Despite the latest eulogy from a prominent critic, there isn't much debate over whether fiction will survive. Of course it will—it has and it will. And if Gary Shteyngart is any indication, fiction will continue to be the place where authors ponder the survival of most everything else that matters. Shteyngart is a humorist whose novels mix timeless eastern-European dread with a more contemporary sense of absurdity. To help promote his new book, "Super Sad True Love Story" (whose trailer we recently heralded), he recently delivered a one-two punch in the New York Times, first in an interview with Deborah Solomon in the magazine, and then on the back page of the Sunday Book Review with an essay, "Only Disconnect", about the perils of connectivity. "With each passing year, scientists estimate that I lose between 6 and 8 percent of my humanity," Shteyngart writes. "By the first quarter of 2020 you will be able to understand who I am through a set of metrics as simple as those used to measure the torque of the latest-model Audi or the spring of some brave new toaster."
With his humanity on the wane, how did Shteyngart write "Super Sad True Love Story"? It's a dense, apocalyptic novel—packed with jokes, allusions, characters and voices. It takes place in a future Manhattan of scanning gizmos, social networks and a valueless dollar. Women's clothing pushes new boundaries of explicitness (transparent jeans and nipple-less bras are the latest trend). Everyone wears a device that functions like a human barcode, an accessible repository of nearly all of one's personal information. Attention-spans are shot, Manhattan threatens to become a war-zone and even the odour of actual physical books is offensive. "Duder, that thing smells like wet socks," a young jock says to the narrator, Lenny Abramov, gesturing at the Chekhov book in his hand. ("'Dystopia' is my middle name," Shteyngart told Solomon.)
Lenny is a 39-year-old specialist in a field called Indefinite Life Extension. His paramour is Eunice Park, a disaffected 24-year-old with dimpled cheeks and a violent podiatrist for a father. "Super Sad True Love Story" is, as advertised, a love story, delivered as diary entries from Lenny interspersed with Eunice's e-mails and chats. It's a tale about attraction, sex and the anxieties of ageing, in this case in an affair between an older man and a younger woman.
Lenny and Eunice constantly evaluate the advantages and drawbacks of their positions: Eunice is young and beautiful; Lenny is smart and oddly charming. They are unsure, learning about each other and worried about themselves. Anxieties about ageing are prominent: "I actually felt in awe of the fact that every day we were together she ignored the terrible aesthetic differences between us," Lenny thinks. "My youth has passed," he muses at another point, "but the wisdom of age hardly beckons. Why is it so hard to be a grown-up man in this world?"
As we'd expect from Shteyngart, the novel is self-aware, winkingly florid and hilarious. "I coughed into my hand," Lenny addresses his diary, "a painful chill across my body, as if an iceberg had stabbed me in the anus." The author is a genius of descriptive strokes, summoning "a pimply young waiter with a slick parabola of hair" or "a small brown almond of a man," in those few precise words. As the world of Lenny and Eunice devolves into chaos and warfare, Shteyngart can't help but find a note of hope in the muck. "It's going to be okay, Lenny," one of his friends tells him. 'You'll find the mercy in this rude data stream."
For whom, then, is Shteyngart's novel written? It's written, in part, for those who worry about a future in which no one reads, when carrying something by Chekhov seems anachronistic and silly. In the sad, materialistic, consumer-driven metropolis of this book, everyone exists in "the colourful pulsing mosaic" world of smart-phones that burst with "every last stinking detail"; "books only know the minds of their authors". This novel is also for those who shudder at the seamier qualities of capitalism—the infantalising ad campaigns and the illusory thrill of acquisition—and for those who obsess over their body-mass index more than they'd like. In Shteyngart's world, the words "I'm going to shove a carb-filled macaroon up your ass" count as a menacing threat. So does the prospect of not living forever in a body over-run by nanobots.
These inventions are indicative of the book's pleasure, which is simply its effluence from a mind as smart, loony and darkly prophetic as Shteyngart's. "I don't know how to read anymore," the author said in his interview with Deborah Solomon. Thankfully his fans still do.
"Super Sad True Love Story" (Random House) by Gary Shteyngart, out now in America, September 2nd in Britain