Super Sad Book Review

Disclaimer: I’m not an author, or a critic (although isn’t everyone?)

Gary Shteyngart’s ‘Super Sad True Love Story’ –

I read this one a while back, and I’m currently listening to more podcasts and audiobooks than I am reading physical books – when I get into bed and pick up my book, my brain says, “OK, sleepy time!” and switches off. Finding time to sit and read is tricky.

Read the NYtimes article linked to above for a background to the book. Here are my comments.

I felt a bit stuck in the middle. Despite being 39, approximately the age of male protagonist, I felt like he was much older. Perhaps I don’t fit the uber-literate NYC Old-World-Intellectual type. I do own a corduroy jacket, and when the elbows give out, I will be getting elbow patches, so there’s that. Funnily enough, the jacket is from Uniqlo. Funny, because…

His female counterpart is a young Korean-American, with the classical shame-driven and achievement/marriage obsessed parents (“why you no call? why you no study?”). Her obsession is consumerism, and the shopping channels she constantly browses on her cellphone. In fact, everyone her age has an obsession with the consumer culture created around them (by the previous generation, who now look on in horror as they are superceded).

A couple of word devices the author uses really irritated me. The first is the invention of the word “äppärät”, referring to the ubiquitous smartphones that everyone carries (at least anyone “in the know”). It’s a clumsy term, and a very unlikely one. In my experience, people don’t come up with something like that when describing something everyone has or does. People usually tend to abbreviate, saying, “Call me on my cell“, “Text me”, “I’ve got this great picture I took with my phone“. In the UK people say “my mobile”. In Germany they say “mein Handy”. I’ve read science fiction where everyone carries a “pad” or a “terminal”. There’s no need to be so florid (or unpronounceable), and it has the air of either desperation or a kind of me-too appropriation of established SF tropes. “Real” literature often does this, I find. They dip into the SF/Fantasy idea pool, pluck something juicy out, and get plaudits for being so inventive. This paragraph is a bit accusatory, and I don’t mean it to be – I’ve just noticed this. A “literary” author writes a genre book – SF or fantasy for example. Genre fans think it’s a weak example of the genre, but literary fans think it’s too out there. Does this happen a lot?

The other irritating wordplay is the InterCapping or CamelCase of all the corporation names, and how they’re amusing and unlikely, such as LandO’LakesGMFordCredit, ConAgraWholeFoodsLockheedMartin, WeylandYutani or whatever. That said, it’s not as bad as the cyberpunk overdrive of Jon Courtenay Grimwood, where everyone is on speed and smells of blood, nanobots and gunpowder, and carries a SmiWess sentient revolver (I made that up).

With the Occupy Wall Street protests going on now, it’s interesting to think of the parallels with this book. Some characters in the book are involved in helping encampments of people in Central Park, made homeless by the US dollar falling to the yuan. These are broken up using “semi-lethal” force, and it’s hard to watch the same thing happening now in the city where I live.

Good book, but I think I fall through a couple of gaps – the age/generation gap, and the genre/literary gap.