Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad Blueprint for a Post-Literate Future

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It is hard to tell what the relationship between the iPhone and the collapse of America might be, but I'm sure glad that someone is trying to figure it out.

Gary Shteyngart's new book, Super Sad True Love Story, is a story about the reversal of the immigrant dream, the demotion of language in human communication, and the rise of algorithmic perversity, wherein what we desire becomes what we are statistically likely to desire. All of these things are correlated, but causality is fickle and flickering.

Lenny Abramov is our antihero. Chubby, ugly, and balding, Abramov has "a gray, sunken battleship of a face, curious wet eyes, a giant gleaming forehead on which a dozen cavemen could have painted something nice." He falls for a damaged young Korean woman, Eunice Park, who "could not have weighed more than eighty pounds." More improbably, she falls for, or least into, him.

This is all the more shocking because in Shteyngart's near future, your romantic desirability is calculated and broadcast in real-time through an application for your äppärät, a communication device that projects shimmering, manipulable holograms above its surface. 4chan coarseness having permeated society, that rating is reduced to a single score: Fuckability, rated on an 800 point scale like a section of the SAT. [See: Grindr, OKCupid.] Park is practically perfect; Abramov a flawed human.

Shteyngart writes about technology with such ho-hum aplomb that I think he does for technology what magical realists did for the supernatural. With García Márquez, you think, "Oh, the guy sprouted wings? It happens." With Shteyngart, it is, "Everyone communicates through 3D holographic devices that broadcast your fuckability rating? Well, you know how it is... anyone want a beer?"

The action of the book revolves around what happens when the book-reading, slobbery Abramov cohabitates with the postliterate Park. Everyone around them sparks and seethes with their anomalousness, and Shteyngart seems to revel in how he's thrown their perfect statistically valid world into chaos. Meanwhile, the actual world of his book is collapsing: America ruptures into fiefdoms and International Monetary Run lifestyle hubs. The Chinese and Norwegians own everything. Dollars not backed by yuan become worthless.

Unlike many dystopian novels, Super Sad True Love Story doesn't reverberate with a political call to action. Where its bullhorn might be, we find just vintage Soviet despair, an empty bottle that smells a bit fishy, as Koestler would sum it, "a shrug of eternity."

Abramov works for a Halliburton-like conglomerate in their "Post Human" life extension [See: Kurzweil] division but doesn't seem to do anything noteworthy. The main characters "make political decisions that, in the end, meant nothing," as Abramov writes of Milan Kundera's fictive people. Social action seems to get no one anything, except possibly laid or killed. There are various Great Men that stalk the outskirts of the book like Grendel, but politics are largely absent outside a small subplot about a squatter. What matters are a few nonessential people, and what they do is mostly stare into and manipulate screens. They pore over data and information as if finding meaning was best achieved through the process of elimination.




The first thing that Gary does when we walk into a quiet coffeeshop on Valencia Street, San Francisco's hipster thoroughfare, is to take out his iPhone and begin snapping photos of the horrible one-man show posters taped onto its walls. Then, with my own iPhone recording our interaction, I wait as he sends the photos to someone somewhere, mumbles an apology, and sits down.

gary's dog.jpgFor a guy who has just written a tremendous piece of fiction deeply infused with technological criticism, what he has to tell me about technology is nothing that you've never pondered or heard someone say before. Though Gary is funnier than the thoughts in your head or your friends, he's as conflicted and lightly hypocritical as anyone about the iPhone.

Technology has made him less happy, but he still uses it. The artistic output on blogs and the Internet more generally is not up to the standards of Middlesex, he says. It's odd that old people talk about iPhone apps instead of Portnoy's Complaint, etc.

Yet Gary posts dachshund photos to his Facebook page with captions like, "felix is generally considered the smartest dog on earth. but in this picture i can sense the pensiveness in his eyes. global warming, ongoing violence in uzbekistan, the stalemate in congress. it all takes a toll on this sweet, compassionate dachshund." Gary takes photos with his iPhone and sends them to people. Gary texts at the table.

"Like Christ, I am suffering for humanity," he told me. "I did all this research and plugging in for the book. I had very little contact with technology before that. I still have a Yahoo account, that's how old-school I am."

Gary the man can't overcome the allure of the shiny pounded metal objects, even when he wants to.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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