Super Sad True Love Story

book by Gary Schteyngart

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have to admit that the book trailer for this book got me reading it before I really knew what it was about. It had buzzed on my apparat with its bright shiny polkadots and celebrity studded preview and–I didn’t know then–caught me with the very technology it was lampooning. Gary Schteyngart’s act in the trailer of being a better writer by not reading is echoed in the book; our hero, Lenny is such an antique for reading books that he has to keep them sealed in plastic bags for fear their smell will offend.

Schteyngart has taken the realm of social media, capitalism, and current politics and pushed them into a new future in this astonishing work of speculative fiction that gives a grandiose portrayal of the world, culture, politics and the future, threaded together on a very humanly fragile and beautiful love story.

It took me awhile to realize how careful Schteyngart’s work was. As I started the novel, I put little faith in the bells and whistles of format immediately incorporated into the text. Schteyngart gives us the story in several kinds of correspondence, Lenny’s writings in his diary, Eunice’s correspondence with her best friend, sister and mother, and, intermittently throughout, correspondence from other characters.

We open with Lenny Abramov in Italy and we are given the new US in brief glimpses of embassy security and through Lenny’s observations of credit, cholesterol and people’s apparati (updated miniaturized versions of an iPhone), we are given a sketchy portrait of the future. This device of geographical distance gives us a slow, careful entry into the chaotic world of the book, which is futuristic Manhattan. It is in the comparatively quiet Italy that Lenny meets Eunice, his soon to be love. Schteyngart gives us all of the awkward uncertainty of a stumbled-upon relationship as Lenny falls hard for Eunice, goes down on Eunice and Eunice goes back to her life. Circumstances and aquickly shifting society throw the two together again in New York, just in time for the fiscal and governmental apocalypse for the country.

Schteyngart presents the cruel truths about the US blown up into exaggerated size: our dollars are yuan-pegged as the US is in debt to a number of countries, social media rules, as does youth. Corporations run everything. People constantly analyze each other a sum of data, their credit, health, youth and media exposure culminate in a volatile “fuckability rating” and the most coveted jobs in the country are in retail. Those with poor credit are shipped elsewhere or move to a swiftly growing shantytown in Central Park. The portrait of our future is chilling, as it is right on target.

The key at the heart of this book, against the swirling dystopian-real background, is Lenny and Eunice’s relationship. Schteyngart is able to fully create these characters in their own words through their various correspondences. Despite the chaos going on around them, despite their denial and various distractions (Lenny worries about his job and his parents, Eunice worries about her parents and the freedom movement in the park), there is no doubt that these two love each other in a fierce, extremely awkward and human fashion. Schteyngart gives us love with all of its dysfunction, misgivings and sexual patterns. He has a knack for making the different ways that characters have sex say a great deal about their relationship. The sex scenes are tender and as revealing as the dialogue.

Schteyngart also portrays the psychological complexities of a relationship—of loving someone while thinking about how that affair appears to others and how that love changes with circumstances. We see the machinations of the crumbling world, financial circumstances and of the evil self-indulgent empire entrepreneur Joshie working against our loving couple, bringing them to the inevitable end that the title implies.

Schteyngart pits different points of view against each other throughout this relationship, which is what makes it so dynamic. At first Eunice feels sorry for Lenny, while Lenny is head over heels in love. Then, we find out that Eunice is truly falling for Lenny in a way that is deeper than he may know. While he sees her face, always bent over her apparat, we get to see the text which she is typing in, which creates a much more elaborate and complex character to Eunice than Lenny’s POV can provide. We see the pressure her family is putting on her. The juxtaposition of these disparate points of view is at its most vibrant when Lenny meets Eunice’s parents. He thinks everything is going fine, down to his outfit, but with her parents talking in Korean, he can’t tell. Eunice lets us in on the fact that things are going terribly, his approach is all wrong—as is his outfit. Lenny feels that Eunice disapproves of the meeting, but Eunice lets her friend know that she is charmed by how hard Lenny tried. In this delicate dance of two, three and five page entries, Shteyngart artfully creates one scene with layers of tension culminating in our first solid realization that Eunice really loves Lenny, not in spite of his faults, but because of them. As a student and writer of love stories, I was blown away by the craft at work to accomplish this.

Schteyngart is very clever at creating a thrumming of social paranoia through the constant apparat analysis, the credit poles on street corners that project passersby credit so consistently that if they are caught with bad credit, they are sent away, and the constant analysis by actual humans of the details being supplied by the apparati. There is no privacy whatsoever, every detail is exposed. Lenny goes to see his friends after getting home from a year in Italy and finds that they are FACing each other(”Form a Community”). They all hold up their apparati and observe the various details of their personality, including preferred sexual positions and fuckability rating of everyone in the room. Girls approach them, run their apparati and make assessments. This entire privacy-stripping moment, is of course, broadcasted live on Lenny’s best friend’s podcast. We see Lenny, humanity stripped bare, broken down to the sum of his numbers and in one very funny scene, Schteyngart criticizes Facebook, Texting, Sharing, Commenting and medical privacy—this is the beauty of speculative fiction. But beyond its genre, this scene created a lovely scene of a half dozen personalities, wants, needs, motivations in a room bumping up against each other and creating friction. I fully intend to use this to amp up a scene of a group of old friends meeting a new girlfriend in the novel I’m working on now.

