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.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to like these novels. Much has been said about Shteyngart’s acerbic send-ups of immigrant and expat culture, and indeed, in Handbook and Absurdistan, he delivers the goods. He skewers pieties with delighted abandon, and is capable, at times, of genuinely transcendent prose, as in a riff from the second book that describes ‘an old but grand house whose bulk was noticeably sinking into its front columns the way an elderly fellow sinks into his walker’. The Shteyngart of Absurdistan and Handbook is clearly talented, then, but the overall impression left is one of profound writerly insecurity, with jokes slathered over the previous layer of jokes before they have even had a chance to dry, and winking self-referentiality incessantly employed to preclude complaint: Absurdistan features a writer character called Jerry Shteynfarb, author of The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job, who ‘thinks he’s the Jewish Nabokov’, and is ‘filled with artifice, bullshit laughter and easy bonhomie’. ‘Nyeah nyeah!’ the writer seems to be saying. ‘You’ll never hate me as much as I pretend to hate myself!’
Despite all this, and almost surprisingly, Super Sad True Love Story is a very good novel. Shteyngart’s comic energy is now more carefully judged; with a third of the gags, it’s twice as funny. His characters are better developed, better differentiated. His politics are subtler. And what used to be his subject – the American immigrant experience – is now more like a lens through which he focuses on the larger theme of American empire, or, specifically, its end.
First, though, we get our schlump. Lenny Abramov is, yes, a bookish Jew, yes, the child of Russian immigrants, who is, yes, falling in love with a beautiful woman to whom, yes, he is always saying the wrong thing. But his world is not ours: it is a dystopian near-future (or perhaps alternative present) where every moral failing of our familiar American reality has been blown way out of proportion. Do you regard young women’s clothes these days as too revealing? Try Onionskin jeans, the transparent ladies’ trousers that show the world your junk. Think corporate mergers are out of control? Book a flight on UnitedContinentalDeltamerican. Baffled by the secret language of text messaging? Meet JBF! (Just Butt-Fuckin’!) and TIMATOV (Think I’m About To Openly Vomit). Concerned that we’re too attached to our phones and laptops? Behold the äppärät, the portable computer so seamlessly integrated with American life that, when it stops working, people kill themselves from loneliness. And if you find our current political environment too depressing for words, Shteyngart’s got you covered. This is an America where the Bipartisan Party (over which the sinister defense secretary Rubenstein holds sway) is in charge, where disabled veterans of the Venezuelan War, cut off from their benefits, live in LNWI (that’s ‘Low Net Worth Individual’) shantytowns that are just a hair’s breadth from open rebellion. Tanks patrol the airports, bearing signs that read ‘BY READING THIS SIGN YOU HAVE DENIED EXISTENCE OF [THIS] OBJECT AND IMPLIED CONSENT.’ This formulation – ‘deny and imply’ – has become a cornerstone of American citizenship, an anti-mantra that precedes any contact between the government and its citizens.
Poor Lenny is our conduit to this strange new world. A throwback, he favours physical books over data streams (when he dares to read one on a plane, a fellow passenger sneers: ‘Duder, that thing smells like wet socks’). He expresses shock at the vulgarities of the age, the formalisation of hyper-colloquial speech. He loves his difficult old-world parents and is depressed by this new, shamed America, by
the looks on the faces of my countrymen – passive heads bent, arms at their trousers, everyone guilty of not being their best, of not earning their daily bread, the kind of docility I never expected from Americans, even after so many years of our decline. Here was the tiredness of failure imposed on a country that believed only in its opposite.
What makes Lenny’s otherness possible is that he has just got back from a long failed business trip to Rome, during which his homeland has crossed some grim Rubicon, rendering it alien to him. He works for the Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation, which is dedicated to reversing the human ageing process, at least for the HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals) who have the cash for it. Lenny himself is saving up: ‘I am never going to die,’ he tells us in the novel’s first sentence. It isn’t just the changes in his native New York that make Lenny uneasy: he has recently met, flirted with and performed oral sex on one Eunice Park, a second-generation Korean-American living in Rome. He has fallen in love with her and wants to get her back to New York to live with him. Eunice herself isn’t so smitten: ‘I met this old, gross guy at a party yesterday,’ she writes to a friend, ‘and we got really drunk and I sort of let him go down on me.’
This, then, becomes the novel’s structural conceit: Lenny’s old-school diaries sharing space with Eunice’s emails and texts. I groaned on first meeting Eunice, anticipating more of the rapturous Shteyngartian ‘don’t-call-me-sexist’ girl-worshipping and broad ethnic humour to which I’d become accustomed. But, although he can’t resist a few edgy, shruggy, ‘who-me?’ one-liners, Shteyngart has given us an actually interesting female character. Eunice steals the novel: 24 to Lenny’s 39, she struggles to shed her youthful, put-on shallowness and grapple with the reality of an abusive father, a submissive mother and a sister who is growing increasingly, dangerously, Political (with a capital P).
