Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad Blueprint for a Post-Literate Future
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.
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.
The Village Voice may have called Super Sad True Love Story "the finest piece of anti-iPhone propaganda ever written," but its deepest criticism is reserved for streaming, not gadget lust. When Lenny meets up with his old college pals, one has gone Media, which means that he broadcasts his entire life [See iJustine]. Narrating everything like a radio shock-jock, the friend cuts off Lenny, as he tries to describe a Roman arch, and asks, "All right, here's the situation Nee-gro. You have to fuck either Mother Theresa or Margaret Thatcher..."
Streams -- on AM radio, CNN, Ustream, or some future platform -- are products of seconds; they reflect the passions and occupations of a moment. Perhaps valuable in their own way, necessary for some things, but deeply attached to an instant. Streams say, "This is." They rarely have time to ask, "Why is this?" And they never seem to have time to answer that question.
Books are objects defined by how much time it takes to craft them -- and to consume them. They cannot be taken in at a glance. They are the distillation of many moments and states of consciousness for writer and reader alike. They slow us down and hold us steady. Books are technologies, too, and if we look at them that way, we should be amazed at how "sticky" they are, despite their lack of social media integration and bulkiness. As things, they have endured for hundreds of years while the rest of our technological society changed around them. We measure technologies by the maxim, "Does it work?" Books have worked.
The stream destroys what is most precious about a literate population: the ability to briefly stand alone outside time and social relations, to have an inner life. Berkeley historian Thomas Laqueur has persuasively argued that it was the rise of books that created pervasive societal interest in and fear of masturbation, the ultimate private pleasure, the "solitary vice." Masturbation, as we know it, began in 1712, he famously argued, and it was inextricably bound to reading (or to print literacy, we might say).
The slowness of books, the habits of mind they build, Shteyngart suggests, may be a key to knowing what it's like to be inside oneself, not part of the crowd or the audience or Twitterverse. "Reading is difficult," Lenny says to Eunice. "People just aren't meant to read anymore. We're in a post-literate age. You know, a visual age."
At the book's emotional climax, as Abramov's college friend -- the Media guy -- dies on a ferry in a government helicopter strike, we finally read the eternal question and beneath it, white, nonstreaming.
"I haven't been to San Francisco for a year or so. In that time, I've become more and more in tune with my iPhone, so much so, that I'm not even looking at anything anymore," Gary told me. "Things are pinging on my phone. I'm looking at it. I could cross from Valencia to the Castro without any change in emotion. That's just not right."
"So why not get rid of it?" I asked.
"I know. Why not?" he said.
He, like all writers, is a small businessman. The phone helps him stay in touch. The iPhone makes it easier to receive pictures of his dogs while he's on his book tour.
We all have a million reasons for why we don't use the gadget and stream for what they are good for, and then put them away sometimes to take a walk or read a book. Instead we reload, reload, reload. Refresh!
But maybe we shouldn't be so surprised. In literature, doing self-destructive things, hurting yourself, and loving that which you should not, are par for the course.
It is only in the bizarre world of technological analysis that we believe that people always do what is best for themselves. We are told consumers buy iPhones and Droids and Kindles for definable reasons that make sense. But maybe they don't. What people love and do is not usually the personal, romantic, or technological equivalent of kale for dinner and a high savings rate.
Perhaps, I suggested we just need people to figure out how to socially regulate themselves, to use technology better. But Gary disagrees. The technology adapts faster than we can evolve.
"We create technology. We send it up into the ether. It multiplies and then it takes us over," he said.
"This is all happening too fast. I can't adjust as a human being to what's required of me digitally. The analog part of me is like grains of sand: it's all slipping away."
Gary the man is perhaps the best argument for his book. He is hilarious and true, but he can't deliver us something that transcends our moment in real-time. The Gary Shteyngart Show might be shticky or interesting or smart, but it would not be Super Sad True Love Story.