Shteyngart is a youngish (ok, roughly my age) Jewish-American author. He was born in Leningrad, now thankfully returned to its historical name of Saint Petersburg, and immigrated to the United States as a child. I decided to add this book to my list because of previous experience with a few articles by Shteyngart from Slate and The New York Times, a review of the book, and my wife’s description of another of his novels, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, which she described as really bizarre.
This book is apparently much darker than his others, and dark it is indeed - particularly the last third of the book. It also contains a constant battering of sexual references, and a few (thankfully) brief and thoroughly unsexy sex scenes. I do have to say, though, that this is an important component to this book.
Lenny Abramov, who is probably a stand-in for the author in many ways, is a middle aged Jewish man, with parents from the old country. He falls in love with a much younger Korean-American girl (she is too immature to be called a woman), Eunice Park, and the “super sad” doomed love story begins. Along with this romance goes the rapid decline and failure of the United States, which is pictured in an alternate, yet familiar, scenario. Headed by a single “Bipartisan” political party dominated by a Dick Cheney-like figure, we have invaded Venezuela. Our national debt is so problematic that China eventually cuts us off, leading to chaos. So far, this is a bit of a typical left-leaning dystopic vision of the future, although to his credit, Shteyngart generally avoids making his point about left or right. Everything and everyone is in decline, and the government is fixated on eliminating dissent while promoting consumerism.
The culture in this parallel universe is also a discomforting parody of our own. In what I consider the strongest feature of the novel, the author takes our most annoying modern trends and takes them to the logical extreme. Everyone communicates primarily through devices called an “äppärät,” kind of an all encompassing Facebook/smartphone combination that streams constant information about everyone within view. Through it, one can find out everything about another person from their bank balances to their medical histories. Users are constantly rating others in the room on their “hotness” (I cleaned that one up a bit) and “personality.” The uses are so attached to these devices that some commit suicide afte the network goes down for a long period. Between the äppäräti and the network that is an obvious Facebook analogue, everyone is completely exposed to everyone else - except in any way that actually matters. The concept of a real personal relationship is lost on pretty much everyone except Lenny. Perhaps worst of all from Lenny’s point of view is that books are looked on as dirty relics. Nobody reads, even online. Words are used to convey a minimum of necessary information, but nothing of depth.
Shteyngart’s choice of name for his ubiquitous device is brilliant. The original Latin word that became our “apparatus” also drifted into Russian to become the unforgettable “apparatchik,” the term for a Communist Party functionary. The man who was a tool of the apparatus, so to speak. James Billington (our current Congressional Librarian, by the way) once described the apparatchik as “a man not of grand plans, but of a hundred carefully executed details.” The little widget that functions as a cog in the global information link thus shares the root word for both its functions.
In addition to the oversharing and obsession with image, youth, and materialism, the fictional culture is casually sex-drenched. This is perhaps the hyperbolic end result of Juicy Couture and sexual marketing. Everything - and I do mean everything - has a name that is somehow sexual, at least by innuendo. One of the more mild ones is the nightclub named the Cervix. The actual personal interactions (called “verbals,” to distinguish them from online interactions, which are the norm) consist primarily of vulgarity, innuendo completely divorced from any possible meaning or application to the situation, and absurd racial epithets. (Old Jewish guys calling each other “My NEE-gro!”) Unsurprisingly, this leads to everything be decidedly non-sexy. Shteyngart deliberately makes all of the actual sex, which is fortunately brief and not particularly graphic compared to everything else, seriously icky. Completely the opposite of a turn-on.
As I noted above, this is why the relentless, bludgeoning vulgarity is crucial to the point. Shteyngart has pushed the worst of our sex-saturated, consumer focused, and image worshiping culture far past any boundary of good taste, revealing its true emptiness.
As if this emptiness wasn’t enough, the author adds another bleak layer. Lenny works for a company that, in addition to eventually ruling the world, sells life-extension technologies to the ultra-wealthy. The book is permeated with Lenny’s fear of death, and the tantalizing promise of immortality-on-earth. For a large price, of course. Lenny must sell the dream for a living, all while realizing he is not quite wealthy enough to afford it himself.
In my opinion, this is one of the book’s big weaknesses, though. Shteyngart is great at describing the disease, but he has no cure. There is really no relief from the constant depression, there is no real resolution, and the book just kind of ends after the calamity. I know, plenty of books share this pessimism, and many offer no hope. Somehow, though, I felt like there was nothing left worth liking or loving when he was done. Lenny may have learned something, but nothing that would actually benefit him in the future. I felt like there could have been something there, but there wasn’t. It just faded into nothingness, like Lenny’s life eventually would. Perhaps that is what the author intended.
