Of course it was the title that got me. I’m inexplicably drawn to good titles, and in this case, too, I didn’t care a whole lot about what this novel might be because one look at the title was enough to convince me that this is something I want to read. And in hindsight I still say: this is an excellent title, not the least because through the course of the story these simple words gather new meanings and start to carry a lot of irony – that post-postmodern, sympathetic irony, which is something I deeply like.
The novel, true to its title, tells the story of a sad, super modern love story, in which Lenny Abramov, an almost middle-aged, unattractive, clumsy, but super-kind, caring, emotional, intelligent and honest man of Russian-Jewish origins falls in love with Eunice, a young, extremely hot Korean-American girl, who is emotionally wounded and is not particularly intelligent, either.
Their relationship follows the usual (?) way of the relationships of couples who don’t really fit – there’s a whole lot of power games going on here, and manipulation, exploitation, fighting, and sex withdrawal – and there’s also a whole lot of real tenderness and emotion. Lenny and Eunice both desire something real, something that resembles happiness (to which they don’t feel entitled), they both wish to express their innermost self to the other but are afraid of the exposure and vulnerability that comes with self-expression. Like I said (although there’s really no need for me to say it): it’s a super sad, true love story.
Their doomed love story is told from two perspectives: through Lenny’s diary entries, and through the various online content produced by Eunice – because Lenny is an old-fashioned man, someone who still writes a diary with pen on paper, while Eunice belongs to the new generation – she freely admits that she has never learned to read properly, and that all she can do with texts is scan them for information.
And here’s the bridge to the other aspect of the novel, because this is not only a love story. This is also a partly cynical and partly sympathetic satire about the over-digitalized generation and the demise of America.
As regards the over-digitalization: in the novel everyone carries a gadget called äppärät – a more advanced version of today’s smartphones, through which you can truly reach, share, and rate everything. (For example, the hotness of the guys and girls who happen to be in the same pub as you. And, naturally, everyone is interested in their rating – after all, if you rank last in the hotness list that evening, it’s probably better for you to just go home.) In the world of äppärät users, looking into each other’s eyes, or communication with real words is a rarity, and no private life whatsoever exists as even the supposedly private gathering of old friends is streamed live by one friend who hosts a popular online show.
I’m not one for criticizing online life mindlessly, as I don’t think it leads to inevitable doom, and I don’t like mindless criticism in novels, either. What I like is when someone does his criticism in a scary and smart way (like Dave Eggers in his novel, The Circle). And what I also like is what Shteyngart does here: in fact, he’s not even criticizing – rather, he captures the beauty and fragility of those rare moments when the characters accidentally communicate live and use real language, when they say an old, almost obsolete word, or when they read sections from The Unbearable Lightness of Being to their lover in bed (this is beautiful even if I don’t happen to like that novel). What Shteyngart does is a reversed criticism – he never says how shallow online life is, instead, he shows how beautiful it can be when something happens not online but in reality.
It feels to me that Shteyngart deeply loves language, and the question isn’t so much whether there’s still a chance for romantic love, but whether there’s still a chance for using real language.
And as regards the demise of America: that part is somewhat less sympathetically satirical – the America of the novel is a country ruined by debts, manic spending and credit card usage, fully at the mercy of Chinese, Norwegian, and Arabic creditors – a country where a person’s value is determined by his credit ranking. Now, this is truly scary, and leaves me feeling unhinged. Which is the feeling I ultimately left this novel with.