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Crossfertilization: Super Sad True Love Story

Crossfertilizations is a series of blog posts examining the intersections of sociology and other disciplines or cultural objects.  In the first Crossfertilization post, a new piece of literature, Super Sad True Love Story, is reviewed with a sociological lens, looking for insights that can help us understand our own field.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

If George Orwell wrote 1984 imagining an inevitable socialist dystopia, then Gary Shteyngart has matched his satirical wit and vision at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum.

Super Sad True Love Story is set against the backdrop of a free market dystopia during an unspecified future year when American society is crumbling.  Almost everything is privatized, nothing is produced, the dollar is devoid of meaningful value, and only the promise of good credit limps the country along.

The novel tells the story of Lenny Abramov, B.A., M.B.A.  Balding and thirty-nine, Lenny feels his life slipping away, though he and his boss Joshie Goldmann are working on immortality for the Wapachung Corporation in New York City, where they make large incomes selling to wealthy clients, “high net worth individuals.” 

We follow Lenny as he meets and falls in love with Eunice Park, a young and beautiful California girl whose parents emigrated from Korea.  As we follow their unlikely love story through unfunded public parks that serve as concentration camps for “low net worth individuals” and corporate lobbies that are protected by a privatized National Guard, sociologies of almost everything pop the narrative off the pages and illuminate the trajectory of contemporary social conditions into a frighteningly near future.

What types of individuals are possible in this society?  To literally survive, you must become a “high net worth individual.”  We get a taste of these types through Lenny’s friends.  Self-obsessed and extremely image conscious, they meet up at night to stare into their apparati.  Imagine futuristic smart phones streaming holographic ratings of your wealth, personality, and attractiveness, measured against everyone around you.

What does consumption look like?  Like it might at the most advanced stages of free market capitalism, hyper-prosumption.  People do all the work themselves on their own personal apparata.  They even stream themselves through their aparata like their own reality show, paid to say the names of corporate brands as they buy from those corporations.

This is somewhat bleak, but we do get glimpses of hope through sociologies of intimacy and family life.  While self-interest initially motivates Eunice’s acceptance of Lenny’s advances, we soon learn that she is concerned about her sister and parents, her struggling family, even as she maxes out the family credit card at AssLuxury.com.  While nobody in America reads printed media artifacts, Eunice learns that Lenny actually READS books, loves his family, and cares about substance and content, even as he pushes an empty product.  She starts to feel that Lenny, like OMG, actually cares about her, and Eunice slowly falls in love with him.

As the final strings of the social fabric snap around them, though, their worries for their lives and families are unable to sustain their love.  Simply put, the social structure of the surrounding free market dystopia cannot nourish integrity, love, warmth, or compassion.

Sociologists, those with humanist interests or those who want a glimpse of the treatment of American publics in a completed free market society, should especially pay attention to the “American Restoration Authority Harm Reduction Program” as it targets public parks and housing projects.  And especially pay attention to the climatic scene of the art show hosted by Joshie.  There we find depictions of the grisly and inevitable conclusions of love and American publics at the zenith of a free market society.

Hopefully these conclusions never come to be.  Though its hard to imagine “Super Sad True Love Story” becoming a household word like “1984,” Shteyngart has accomplished something literary that should have a wide impact on many disciplines and fields, including sociology, forcing us to clarify what we are doing and where we are going.


3 Responses

  1. Nice review, Jeff. I read this book too–it was a compelling story and an eerily plausible dystopia. Lots of themes from Baudrillard on simulacra and hyperreality as well.

    • Thanks Randy!

      For sure on the Baudrillard. It was amazing to read how individuality was conceived of in all those absurd abstract ways– checking one’s credit at “credit poles” on the street, “FAC”ing against others around you in a bar or restaurant for your likability, etc. Like you said, all virtual, just like simulacrums…

  2. Very compelling.

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