I’ve been working on single scenes and different points of view playing off each other, but Schteyngart is a study in the full potential that can be reached in this fashion. The different formats of these points of view (texting, emails, diaries) may allow for a more dynamic interplay than I am allowed with standard literary format, but it makes me think that maybe some shortening of sections as things heat up might make a single climactic scene more interesting. Right now I have a lot of established points of view coming into one room for the climax. It will be interesting to see how they juxtapose. I may need to write the entire event from each character’s point of view and then trim them down to make them one scene. Schteyngart made that kind of thinking possible for me.

Schteyngart departs from our story, as things come to a close for Lenny and Eunice and then takes us years later, when we are told that the edited correspondence we had just read was published in book form and became a pop-culture hit. I was uneasy with this ending, when our story had concluded so super sadly and in a really lovely way, but it made sense to the overall format of the book. The final ending takes place in Italy where we began. Lenny is living incognito and listens to people discuss this book (which we just read). This ending bumps up the speculative angle of the story, giving us perspective and calm. I am still on the fence about detached endings and will take them on a case by case basis–I am more a fan of an ending that comes right after the climax, and leaves the reader to come to her own conclusion. Having just closed a book with the latter, I may be closing this next book with the former.

This book had so much going on, but it was the human love story at its center that pulled it all together. Proof that, no matter how elaborate a backdrop and how complex the format, a central human story of character is what holds good fiction together. It was also proof that reading outside your genre can still yield valuable information for your own writing.

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The Time Machine

book by H.G. Wells

annotation by Philip Barragán

In his first novella, Wells introduces the reader to a time machine capable of carrying the passenger to the distant past or future. The Time Machine: An Invention is a premier speculative fiction novella that examines human nature and evolution of the human species through the unnamed protagonist, the Time Traveler.

In the story, the Time Traveler travels to the future in the year 798,000 where he encounters two species of human beings; the Eloi and the Morlocks. One species, a simple minded childlike people live above ground playing in the sun while their counterparts, the Morlocks, live underground while making the clothes and providing food for them by leaving it on the tables of the Eloi in the middle of the night. Additionally, the Morlocks use the Eloi as their cattle and their food source.

Many literary critics have viewed the two species as a representation of English society; the lower class and the upper class. Others have viewed the story as a commentary on technology from a Victorian frame of reference. And yet others view the novel as one of the premier Steampunk novels, a genre that embraces the concept and value of steam-powered machinery versus electronic machinery.

Wells has described the novel as an “undergraduate” level work in his commentary on his younger writing. However, the novel stands on its own merit. The language is smart and inviting while the dialogue is realistic and engaging. The descriptions are lush yet not overdone providing the reader with a vivid picture of his futuristic world. And the plot is interesting and surprising without being trite or preachy.

As a writer, I felt inspired by The Time Machine. As an example of the truth in fiction, it can be read on many levels. In the middle of the story, I looked-up from the pages and realized Wells was telling me things about his thoughts about humanity, whispering in my ear about his hopes, fears and hope (or lack thereof) for humanity.

Speculative fiction often portrays the worst case scenario that an author can possibly imagine. It makes the point, even for those who need to be pounded on the head a few times. Do you get it? Don’t you get it yet? And whether it’s subtle or on the nose, Spec Fic takes us down that path of asking “what if.” And maybe all fiction asks that question from a storyteller’s point of view. But in the worlds of Spec Fic, the canvas allows the writer to stretch his imagination and use broad, deep strokes; sometimes out of this world and out of this time, but the genre can handle it.

The Time Machine: An Invention is a worthwhile read that borders on the boundary of science fiction and speculative fiction. It is a brief read that packs a lot of story into a mere one hundred pages while giving the reader a lot to think about. Even after one hundred years, The Time Machine: An Invention holds its own among many stories that have tried to capture the essence of H.G. Wells first novella.

The Brothers Karamazov

book by Fyodor Dostoevsky

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

I am, generally speaking, a cheerful and uncritical reader. I don’t know if this stems from my childhood where I, without complaint, read my mother, father, and six siblings’ cast-off books or whether it stemmed from an early knowledge that writing books is hard work. My childhood was salted with books like Devil’s Desire by Laurie McBain and the Flowers in the Attic series and anything by Stephen King I could get my hands on. But my childhood was also peppered with books like the Gone with the Wind, Lonesome Dove, To Kill a Mockingbird, Wuthering Heights, and the poems of Robert Frost. The only book I remember actively disliking as a teen was Suffer the Children by John Saul. It was a blood-soaked mess which culminated, if I recall correctly, in a girl child walking across a field carrying a severed arm.

