David's Reviews > Super Sad True Love Story

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
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May 14, 10

bookshelves: spurned
Read from May 06 to 14, 2010

Gary Shteyngart has failed me. True, he probably wasn't aware that he had a responsibility to me, personally, but (in most cultures) ignorance of the law is seldom sufficient cause to dismiss the crime.

Shteyngart's crime is that he has written what appears to be an awful book. (I say 'what appears to be' because I didn't have the heart to finish it.*) Yes, as you well know, countless other writers have committed the same crime -- some even more gruesomely -- but most of these capital offenses weren't preceded by a debut novel of great promise (The Russian Debutante's Handbook: very amusing at times and suggestive of a kernel of greatness) and a sophomore novel named among the best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review (Absurdistan: a technically improved four-star novel).

Super Sad True Love Story began with two or three pages of hyperneurotic and death-obsessed musings that gave me a literary boner. TMI maybe, but my aesthetic compass was pointing due north from the get-go. I thought to myself right then, 'This is going to be a truly Great Book.' Well, go ahead and file away that declaration with the marketing plan of Edsel, the proliferation of Esperanto, the acceptance of the metric system in America, the electoral revolution of Ross Perot, the circulation of the Susan B. Anthony dollar, and the bankrolling of Cimino's Heaven's Gate.

What followed the initial excitement was a profound disappointment at this obvious, uninsightful, and -- worst of all -- unfunny satire. Shteyngart clearly used George W. Bush-era America as a jumping off point to imagine a vague dystopia** in which the U.S. seems to be transitioning to a fully fascist state dominated by elaborate systems of monitoring and surveillance and an unwieldy Kafkaesque bureaucracy (yes, Kafkaesque -- it's always super-duper Kafkaesque in the future, ain't it?). On top of this bleak political outlook, Shteyngart feeds off the Great Recession by going out on a limb and predicting the inevitable: that the U.S. will eventually be eclipsed economically by Asian countries, China in particular, of course. (I don't think there are many people who seriously doubt this, are there? It's only a matter of how long it will take that keeps people disagreeing.) And connecting all of the dots, Shteyngart attempts to lampoon the hyperactivity of internet culture as well -- serving up a Facebook parody that is so enragingly tepid that it conjures up images of an ill-starred archer who is surrounded by nothing but targets but somehow manages to miss the mark. By never even releasing the bow.

Shteyngart supplies his dystopia with precious, infuriatingly 'cute' alternate-world details: for instance, Manhattan has become the socioeconomic Siberia of New York City, while Staten Island is the hip, newly-gentrified borough. (Isn't that funny? Uh, not really. It's the kind of humor that's so obvious that it doesn't even need to be written down.) Meanwhile, St. Petersburg (Russia) (nee Leningrad, nee St. Petersburg) is now... you got it... Putingrad. Please gather your sides before they split.

Within this milieu, Shteyngart situates a love story between a middle-aged, ugly, loser schlub and a young Asian-American girl. As far as I read into the book, this romance did little to humanize the strangely abstract, undeveloped, and unreal surroundings in which they found themselves.

* Of course, it's possible that the latter section of the novel redeems the earlier section, but I'm skeptical. The equations that we readers regularly calculate (as to a novel's readability, enjoyment factor, intellectual gratification, and so on) produced only the reminder that life was too short (or this book too long, depending upon your perspective) to bother with it.

** I refer to Shteyngart's dystopia as 'vague' because it feels sketchy and not-well-thought-out. You (meaning I) never really buy it as a coherent reality within the parameters of the novel. It's seems more like a provisional world existing only to nudge characters into action and thought and threatening to evaporate any moment into insubstantiality.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 50) (50 new)

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message 1: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim I just entered to win this baby...

Are you reading it just because he has such a cool last name?

miss you.


David Oh, no, not at all. I've read his last two books The Russian Debutante's Handbook and Absurdistan, both of which I really liked (the latter more than the former).

But this one...? Ugh. I really hate it so far.


message 3: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim OH! This is the Absurdistan guy... yeah, I remember you recommending that to Maurice... he was going to read it.. I remember now.


message 4: by Greg (new)

Greg I hear they think this book is the greatest at Tribeca.


