In a negative assessment of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Biblioklept reports finally giving up on the hope that the novel "might have something to say about American culture and politics in the early 21st century." My own fear in reading this novel, confirmed almost immediately, was that Shteyngart did have "something to say" about politics and culture and thus his novel would be a "commentary" or a "critique" or some other version of "social observation" rather than an aesthetically credible work of fiction. And such it is.
Of course, another word to use in describing a work like Super Sad True Love Story is "satire," and it would be more charitable perhaps to discuss the novel as a participant in this genre rather than as something making a claim to be "art" in the first place, Although certainly the best satire is also the most artful, I would still maintain that satire aspires to be primarily a mode of moral or political discourse, or of cultural criticism, and not an object of aesthetic contemplation. (Some works of literary art, however, do create secondarily satirical effects that add to their appeal, as in the fiction of Stanley Elkin, for example, while other "classic" satirical works take aim at a sufficiently universal kind of human folly that they retain their satirical edge, as in the plays of Moliere.) Satire needs to be aesthetically compelling enough that readers tolerate a message delivered in an indirect way through narrative and character rather than more efficiently through direct discourse but ultimately it is judged by its purchase on the conditions it critiques, not its formal or stylistic accomplishments.
Unfortunately, even by this alternative standard, Super Sad True Love Story doesn't measure up. It is just another of those by now familiar futuristic satires that projects a few years ahead to reveal that current trends have reached a kind of logical conclusion, making the United States into a dying Empire ruled by clueless politicians and unabashed oligarchs, who have brought consumerist ruin on the land and are in the process of asserting class-based tyranny. What Super Sad True Love Story adds to the mix is the portrayal of a society addicted to cyber technology and its own ruinous effect on literacy and its relegation of books to the peculiar few. This will no doubt become a popular trope in later iterations of the dystopian vision, as writers continue to worry their vocation is headed for the dustbin. Shteyngart's narrative makes the predictable points: that the wired world exacerbates our preoccupation with trivia, that it reinforces our tendency to self-absorption, that it enables a passivity the powers-that-be can exploit, ultimately that it makes us stupid.
That these are potential dangers in our use of digital technology seems undeniable, although its potential to do exactly the opposite in each of these effects seems to me equally real. More importantly, the novel seems to exist primarily to point out these dangers, and since I was already perfectly aware of them (as I imagine most readers of this novel are, as well), I found Super Sad True Love Story a particularly unrewarding reading experience. It offers few aesthetic pleasures apart from its oft-invoked theme, and it isn't very funny. (It becomes progressively even less so as the story plods on.) Once you get that the characters are addicted to their "apparatti" (supercharged Blackberries of some sort), which has led to their passivity in the face of the authoritarian rule of the "Bipartisan Party," it's hard to take the rest of the narrative's reiterations of these notions as very "edgy."
The most noteworthy achievement in this novel is Shteyngart's evocation of the "voice" of the protagonist's love interest, a young woman who both carries the burden of the novel's indictment of digitalized culture and becomes its test case in the possibility of transcending that culture. She is presented to us both indirectly, through the protagonist's written diary, and directly through her own "apparat"-powered communications, reproduced dialogically with the protagonist's diary. Shteyngart's mimicry of the verbal mannerisms and patois of a young person wired from birth is compelling enough, although her eventual transformation into a more self-aware and responsible adult is less convincing and makes her contributions to the alternating narrative strands just as dull as the protagonist's. The latter's diary writing is flat and uninspired, and I often found myself impatient to get through it in the hope that the next offering by the girlfriend would be more lively. The protagonist is himself a standard issue slacker whose inability to either go all-out for material success or lapse into a resigned mediocrity accounts more for his holding-on to the printed word than any real allegiance to "verbal" culture. He can't quite bring himself to discard his books and his antiquated writing habits but he wishes he could. Being neither bold nor entirely complacent just makes him seem adrift, and ultimately irritating.