I say all of this in preface to my annotation of The Brothers Karamazov because the classics are not something that I’m inclined to pick up. They are the cruciferous vegetables of my reading. I know they are good for me, but I enjoy my contemporaries more with all their chocolate-y goodness. I will devour a Margaret Atwood in hours or a brief day or two. Anna Karenina took me almost a month of whittling away on it, an hour or two at a time.

I began reading The Brothers Karamazov of my own free will in December. (I’m out of graduate school so no one can make me read anything hahahaha!) It was the end of February when I finished. I completed and read other books while I was reading it but about five times a week, I spent an hour or two reading it and sometimes I was so absorbed, I would spend a bit longer. The Brothers Karamazov came onto my bucket list because I very much enjoyed The Brothers K by David James Duncan and I suspected Duncan had used the same structure and other parallels of the classic, but didn’t know what they were, since I had never read it.

The purpose of an annotation is supposed to be things you can steal from other authors that you can use in your own writing. But I have also used my annotations to help me become a more critical reader because I tend to be so happy-go-lucky about my reading. “Well, I can tell they tried very hard here, even if it didn’t work.”

The Brothers Karamazov is a huge sprawling work (between 650 and 800 pages depending on what translation you read) and I would say it contains everything but the kitchen sink, but since it also alludes to sinks at several points in time so I am forced to say The Brothers Karamazov contains everything. Dostoevsky began writing it in 1879 and as the last book he ever wrote, it appears to be the culmination of the extremes of his life—socialism, devout Christianity, poverty, prosperity, obscurity, acclaim, illness, health, imprisonment, and freedom. The story of the three brothers, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha, and to a lesser extent their baseborn and not-acknowledged fourth brother, Smerdyakov, tackles Christianity, atheism, secular humanism, dysfunctional families, the role of gentry and serfdom, politics in monastic life, the hazards of romantic love, jealousy, power, greed, honor, philosophy, alcoholism, mental illness, and Russian police procedure in the 19th century. On top of this, it’s a great who-dun-it and a riveting old-school, bitch-slapping courtroom drama. We know from page one that Fydor Pavlovich is going to die but it isn’t until half-way through the book that he turns up dead.

I often amused myself while reading the book imagining Dostoevsky coming into an MFA workshop with this massive manuscript in its early stages. I imagined a 24-year-old “colleague” dressed in black picking through Dostoevsky’s pages and saying, “It’s a structural mess. I mean, so Ivan tells Alyosha this whole story about the Grand Inquisitor over dinner and I like, didn’t see the point? I mean, like, how does it move the story, like forward? And I don’t, like, really believe that he could have told this story in like what? 20 minutes? because it took me like an hour to read? So it, you know, seems really unbelievable and totally detracts from the STORY. I also, you know, had like a total issue with telling like, all the background characters’ stories as they like entered the drama? It makes like no sense? And I just don’t think the reader is going to CARE and that should all be like, totally cut.”

My hypothetical workshop participant is correct.  Father Zosima, Alyosha’s mentor and a saint-like figure in the book, gives long sermons in dialogue, with no paragraph breaks, about his particular view of Christianity. Ivan tells his “poem” The Grand Inquisitor to Alyosha over dinner about how the church would put Jesus to death again if he came because while Jesus gives choice and freedom, the church gives constraint and certainty and man prefers the latter to the former. Ivan, suffering from what must have been meningitis (that’s my best-guess definition of “brain fever”) has a long talk with a hallucinatory devil on the eve of Dmitri’s trial for his father Fyodor’s murder. (There is a particularly hilarious line in their conversation where the devil is talking about an atheist who finds himself in an afterlife and refuses to accept it and the atheist’s punishment is to walk “quadrillion kilometres in the dark” to which the devil adds “we’ve adopted the metric system, you know.”) But these essays, asides, foils…they expand this book in a way that raises it above many, many of the books I’ve read in my 35+ years of reading. And while I am a cheerful reader, I am also an exhaustive one, and have read thousands of books in my life. (The only thing that interfered with my complete enjoyment of this novel was its anti-Semitism. I have the same problem when I read Hemingway.)

Dostoevsky identifies the most painful things about humanity with his characters, their dialogue and their interactions. Ivan tells Alyosha that only a human is capable of cruelty—an animal would never kill a baby in front of its mother just for the cruelty and the pain of it. An animal kills to eat or protect itself. It does not kill to inflict psychological damage. This Ivan says, is a uniquely human trait.

So what did I learn as a writer from finally reading The Brothers Karamazov? Write your passion. Write your dream. Don’t waste your time reading books like Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Listen to your own voice. Pay attention to the things you need to say. Don’t think small. Synthesize your life, your art, your morals, your religious views, the pain that has been imprinted on your body from living in this hard world. Recognize that the family is the world in a microcosm. Oh, and LIVE. Go to prison in Siberia. Come back a devout Christian. Live with epilepsy and probably bipolar-disorder. Struggle with God. Observe your nation. Read its history. Write it all down.