Book Review: Super Sad True Love Story

I first encountered Gary Shteyngart’s horrifyingly funny America in the not-to-distant-future in the New Yorker’s 2010 annual fiction edition. “Lenny Hearts Eunice” (I think it was called that, and I’m too lazy to look it up) was an excerpt of the remarkable novel that’s resting just to the left of my Mac, tilted for convenient cover-reference. Though jealousy and demographics cut through my adoration of Super Sad True Love Story, I’m going to give a wholehearted “Buy” recommendation. If you don’t see our sad, battered land in Shteyngart’s America, then your perceptions are so very different from mine that I suspect you are not merely deluded, but perhaps an alien of the science fiction sort, brought here to snap up our devalued assets.

First the good. Before I took my M.A. and moved off into the happy land of philosophical concepts of rape, I spent a brief spell writing on corporate culture in late 20th Century dystopian fiction. I dutifully Thomas Pynchon, and took on Martin Amis and Will Self with real enjoyment. If doubts remain about my ability to write a substantial work of criticism on a novel that warrants, at best, tepid approval, I can still steer skpetics to my M.A. thesis on Don DeLillo’s The Names. (“Substantial” may be the wrong word here. I’ve always been one for brevity in critical work, and my thesis set new records for anorectic length — a paper on Madonna that one of my cohort submitted that year was precisely three times as long. Come on, though — you can’t tell me that late-career Europeans educated at Oxford and Konstanz sit down to a 75-page effusion on an American pop star with anything other than clenched jaws and held noses. Damn blogs for lacking footnotes! This so clearly is one.) So while I admit to vast shoals of ignorance about contemporary fiction, I do know something about the tide pool Shteyngart wades in. And he’s easily the best going.

First, last and always — damn him — he’s a master of his craft. The novel is a blend of diary and epistolary, and he’s hit off each of his characters beautifully. When he writes in the voices of the less-literate, he captures their pathos without sinking into the monotony that plagues your average student paper or Facebook blathering. The novel’s core, the diary of the bookish Lenny Abramov, is charming, funny, original, sad, and deeply infused with the history that his younger characters hate and fear.

The surface of his prose is just part of the picture, though. Super Sad True Love Story is beautifully structured — the epistolary form is integral to the book’s functioning — and plotted. Like his beloved Kundera, Shteyngart depicts love, death and war; like Kundera, Shteyngart avoids cheap resolution and irritating ambiguity. Rather. like most of us, his characters reach a series of contradictory epiphanies, and are alternately vindicated and punished by events. Amazing. Subtle. And very, very funny.

There’s so much to admire here that my criticism really must result from irreconcilable differences. His portrayal of middle-aged male angst moved me — a tough assignment, since “pathetic older man finds love and redemption with an innocent younger woman” is at best a crowded genre. And here’s where demographics interfered with my enjoyment. As a middle-aged woman — one who redeemed her share of jaded older men during her 20s and 30s — I do find it hard to take that women my age appear in Shteyngart’s world as bitter, sexless harridans. As much as Shteyngart lampoons a culture that values women entirely for their “fuckability,” the entire structure and subject of his novel adds to a voluminous literature that worships dewy feminine youth and asks the reader to identify with the solid, lovable guys who who want to bang and protect what innocence they can command with their receding hairlines and shrinking bank accounts. That’s depressing. At the same time, I suppose that leaves an opening for my rejoinder to Super Sad True Love Story written from the point of view of an educated, sexy femme d’une certain age.

Enough. Go buy it. It’s good.

The book’s website is here, incidentally.

Love to all.


I Hate the 20th Century: Email Hack Edition

Here's the Archbishop Cranmer being burned at the stake in 1556. He seems to be taking it pretty well, all told.
During the Elizabethan era, the state executed unfortunates who were convicted of treason as follows:

1. Half-hanging (which I believe is an erotic practice in these degenerate times);

2. Disembowlment while conscious (not, to my knowledge, an erotic practice);

3. Burning at the stake.

If your friends felt sorry for you, they would pay to have a bag of gunpowder hung around your neck for the last step; it would decapitate you relatively painlessly as soon as the flames reached it.

An inventive bunch, the Elizabethans. But nothing they could dream up is too harsh for the jerk-off who hacked my email yesterday, thereby inconveniencing me at the end of an exhausting day of PowerPoint-driven meetings.

Speaking of the death penalty, when I am named dictator, I must dream up and enforce a grisly punishment for people who utter any variant of the following during a PowerPoint presentation: “I’m not going to read this whole chart to you….” To which I say, “No? Well bless you, since the wretched thing is written in single-spaced six-point type.”

Final note on the history of capital punishment: For the Elizabethans, murdering your husband was punished as treason, since, after all, your husband was your lord and master for legal purposes. I believe that murdering your wife drew a fleeting frown of disapproval from the bench before the court moved on to more serious matters, like sheep-rustling.

Final note generally: I’ll be cutting back to two sessions a week for my intensive outpatient program, so I should be able to creep back into this space.

A Great Phrase from The Happiness Project

I love Gretchen Rubin’s name for technology: the cubicle in your pocket. So true. I’ve detailed here how I’ve been trying to use technology strategically. When I have the luxury of limiting online time, I enjoy myself immensely. I find, however, that most days I simply have to mow through a lot of work that I necessarily accomplish at my terminal. Also, if I’m depressed I don’t care what I stare at blankly — a computer screen is as good as anything else. Despite these issues, I’m committed to using technology more selectively.

