Super Sad True Love Story

Gary Shteyngart's hotly-anticipated third novel imagines War and Peace via 1984.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Like most Russians, Gary Shteyngart is in love with two things: His own suffering and Tolstoy. We can’t say for sure if his hotly-anticipated third novel was a manifestation of either of these passions, but we’d be willing to lay down serious cash on the former and a not insignificant sum on the latter. And had Shteyngart in fact set out to write a postmillennial, pop-culture saturated homage to War and Peace, then he succeeded with Super Sad True Love Story. There’s the socially awkward but well-meaning hero, the capricious love interest who matures in the face of war, and even a Napoleonic American leader.

However, where Tolstoy’s 1300-page odyssey is full of hope for the future in the author’s tender shepherding of his characters through uncertain times, Shteyngart’s 352-page opus holds the future in low, dystopic esteem. In an unspecified year (but far enough ahead in time for Pee-wee Herman to have died and Arcade Fire to be considered retro), the American dollar is pegged to the Chinese yuan, owning books is akin to having leprosy, everyone is connected by an umbilical chord to their pprtt (Shteyngart’s iPhone-like device of the future) and democracy has crumbled into a rubble of bipartisanship. As our narrator, Lenny Abramov (who, like the main character in The Russian Debutant’s Handbook and Absurdistan side character Jerry Shteynfarb, is unmistakably Shteyngart himself), muses: “When we lost touch with how much we really hate each other, we also lost the responsibility for our common future.”

On his last night in Rome, Lenny meets Eunice Park. The soon-to-be-ex-expats have a one-night stand that the pushing-40 Abramov finds promising and the recent college grad Eunice finds repulsive. In a narrative that alternates between Lenny and Eunice from chapter to chapter, he divulges his innermost thoughts, hopes and fears in his diary—perhaps the last diary on earth—while she messages with friends and family through her GlobalTeens account (crafted in Facebook’s image).

Nevertheless, Eunice quickly finds herself back in the U.S., living with Lenny and making sense of their 1984-like brave new world. The conceit is solid and follows through: The couple’s opposite-but-equal sides of the story form a compulsive whole. Their May-December love affair is a backdrop for more harrowing events that make Tolstoy’s Battle of Borodino look like a fox-hunt and propel a mellow second act into a page-turning finale of epic proportions. While Shteyngart’s Orwellian references occasionally border on twee, they lead to bigger ideas surrounding our current political climate best explored book-club--style around a samovar of vodka. Though it’s hard to imagine our fearless author could devote another thousand pages to the topic, the reader can easily fill in the gaps.

Gary Shteyngart reads Tue 27 at Barnes and Noble Union Square, Wed 28 at Bryant Park and July 30 at Greenlight Bookstore.

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By Gary Shteyngart (Random House, $26)