Shteyngart's vision of America in terminal decline, hastened by the technology of distraction, is one shared by Rick Moody's The Four Fingers of Death. One might almost think, in fact, that the two authors had commiserated with one another over the grim fate they both foresaw and decided to compete for the title of dystopian of the year. Shteyngart probably wins, but only because Super Sad True Love Story so relentlessly pursues its dystopian "vision," its very existence so dependent on the explication of this vision. The Four Fingers of Death, while hardly a work of overpowering originality, nevertheless manages to embody its theme in a formal structure that provides interest in and of itself, to produce comedy that, although it is often satirical, also provokes laughter for its own sake, and to employ language that often enough enlivens the narrative rather than just dutifully carry it along. Whereas I had to force my way through Super Sad True Love Story, I found large portions of The Four Fingers of Death (and it's a 700+ page novel) to be quite entertaining.
One could call the novel a "frame-tale," as we are first introduced to Montese Crandall, a writer who inhabits a United States some fifteen years into the future and who writes a kind of minimalist fiction reductio ad absurdum: "very short, very condensed literary pieces, and by short, I mean very, very short. Shorter than you have probably read in your reading life. More than one word, usually, because one word is too easy, but quite a bit more modest than five score. The three hundred and fifty pages of a novel. . .are a tedious elaboration." Crandall manages to get himself assigned to a "novelization" of a low-budget science fiction film, which he will turn into the The Four Fingers of Death, the narrative that itself then constitutes most of the novel we are reading. The novelization relates the story of a manned mission to Mars undertaken by an American government desperate to distinguish itself in some way in the face of an undeniable loss of prestige and influence and increasing unrest. The mission goes horribly wrong, and a remaining crew member attempts to return to earth. This part of the novelization is related by that crew member, but before he can reach the earth he dies of a disease contracted on Mars and the rest of the novelization relates the aftermath of the mission, during which the atronaut's arm, still living as a result of the disease, wreaks havoc across the land and threatens to infect the world.
The first part of the narrative is the strongest, and not just because the narrator, Colonel Jed Richards, manages to buoy the story through the acuity of his observations and the urgency of his style. Implicitly it becomes obvious that Montese Crandall has discovered the virtues of maximalist storytelling, that what he previously regarded as "tedious elaboration" is something for which he has some talent after all. We are as well surely to note that Crandall has made this discovery while "converting" film into fiction, as if it has taken being confronted with the real differences between the visual storytelling of film and the verbal demands (and possibilities) of fiction for Crandall to understand that fiction is language, not its dissolution. If the story Richards tells is finally not cutting-edge science fiction, just a recognizable SF kind of plot well-told, it is well-told, and the "commentary" on the skullduggery of the American government (the disease brought back by Col. Richards is a bacteria the government intended to use for biological warfare) is not so ponderous as to pull the narrative down into the heavier gravity of explicit satire.
The second part of Crandall's novelization does get bogged down, both by overworked devices such as the extended passages related from the point of view of a language-challenged young male whose every other word is "fucking" ("In fact, Vienna had just fucking called him, in that fucking ridiculously fucking sex voice of hers that sounded like a ten-year old on helium") and by more obviously satirical episodes and plot twists. Jed Richards's disembodied arm run amok in the Southwestern desert gives Moody his opportunity to present his dystopian vision of America hollowed out by corporate, political, and technological overreach and on the verge of a mass uprising of the dispossessed. Some of the episodes are funny enough, including those featuring a chimpanzee who through a scientist's experiment becomes aware of his circumstances in an animal research lab and begins to speak with great intelligence and fluency, but they seem mostly pasted together, the novel's maximalism stretched beyond aesthetic coherence.
One could say that the novel focuses at least as much on the physical fragility of living bodies, the way their limitations always act to check our pretensions, as on the political and economic dangers we are facing. In this way, The Four Fingers of Death offers more than the transient satire of Super Sad True Love Story. But both of these books are pretty clearly motivated by a perception that the United States is currently heading in a destructive direction that could perhaps still be avoided if the warnings signalled through the narratives are duly registered. For those reading these novels who aren't already aware that this country faces dangers of the sort they dramatize, such signals may be useful, but for those of us already quite aware of the ominous portents for American culture we can discern all too plainly, the novels' most fundamental reason for existing at best only reinforces what we already know. Finally nothing in either of them allows them to sufficiently transcend their origins in topical satire that we should want to read them beyond their notoriety as works of satire. The Four Fingers of Death is lively enough to pay off the time spent with it, but certainly Super Sad True Love Story holds little purely literary interest. Like most satires of its kind, it is a self-consuming artifact: once it is no longer topical, it will have exhausted its value.