Speaking of which, I simply must get off. I’m bored of my hunching-over-my-laptop sore back, and am ready for a revitalizing-my-yoga-practice sore back.

Two more quick notes: What with one thing and another, I’ve been connecting more with people at work. I had lunch with my friend Robin (the surreptitious progressive) and with a colleague from my company’s association for disabled people, and arranged to have tea on Sunday with my two favorite data managers. I even hung out with some of the cool IT folk while they did a weekly audit of a couple of laptops that I hold. I’m even in the beginning stages of a crush on one of the software engineers (I haven’t looked at his left ring finger yet — he probably has two wives and 10 kids). So, yeah, more in-person contact, less on-screen living.

My Intensive Outpatient Program has been a remarkable success. I find myself oddly reluctant to find happiness, however. On some level I feel that if I get better now, I have to feel guilty and responsible for not having done so sooner. Ugh.

A final note: my sister will be in town next week with my niece and nephew in tow. Yay! I love them so.

An Excellent Suicide Prevention Resource, Plus Whimsical Notes from a Happy Mind

Praying Mantis
Like praying mantises, academics eat their own.
After reading Susan’s latest post to If You’re Going Through Hell Keep Going, I paged down to find the links that she recommends for depressed people who are considering suicide. That’s how I stumbled on Suicide: Read This First. This excellent resource considers the following idea: “Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.” I’d never heard that formulation before, and I think it’s brilliant. The best way to avoid suicide is not to strive fruitlessly to cheer up, but rather to increase one’s resources until they outweigh the pain.

And speaking of resources, I’ve finally taken concrete steps to replace my psychiatrist. I have appointments today and early next week to give two new shrinks a try. I’ve wanted to do this for months, but have had no idea how to go about finding a doctor who shows up on time for appointments and reads the package inserts before giving me sample medications. For once it only took one call to set things in motion — I just got in touch with the Employee Assistance Program counselor for my company. I’ve used our concierge service to find cat sitters and an accountant, but I’ve always felt obscurely that I couldn’t hope to get help with a nasty task like hiring a shrink. After an hour-long appointment I felt such renewed hope that I sent the counselor flowers. It was that good.

In fact, yesterday was one of my few normal days. Halfway through my work day I thought, “Hey, it’s not so terrible to be here!” When I’m depressed I carry my misery everywhere; when I’m normal I’m capable of enjoying the challenges and rewards of both my private and work lives.

I found Jonathan Meade’s latest post to Illuminated Mind provocative. I was all ready to get riled after reading the headline: “Choose Not to Fail.” As it turns out, he makes a valuable point. All too often, we decide to try to do something rather than to succeed at it. When you choose to succeed, you’re almost unstoppable; when you merely try, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

I’ve experienced the power of choosing not to fail in my own life. I started grad school with a couple of material disadvantages compared to the other members of my cohort, all of whom hailed from Ivy League universities, and many of whom already had an M.A. (They almost certainly had better grades coming in to grad school, too, since in many ways I’m an indifferent student.) When the director of our three related programs addressed us, his remarks reminded me of an old Far Side cartoon in which an adult praying mantis tells a crowd of hatchlings, “Of course, most of you will be eaten.” Right then and there I swore that I was going to kick ass, take names, and come out with a doctorate. I thought, If nothing else, I’ll live the life of the mind for several years. Almost a decade later I was the first of a dozen little mantises to graduate.

Now, you may object, “Sure, you got your degree, but it was a perverse thing to do.” Well, yes, my goal could have been better chosen, and I now routinely encourage the occasional Ph.D. candidates I meet to drop out before it’s too late. I am proud that I succeeded against rotten odds, though, and even though my education hasn’t proven practical, having it has illuminated my mind beyond measure. To give a simple example, when I walk through a museum, I recognize the various gods, heroes and saints that paintings portray. Having a nodding acquaintance with the Western tradition has animated philosophy, literature, and history for me. I didn’t stay in the field, but I did get what I wanted out of my academic career.

I can think of one other possible objection. Getting my degree was a bloody struggle — when I think back, I marvel at the death-defying feats it required. At the same time, I’m pretty sure I was never fated to coast along happily. The Furies probably would have chased me down any path I chose.

Even a moderate helping of education brings a certain amount of indigestion, of course. This brings me back to the reckless deployment of “whom” that I described yesterday. It’s occurred to me since that we ought to have a sort of national licensing board for pronouns, a United States version of the Academie francaise. No more “Her and I went to the bank,” or “She’s the friend that I love the most.” I’m thinking that the Pronoun Control Board would issue licenses in a tiered system, much as the Motor Vehicle Department allows you to apply to drive anything from a common car to a big rig. Most people outside of New York and San Francisco have to pass a driving test; we should approach learning to write with the same seriousness.

Of course, creating such a board would have its own perils. Whoever first acts as “They” would almost certainly pack the board with pretentious conservatives like William Bennett, and we’d end up like the French, who still have no feminine-gender nouns for many professions.

Perhaps it would be better to settle for a less ambitious scheme.

Sea Monkeys
Sea Monkeys may be a promising corporate morale-booster.
Mandatory desk-side cultivation of either Magic Rocks or Sea Monkeys might exercise a similar civilizing influence.

There you have it, folks.