David I can disagree with my best friends (about less important things). I'm, like, generous that way.


message 6: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim Oh yeah? You didn't talk to me for like a week after I read Winesburg, Ohio


message 7: by karen (new)

karen and i thought absurdistan was "eh"

not "eh!"


message 8: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! Heh.


message 9: by David (last edited May 07, 2010 07:07PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

David karen wrote: "and i thought absurdistan was "eh"

not "eh!""


Oh. You were wrong. Again. (Four stars.)

I think I am abandoning this book. It's really unpleasant.


message 10: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny go ahead and file away that declaration with the marketing plan of Edsel, the proliferation of Esperanto, the acceptance of the metric system in America, the electoral revolution of Ross Perot, the circulation of the Susan B. Anthony dollar, and the bankrolling of Cimino's Heaven's Gate.

It's all too obvious you're not British... a glaring omission on that list. Can't say any more, still too damn painful.


message 11: by Ademption (new) - added it

Ademption Go on, Manny. It certainly wasn't the Euro.


message 12: by David (last edited May 14, 2010 08:40AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

David Ah, Manny, you must be talking about Great Britain's continuing unsuccessful efforts to get the rest of the world to care about Robbie Williams.

I didn't forget that one. I just chose to let it lie there... naked, hideous, and without explicit mention.


message 13: by Ademption (new) - added it

Ademption Beans on toast, soccer, more Thatcher? These don't belong on that list.

Cadbury chocolate bars' (domestic quality, non-export) increased availability, and a larger following for Pulp may belong on that list.


message 14: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny I'm trying to make myself say it. Lib... Lib... Liberty print dresses. Damn. I still can't get the words out. Maybe next week.


message 15: by Ademption (new) - added it

Ademption Manny wrote: "I'm trying to make myself say it. Lib... Lib... Liberty print dresses. Damn. I still can't get the words out. Maybe next week."

Google image-view convinced me I should agree with your amendment.


Krok Zero Uh oh. I won this on First Reads and you just made me want to never ever read it.

Shteyngart is such a blurb-whore. His blurbs aren't even good. They're just fannish/cronyish enthusiasms that tell you nothing about the book.


message 17: by RandomAnthony (new)

RandomAnthony Ok, I'll start with Absurdistan...


message 18: by Ben (new)

Ben brian owes you some votes!


Charity You, sir, are my hero! Somehow you managed to get inside my brain and capture all my sentiments. I am jealous that you managed to toss it aside and move on with your life. I have no real idea why I chose to keep going on. It did not get better. In my estimation, it got worse.

Bravo on the grand review!


David Thanks, Charity.

I don't understand why all the critics love this thing.


Charity Because they're whores. :-)


message 22: by Laura (new) - rated it 1 star

Laura It doesn't get better. I sighed all through to the last page hoping for a change of heart, but no. It appears Shteyngart doesn't understand how manipulative, unfunny, unsympathetic, and uninteresting his characters are -- all of them.


Julie Great review, David. Mine is much shorter and less articulate! I just discussed this at a book club last night and out of the 7 of us, everyone was mildly annoyed by it. My thoughts on the critical acclaim: The critics either got something that everyone I talked to didn't. Or, Shteyngart has a fantastic PR firm. Could be a bit of both.


message 24: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes I had a similar feeling early on and even considered stopping, a very rare event for me. But I held on and had a change of heart. While I agree with much of what you say about the book, I thought there were enough arrows in his voluminous quiver that hit something, even if not always in the middle. True that this was not exactly LOL funny. I tittered a time or two and guffawed not at all. But I did enjoy his meanderings into lit references, particularly The Quiet American, and less so with refs to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, two of my all time faves. Maybe my expectations were minimal, not having read his prior efforts. I will be putting up a more thought out look within the next week or so. But while I found more in the book to like than you did, I really liked your review.


message 25: by Meg (new) - rated it 1 star

Meg Predicament: I am right in the middle of this mess, and have considered stopping more than once. After reading this (brilliant) review, which articulated (and affirmed) the nagging doubts I had about the book - despite the amount of rave reviews on NY Times, Guardian (which compares Shteyngart to Woody Allen!) etc. Quite frankly, I was beginning to think I was batty.

