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.