Eunice’s first-person prose is a departure for Shteyngart, and in writing her correspondence, he seems to have found himself a new skill: you sense his excitement. At first she seems little more than a vehicle for more zany pop-cultural gags but her girlish vulgarity soon gives way to a searching, self-critical intelligence. She gradually gives in to her love for Lenny; the affair quickly veers from the middle-aged male fantasy we might have been expecting, and becomes an exploration of the way damaged people come to know one another. Of course, if this was all there was to the story, it would be pretty saccharine. But love is only the first powerful thing Eunice finds herself capable of. Lenny and Eunice, by now, have shacked up in his studio apartment in the city and overcome an initial wave of troubles – he has been demoted by his boss, the creepily ageless Joshie Goldmann; she has parried her parents’ shock that she has taken up with an old white guy – when everything suddenly falls apart.
They are in a bar, with friends, when it happens – ‘The Rupture’. The news hits everyone’s äppärät at once: CHINA INVESTMENT CORPORATION QUITS US TREASURIES. Money becomes worthless. Riots break out. The LNWI camps, where Eunice and her sister have been volunteering, are subjected to government crackdowns. As it happens, Lenny’s parent company, Staatling-Wapachung, owns the American security forces, so he and Eunice are protected. But their families are not, and soon the political forces that are tearing America apart threaten to tear apart the lovers too.
The impending breakdown sneaks into the background of Lenny and Eunice’s moneyed-class narratives, and they betray their hopeless naivety. Eunice struggles to cheer herself up with online shopping; Lenny reassures himself with meaningless words: ‘In the end, they would never hurt people with my assets.’ The Rupture itself obliquely evokes 9/11 far better than other recent novels have managed in addressing it directly: Manhattan on lockdown, people watching the carnage from ferries, soldiers in the streets. And there is something very poignant about the way everybody gets used to the new divided America that is doomed to rise from the wreckage: with epic collective resignation at the inevitability of inequality and suffering.
Because this love story is super sad, we know how things will have to end. I’m not sure how I feel about the rhetorical device Shteyngart uses to wrap it all up – think The Handmaid’s Tale – but it does discharge the dirty burden the novel was always destined to bear. In the end, what I like best about it is the ragged, lumpen gracelessness built into its very structure. The whole novel is kind of a schlump, really: a little bit lovable, a little bit mussed, and overflowing with genuine pathos. It wears its imperfection, its miserable humanity, proudly.
Some of the imperfections matter, of course. Plot and narrative momentum are not Shteyngart’s great strengths; the intertwined stories perhaps could have used more attention than the author was willing to give them. The first half meanders, and the book only really finds itself once chaos descends. And there is something drearily manipulative about the extent to which we are asked to empathise with Lenny: his insecurities are too cosy, his moral positions too carefully calibrated to his presumed audience. His musings about the value of literature are particularly cloying. ‘How can we read when people need our help?’ he asks, and we wonder, briefly, why the hell we’re still reading ourselves. When Eunice is turned on by Lenny’s recitation of passages from Kundera, it reads like a promotional poster in an adults-only public library. There are too many audience-friendly cultural references: ‘an old Arcade Fire tune’, Philip Glass, kids applying to Swarthmore. The result is an arch, winking, hipster-dogwhistle chumminess that some readers are liable to feel alienated by, and which won’t age well. And though this new Shteyngart is more subdued than the old, he is still prone to self-conscious prose that shakes us out of the story, as when Lenny experiences ‘a painful chill across my body, as if an iceberg had stabbed me in the anus’.
But at his best Shteyngart gives us a New York as sad as it is beautiful:
There’s a day during the summer when the sun hits the broad avenues at such an angle that you experience the sensation of the whole city being flooded by a melancholy 20th-century light, even the most prosaic, unloved buildings appearing bright and nuclear at the edge of your vision, and … when this happens you want to both cry for something lost and run out there and welcome the decline of the day.
He is also capable of sudden insights, as in this passage about The Rupture that channels, with brutal precision, the media-obsessed frisson of watching the towers fall: ‘What if Noah was secretly pleased that all this was happening? What if we all were? What if the violence was actually channelling our collective fear into a kind of momentary clarity, the clarity of being alive during conclusive times, the joy of being historically important by association?’
And of course he’s funny, but for the first time this isn’t Shteyngart’s most noteworthy quality. Instead, I find myself returning to his bits of character description. At a Korean worship service: ‘Middle-aged men, exhausted from their 90-hour work weeks, were slumped deep into their chests, shoes off, catching precious sleep before the onslaught of prayer began.’ Eunice’s mother: ‘A great spidery web of defeat spread across her face – as if there lived below her neck a parasitic creature that gradually but purposefully removed all the elements that in human beings combine to form satisfaction and contentment.’ And her father: ‘I had never seen a chin so firm and set, so unmistakably manly, and a lower body that contained such an endless amount of propulsion … Despite his race, his eyes were almost as light as Jesus’, and they regarded me with indifference.’ In these passages, Shteyngart really does sound like a Jewish Nabokov. This is not something he should feel the need to apologise for with clever self-referential asides. He should just do it, and be it, and quit talking about it.