Deny and Imply

J. Robert Lennon

  • Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
    Granta, 331 pp, £12.99, September 2010, ISBN 978 1 84708 103 2

There’s just something about a schlump. Or rather, there must be, otherwise we American male novelists wouldn’t keep writing books about them. Let us observe Jonathan Franzen’s latest, in which the eco-maniacal egghead, at long last, gets the girl. Or Jonathan Lethem’s stoned underachievers, with their mad ideas that turn out to be right. David Foster Wallace gave us protagonists who shunned the physical world in favour of the knottier, more intractable challenges of the mind; George Saunders offers comic heroes who fail excellently. Turn the book over, lift up the flap. We don’t look too bad in black and white, do we, our hair artfully mussed, our beards half-grown, our eyeglasses polished. But can’t you see the fear in our charmingly narrowed eyes? The fear that you’ll realise the truth about us? That we are, deep down, self-disgusted losers? Or maybe we’re afraid you won’t notice. It doesn’t matter how many books we’ve sold, or whether we’ve been on Letterman or Oprah. We’re nerds. Dorks. Putzes. Schlumps. And we don’t want to let you forget it.

In his first two novels, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart appeared consumed by a desire to enter into the royalty of American literary schlumpitude. His biography reads like a recipe for energetic, awkward self-consciousness: first-generation immigrant (he arrived in the United States from Leningrad at the age of seven), New Yorker, glasses-wearer, Jew. His fictional heroes fit the pattern, too. Fidgety, sweaty, far too talkative, the Shteyngart protagonist is always trying, in precisely the wrong way, to make a little bit of money, or pacify a guilt-wielding mother, or impress a woman (generally one spectacularly unsuited for him). We’re supposed to like him, to empathise with him, for we, readers of literary fiction, are assumed to suffer from the same afflictions: poor muscle tone, excessive sentimentality, lousy job prospects, terrible fashion sense.

The Shteyngart hero is thrown into worlds of grotesque extremes. In the first two novels, we are treated to distended bodies (Absurdistan’s Misha Vainberg is very fat, as we are reminded on almost every page), rampant corruption (The Russian Debutante’s Handbook’s gangsters, drug dealers, hustlers and swindlers), comical ethnic identifiers (Absurdistan’s Rouenna, with her hyper-blackness, her ‘damn’s and ‘y’all’s and ‘chill’s and ‘nigga’s), and meticulously described sexual acrobatics. The setting of any given scene generally takes the form of a cluttered, wacky tableau, with a wide range of largely undifferentiated characters speaking at cross-purposes, in more or less the same vaudevillean, hyperactive prose that the narrative is composed of. In neither of these novels can we get from one corner of a city block to the next without reading a long list of random details, overwrought emotions and silly place names, rendered with large numbers of adjectives, past-perfect verbs and exclamation marks. From The Russian Debutante’s Handbook: ‘Intermittent flashes of neon would illuminate the tears descending her oblong face as the meat-store sign positioned directly below their flat struggled to keep alight in the erratic power grid.’ In Absurdistan, Misha and his cohort can’t simply sing: instead, ‘our melodies rang out.’ Misha can’t just eat: rather, food goes ‘into my gullet’. There are times, reading these two books, when one returns to present action after several pages of incidental comic description only to have lost all sense of where the characters are or what is going on.

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