George Orwell’s 1984 looms over the terrain of dystopian fiction as a kind of template
for the idiom, the masterpiece that did more than any other work to pave the way for
the current obsession with sociopolitical commentary in the guise of dark futuristic fable.
Without Orwell as the role model—or perhaps 'big brother' is a better label?—we would
never have
Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale, A Clockwork Orange, The Road,
Never Let Me Go and so many other seminal works of fiction with their own twist on
the Orwellian narrative.

But let’s not forget that Orwell wrote another dystopian
Animal Farm, which was drew on the techniques
of satire and absurdism to makes it points. This book
also has a legacy, less pervasive yet just as significant.
The comic dystopian tale is less common than its dark
twin, but can be just as thought-provoking. In fact, the
attempt to reframe political debate as a series of comic
observations on an apocalyptic future-in-the-making
might even be considered as the de facto tone of in-the-
moment media. If you doubt it, just spend a few moments
measuring the mood of Twitter and social media, or late
night monologues and
Saturday Night Live, or even the
pronouncements emanating from the centers of political
power. Absurdism was once a literary style; nowadays
it’s a way of coping.

This is the context in which we are invited to make sense
of Gary Shteyngart’s novel
Super Sad True Love Story
(2010). At first glance, that might seem an admonishment
to make sense of nonsense, but we are all getting quite
skilled at just that, aren’t we? Shteyngart is operating in
the thick of the comic dystopian tradition, a subgenre that has not only proven its power
on the printed page (Kurt Vonnegut’s
Cat’s Cradle, John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy,
Michel Houellebecq’s
Submission), but also on the cinema screen, as demonstrated
by some of the most peculiar and prescient political films ever made, such as
The Truman Show and Idiocracy.

The hero of
Super Sad True Love Story, Lenny Abramov, is out-of-touch with his
futuristic society, which often resembles an exaggeration of the worst aspects of our
current-day media-saturated culture. Abramov still reads books—rejected by most of
his contemporaries as stinky, dusty relics of an antiquated pre-digital age. People have
embraced ‘Media’ (with a capital M) instead but, as we gradually discover over the
course of the novel, this is not a real vocation anymore. Professional journalism doesn’t
exist; instead young wannabes stream their own speculations and commentaries on
the state of the world.

And it’s a sad state, especially in the United States
where an authoritarian government rules in the name
of “bipartisanship.” Orwellian abuses of language are
the calling card of the new administration, which
disseminates its harsh policies via slogans, signs,
logos and cartoon characters. The nation’s latest
marketing campaign is built on the catch phrase:
Together We’ll Surprise the World! That sounds
ominously appropriate for our current day political
branding—and it’s even short enough to fit in a tweet!

But this government constantly needs new slogans. In the dystopian world of
Super Sad
True Love Story
, the United States has fallen far behind the rest of the world, and China
has emerged as the lender of last resort for Americans. The failing Bipartisans are
constantly seeking for some new policy to turn things around.  Sometimes they
promote consumer spending. But in other instances, they push for more savings. As a
last resort, they even launch a war against Venezuela. The policies are different, but they
have one thing in common: they always fail and produce unintended bad consequences
along the way.

It’s an ugly world. But Abramov has one advantage. He has a job with a successful high
tech company that offers HNWI (that stands for High New Worth Individuals) a chance to
live forever. The price tag is high, but those who sign up get access to a range of
advanced medical techniques that reverse the course of aging. Lenny’s boss Joshua
is not just CEO of the company, but also a flesh-and-blood example of its services. He
is 70 years old, but looks younger than 39-year-old Abramov. The latter would like to
participate in the rejuvenation processes, but he needs to make a few million yuan-
pegged dollars if he hopes to take advantage of this biotech fountain of youth.

Abramov shares the narrating responsibilities of this story with his love interest Eunice
Park. Lenny and Eunice share a similar background: they are both children of over-
bearing immigrants (Russian Jews and Korean Christians respectively) who are
torn between a desire to assimilate to American ways and a need to hold on to family
roots and traditions.  Lenny is considerably older than Eunice, but ironically has an
even older competitor for her affections, namely his boss Josh, who feels that his
juiced-up body is ready for romance.

This thumbnail description of the plot does not do justice to Shteyngart’s richly comic
storytelling. The chapters related by Eunice are presented in the form of emails and
texts to her family and friends. While reading them, I couldn’t help but be reminded of
Frank Zappa’s classic satire song “Valley Girl.” Shteyngart, like Zappa, has great skill
in capturing the shallow jargon and mind-numbing consumerism of modern times.  
Abramov’s chapters, in contrast, are presented as more sober diary entries, filled
with self doubts, motivational musings and existential angst. The contrast between
the two prose styles could hardly be more pronounced, and the budding romance
between these two individuals, with their incompatible worldviews, provides ample
momentum for both humor and narrative surprises.

The collapse of society is almost a sub-plot in the context of this book. But that merely
adds to the opportunities for satire in Shteyngart's engaging novel. There’s a reason
why absurdist stories about politics are usually written from the perspective of the
outsider or subaltern—think, for example, of Kafka's
The Trial or Heller’s Catch-22.  
You need to get outside the groupthink in order to appreciate it in all its idiocy. The
insiders are just cogs, each turning in their prescribed direction. Only the uninitiated
trying to make sense of the whole machine can savor its dysfunction.

Shteyngart closes the book with a surprising coda, which turns the satire around and
focuses it on the literary world.  Our author shows he can even laugh at himself, and
at the pretensions of highbrow writers. That capability—to laugh at ourselves—may
even be a corrective to some of our real world political woes, and not just inside
books of fiction. There are two types of comedy: one invites people to laugh at us,
and the other demands that we only laugh at people different from us. The first is
gentle and disarming, the second is cruel and corrosive. Even though we live in a
culture that puts great stock in comedy, there’s a great shortage of that self-directed
laughter. It’s not the least virtue of
Super Sad True Love Story that Shteyngart does
what he can to fill the gap.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books.
His most recent book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication date: July 10, 2018
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Super Sad True Love Story

by Gary Shteyngart
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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haig, Matt
The Humans

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morris, Jan

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

North, Claire
The First 15 Lives of Harry August

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Weir, Andy
The Martian

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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The nation’s latest marketing
campaign is built on the catch
Together We’ll Surprise
the World!
That sounds ominously
appropriate for our current day
political branding.