“Only connect,” E.M. Forster famously wrote, and the poor characters in Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart’s third novel, are incapable of doing just that. The novel is set sometime in the future, when all the HNWI (High Net Worth Individuals) have handheld devices called äppäräts that, among other things, allow you to “FAC” other people. FAC stands for “Form A Community.” As one character describes it, “It’s, like, a way to judge people. And let them judge you.” Pointing one’s äppärät at another person allows you to rate them across multiple categories: PERSONALITY, HOTNESS and SUSTAINABILITY, for example. One’s own äppärät contains — and projects — personal information, from address, age and income to physical ailments, sexual preferences and recently purchased items.
When Lenny Abramov, whose diary entries compose the bulk of Super Sad True Love Story, pulls up his äppärät profile, his friends chastise him for his recent purchases, all “bound, printed, non-streaming Media artifacts.” Books, in other words. “You’ve got to stop buying books,” one of Lenny’s friends tell him. “All those doorstops are going to drag down your PERSONALITY rankings.” Likewise, Lenny’s boss in the Post-Human Services department of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation advises him, “These books, they are the problem. You have to stop thinking and start selling.” When Lenny pulls out a book on an airplane, a fellow passenger complains, “Duder, that thing smells like wet socks.”
The irony of all this — and ironies abound throughout the novel — is that Lenny wants to live forever. The very first line of the book is, “Dearest Diary, Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die.” And yet not only is Lenny a very viable candidate for death — he’s solidly in middle age, with thinning hair and high cholesterol — he is clearly not made for a post-literate world of äppäräts and FACing and onionskin jeans (which are transparent and leave nothing to the imagination). Lenny is an old soul, and he’s also a lonely one. When he meets Eunice Park, a young, sarcastic girl from a dysfunctional family, he promptly falls in love with her. Even stranger is that Eunice begins to fall in love with him.
This May-December romance forms the crux of the novel — the chapters alternate between Lenny’s diary entries and IM/e-mail correspondences from Eunice — and though there is a charming and consistently funny interplay between the two, it is never, alas, very believable. Eunice fails to emerge as a compelling character, and her letters to friends and family are vapid and superficial — texts from last night. When an event called the Rupture takes place (the United States is invaded by China), everyone loses the ability to connect on their äppäräts. Eunice tries to turn hers on but is stuck on “the last shopping page stored in its memory before communications collapsed. … ‘I can’t buy anything,’ she said.” It’s a comment on our culture’s rampant materialism at the expense of the wrong character; though she matures toward the novel’s end, Eunice’s final choice undermines the progress she’s made. It tries to fulfill the Super Sad part at the expense of the Love Story part. Ultimately, neither get there.
The catastrophic events that unfold around Lenny and Eunice’s romance — some critics have compared the book to 1984; throughout the novel characters cross security checkpoints with signs that say, “By reading this message you are denying its existence and implying consent” — are chilling and disturbing in the same way they are often obvious and absurd. Satire is no walk in the park, and Shteyngart deserves credit for his verbal acrobatics and winning humor. (A national security otter in a cowboy hat is the funniest running gag in the book.) But the failure of his characters is also his own: The novel ultimately doesn’t connect. For all its occasional brilliance — and there are stand alone passages which are fantastic — Super Sad True Love Story succeeds at many things but not the one it most purports to be: a love story.