Whose Identity I May Have Figured Out, that is exactly it! The diary format is just like voiceover in film, which I also dislike very much. It’s usually just a lazy copout.

  3. I gave ‘Among Others’ 3 out of 5 stars. I was a bit surprised when I heard that it won the Hugo and the Nebula awards. It’s not that it’s a bad book. I think part of the charm was that it was clearly suffused with a great love for books and the name dropping of the characters and phrases from sci-fi/fantasy titles made me giddy (Hey, Cat’s Cradle! Heinlein! Douglas Adams!), but the story itself was just okay. It was even a bit bland near the end when the final confrontation felt anti-climatic (Wait, that’s it? She just walked away like that?)..
    After reading this, I read ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ and I thought, ‘This is how a fantasy/sci-fi book should be written!’

    1. I think three out of five is about right for Among Others. You’re right that it’s not a bad book; it’s just not a book that you’d expect to win such big awards. I did love the shout-outs to some of my favourite authors and books, but honestly, I could just go look at my bookshelves to experience a similar giddy nostalgia. I really wanted to enjoy this book more than I actually did.

      But The Left Hand of Darkness is already on my reading list, but you’re making me want to read it right now!

      1. I think if you like ‘The Dispossessed’ then most likely you will like ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’. One of my friends thought ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ was very boring. I agree that it is a bit slow, but to me the premise of the story is still interesting and I can imagine how groundbreaking it was during its time. It’s a classic.

        Btw, do you use an e-book reader? Amazon Japan has opened the pre-order for Kindle Paper White with Japanese menu. I think the shipment should be in early Dec’12.

      2. I can’t imagine not liking it. I mean, The Dispossessed was amazing so if Left Hand is even half as good, I’ll be delighted.

        I actually don’t read a lot of ebooks. I am still in love with the feel of paper in my hands. But the Japanese Kindle thing has been in the press a lot. There’s been some debate as to what titles are available for it and things. How about you? Are you a reader of ebooks?

  4. Yes, I am. I have a Nook and have been using it more often lately. It’s much more convenient, especially when you are traveling. Now the only paper English books that I have are the ones I really like.

    It looks like Amazon also adjusts the Kindle’s setting so that it can be used to read mangas. I don’t think you can access the store if you are not in Japan, though. Pity. Importing Japanese books are still quite expensive.

    1. I always think ebooks would be more convenient when travelling and yet I can’t bring myself to part with the printed page. If you use a Japanese proxy or something, you should be able to use the Japanese Kindle store. Although maybe it depends on whether or not you use a Japanese credit card like the iTunes store does?

  5. I agree that printed pages are still the best, esp when you are reading science books with lots of pictures and graphs. And the DRM for e-books is such a pain.
    I have an account in Amazon Japan and I managed to buy some books from their Kindle Store with a non-Japanese credit card. The selection of the mangas are still very limited, though.

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