by Aimee Bender
DoubledayBuy at Powell’s »
March 16, 2011
I got exactly as far as UnitedContinentalDelamerican before giving up on Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, which is to say about halfway through page one. If my 40 years on this big blue marble have taught me one thing, it’s that hyperbolic corporate portmanteaus are the hallmark of wacky five-minutes-in-the-future dystopias. And that, unfortunately, is a class of literature of which I have had my fill.
This is new. I used to be a huge fan of the genre, eagerly devouring everything from Max Headroom to CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. But in 2009 I waded through Infinite Jest, thus quenching that particular thirst. As The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy, IJ serves as the encyclopedic last word in darkly comic futurism (well, the last 479,198 words); and just as I found Xanth novels wanting after The Scouring of the Shire, I now tend to dismiss anything that can be said to extrapolate every toxic development already at large in America to farcical extreme (as the New York Times described Super Sad).
Does this make me a snob? Good gravy, I hope soI generally don’t experience Great Literature until they make a video game out of it, so my pretension credentials (hereafter: pretentials) are in dire need of burnishing. (Aside: If anyone knows how to get past the end boss in Wii Olive Kitteridge, let me know.)
So I reshelved Super Sad and tucked into Model Home.
Set in 1985, Eric Puchner’s debut novel documents a nuclear family on the cusp of detonation. Safely ensconced in their exclusive California community, minutes from the beach, the Zillers have achieved a distinctively ’80s variant of the American Dream. They have grown so comfortable with their wealth that they no longer think of money except for the head of the household, Warren, who thinks of little else, as he alone knows that they no longer own any. He has sunk everythingsavings, retirementinto a housing development in the desert, a wasteland so barren it is only suitable for a toxic waste site. And that is exactly what the municipality begins constructing within earshot of Warren’s investment, dooming the Zillers to financial ruin.
Warren tries to hide the situation from his family, and does so with implausible success: When the car is repossessed, he claims it was stolen; when the furniture is taken, he says it’s only to make way for the new, better ensemble that will be arriving any day. His wife and children accept these explanations partially because they are caught up in their own misadventures, but mostly because the tone of the novel allows for absurdities. Indeed, the humor in the novel is so broad at times that it veers into sitcom territory. Warren’s wife Camille, for instance, is working on a sex-ed film (Earth to My Body: What’s Happening?) as hilarious as it is farfetched.
All of this is fun, and makes for an enjoyable read. But it is in jarring contrast to the tragedy that strikes at the end of Part I, one clearly intended to affect the reader deeply. And yet my reaction was less Oh, my God! and more Wait a minute, I thought this was a comedy. Was I actually supposed to care about these people?
Part II opens with the Zillers living in their own abandoned housing complex, putting the novel a chicken dance away from becoming Arrested Development. But from this point forward Puchner reins in the zany. Largely free from the slapstick, I found the second half of the book to be considerably more engrossing.
The inconsistency of tone vexed me, because Pucher is adept at crafting entirely believable scenes:
[Lyle] got up without saying good-bye and went back inside the party, wading through a crowd of people dancing to Takin’ Care of Business by Bachman-Turner Overdrive. The puritanical work ethic espoused by the lyrics seemed deeply at odds with the dancers themselves, one of whom was wearing a box on his head that said NATURAL LIGHT. The words on the box struck Lyle as forlornly beautiful. When the singer of the song got to the part about working overtime, the crowd erupted into cheers.
With such skill at mining the humor from the world as it is, it is unclear to me why Pucher often felt the need to punch up reality. But by the novel’s conclusion, he found a workable, if not entirely satisfactory, balance between realism and unbelievable-ism.
And so, back to Super Sad.
I had a tough time getting into Super Sad True Love Story, and not only because of my aforementioned prejudices. Were it not for a three-hour train ride, and the fact that I had agreed to review it, I doubt I would have made it past page 100.
The novel is neither super sad nor true, but love story I’ll allow. The exact date is unstated, but the setting is one in which all that is currently perilous with the U.S. has reached its logical conclusion: the war on terror has turned us into a police state, our national debt has turned us into a wholly owned subsidiary of China, and our fixation with stats has turned us into a nation obsessed with credit scores and fuckability ratings.
Enter Lenny Abramov, the country mouse in this particular city, with his love of books (actual, paper-bound books) and a Male Hotness quotient in the lower quintile of any given crowd. He woos and inexplicably obtains young Eunice Park, a dozen years his junior and way out of his league. Together they pick their way through the ruins of America as it collapses around them.
As with Model Home, Super Sad is a blend of high-concept silliness and serious reflection. Actually, it’s less a blend in Super Sad than an oscillation between the two: the book alternates between Lenny’s journals (which are well-written and introspective) and Eunice’s emails (which often read like 3,000-word YouTube comments). The unevenness I disliked in Model Home is exactly the disconcerting effect Shteyngart is going for, which he achieves by turning the knob on both outrageousness and eloquence to 11. Here’s an example of the latter:
I hate the Fourth of July. The early middle age of summer. Everything is alive and kicking for now, but the eventual decline into fall has already set itself in motion. Some of the lesser shrubs and bushes, seared by heat, are starting to resemble a bad peroxide job. The heat reaches a blazing peak, but summer is lying to itself, burning out like some alcoholic genius.
All in all, the narrative is like flipping back and forth between PBS and the Cartoon Network.
(Aside: I can’t break myself of the habit of using PBS as shorthand for intellectualism, even though they now air Antique Roadshow 22 hours a day.)
Shteyngart is a friend to The Roosterhis novel Absurdistan made it to the ToB finals in 2007, and he served as a judge the following year. I also have a sneaking suspicion that Super Sad is the better novel of the two, shot through with allusions to Russian literature that I am too obtuse to detect. It wouldn’t surprise me if SSTLS were to lurch from the grave in the Zombie Round.
But the grave is where it will rest. Though the last 100 pages of Super Sad turned my apathy into enjoyment, it was like seeing the best fireworks in that Fourth of July show while walking back to my car. The display put on by Model Home is less dazzling overall, but I never felt the urge to hightail it to the parking lot in the hopes of beating the crowd. For that alone it gets the nod.
Matthew Baldwin is a programmer from Seattle who lives with the Best Wife Ever and a handful of good-for-nothing cats. He runs the website defective yeti, loves to play board games, and once convinced 30 sober adults to run the 100-meter dash with their pants around their ankles. Known connections to this year’s contenders: None.