The other weakness that bothered me was one that I also found in a (rather less serious) modern dystopia, The Eyre Affair: the book has a number of incidents and people that seem important at the beginning, but then just disappear, and nothing ever comes of them. It’s like the author started off with one plot, switched to another, but left a few characters and scenes from the old plot. In this book, several characters appear in the beginning, and are lavished with enough attention that the reader thinks they may be relevant later. Even worse than the original disappearance, they briefly reappear near the end only to be summarily whacked, with no explanation as to why. I realize that Lenny has no idea either, but it seems that the author might at least let us in on the secret. Otherwise, they just take up space without really contributing. In The Eyre Affair, there is at least the hope of a sequel that might tie up a few ends, but this book is clearly meant to stand alone.
A few other notes on the book. The format isn’t exactly original, but it does serve the plot well. The story is mostly told through Lenny’s diaries, but between chapters are brief “transcripts” from Eunice’s online interactions with her mother, sister, friend, and a few others. In comparison with Lenny’s self-reflective and rather literary musings, Eunice’s interactions are almost devoid of any emotion or personality. She kind of cares about her friends and family, but never gets past the surface. Her feelings are never allowed to show, which makes her a rather unsympathetic character. One wonders if Lenny just wants to fix her.
What Shteyngart does best in this book is observe and mock the ills of our society. Even the little things. His description of Orange County as viewed from a satellite is superb:
I zoomed in on a series of crimson-tiled haciendas to the south of Los Angeles, rows and rows of three-thousand-square-foot rectangles, their only aerial features the tiny silver squiggles that denoted rooftop central air conditioning. These units all bowed to the semicircle of a turquoise pool guarded by the gray halos of two down-on-their-luck palm trees, the development’s only flora.
I once turned off the freeway in Irvine while on the way to San Diego to stretch the legs of my then very small children. We found a random park. Good lord! The identical new mini-vans, the thousand dollar strollers, everyone wearing the same designer yoga pants. I imagine everyone had matching Dyson vacuums and stupid dogs with sweaters too. I still get the shivers.
I also liked his description of a dive restaurant, “this spicy Sri Lankan joint, where for nine bucks you could eat an insane shrimp pancake and some kind of ethereal red fish while baby roaches tried to clamber up your trousers and drink your beer.”
This is all good fun, but Shteyngart is deadly when he takes on religion. Eunice’s parents are ultra-traditional Korean Christians, he of the abusive kind. Her mom puts up with it, because the famous and popular Reverend Cho “read to us Scripture which say woman is second to man. He say man is head and woman is arm or leg.” Do not get me started on the preachers within the modern Patriarchy movement - and even in more mainstream Christianity these days - which say that a woman should stay and take physical abuse with submission. Unless you want an extended rant. Shteyngart is also far too accurate in his description of Reverend Cho’s rallies, with the combination of traditionally dressed young women, hackneyed pseudo-classical music (surely the reference to a Mahler violin concerto is as ludicrous to the author as it is to anyone who actually knows anything about Mahler), and lots of stuff to buy. I am curious as to when Shteyngart attended one of these. Did he merely watch TBN, or did he suffer through a crusade or two? Either way, he is uncomfortably close to the mark.
Clearly, Shteyngart is opposed to religion, and Lenny himself wishes to convert the faithful, deluded masses, as he sees them. But Lenny is still faced with the quandary. He wants to live forever, particularly if he can love Eunice. But he also is haunted by his therapist’s question, “Why do you think you would be happier could live forever?” As Tolkien put it, mortality is the gift given to man: to die before one wearied of life. Lenny wearies of life, and eventually accepts, perhaps embraces, the idea of his death. And thus the book ends with the words “silence, black and complete.” The solution for the fear of death is to loathe life enough to be ready to end it. I’m not convinced this is a particularly good alternative to the Dylan Thomas approach. (“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”) Either way, the world is without hope.
I can’t say I recommend reading this book unless you are willing to suffer through the sexual bludgeoning or the vortex of hopelessness. However, it does serve a necessary purpose by rendering naked, so to speak, the emptiness that occupies the center much of our society. It is only through that recognition that we are able to raise our eyes and look for something and someone higher than ourselves.
Gary Shteyngart. Picture by Mark Coggins. Used pursuant to the Creative Commons Attribution License.