I will finish this book. But I will finish in the knowledge that I am not bat-shit insane, and that lines like "How to contain the natural reflex to stand up on one's hind legs and sniff poignantly for the warmth of the sun?" really do stink. How exactly does one sniff poignantly, anyway?

Thanks for the great review.


message 26: by David (last edited Jan 05, 2011 11:17AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

David Thanks! I'm sorry I didn't see this until now. Did you finish this, Meg?

Edit: Never mind. I just found your review.


message 27: by Jon (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jon Austin In response to ** David, I think what makes the dystopia feel sketchy, and what I actually appreciate about the novel is that Shteyngart drives the narrative through social aspects instead of political aspects. I'm only about halfway through the novel, so perhaps that balance shifts later, but this difference relegates the novel to somewhere other than traditional dystopian novels which define cultures more based on government impositions, whereas the world in 'Super Sad True Love Story' springs from a consumer and sex driven culture centered on technologies that continually make life easier and more open.


message 28: by Casey (new) - rated it 1 star

Casey You did a concise and witty job explaining all the problems I had with the book. Thumbs up, sir.


Herzog deny and imply...


Sketchbook This bk isnt funny. Or amusing. It had POW promo. Dumb lit critics slurped...


message 31: by [deleted user] (new)

this is a very long review for someone who didn't finish the book. :(


Joanna Forbes I stuck it out to the end, thinking it would actually get somewhere that made it worth it for me. But it was fairly uniform.


message 33: by Josh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Josh The books protagonist is as you put it, a "middle-aged, ugly, loser schlub," hopelessly incapable of being anything but an outsider in his own world. He is despised because he is just that, a breed that should have died out. This is where the power is centered in Shteyngart’s book; what might it be like, if one envisions a slightly different present than the one we currently inhabit, and how lost and anachronistic might we become? So in this way, it’s more of a nightmare “present” than a dystopian future.


message 34: by Robin (new) - rated it 1 star

Robin Edman Thank you for taking the time to say properly the things I incoherently spat out in mt own review.


Jeffrey Zwart Spot on.


message 36: by e (new) - added it

e when it clearly states "korean american" why do you insist on opting for "asian american".


message 37: by Tanya (new) - added it

Tanya I agree. I just couldn't commit to such an alienating journey into the depths of dystopia. I bailed.


message 38: by Ademption (new) - added it

Ademption e wrote: "when it clearly states "korean american" why do you insist on opting for "asian american"."

What?! You don't think Koreans are good enough to be Asian? I take offence at your exceptionalism. Why segregate people so narrowly? People ranking nationalities within races disgust me.


message 39: by karen (new)

karen lacist!


message 40: by Ademption (new) - added it

Ademption karen wrote: "lacist!"

Why do I love you?


message 41: by karen (new)

karen because i wrote you a pee poem


message 42: by Ademption (new) - added it

Ademption I think comment 40 sealed it really. The pee poems were overtures.


message 43: by karen (new)

karen there's no way for me to take credit for that - that is all eh's influence. she is an asian-american.


message 44: by Ademption (last edited Mar 16, 2013 09:33AM) (new) - added it

Ademption Sure, blame the Asian. And why do you insist on calling her Eh, when she clearly states it's Eh Eh? (Hooray! I can be pedantic too)


message 45: by karen (new)

karen actually, it is "eh?eh!"

who's got time for all those characters. in america, we shorten. speak american!


Katie David, you perfectly expressed my sentiments regarding this turd of a book and did so much more eloquently than I ever could have. Thank you.


Lauren Strickland While I don't actually agree with your review (don't hurt me!!), I just want to like your review because of your opening line. Well done, sir, well done.


David How can you rate a book that you haven't finished?


message 49: by W.D. (new) - rated it 3 stars

W.D. Clarke GREAT review. I gave it three stars cos it wouldn't let me give it 2.5. The premise really revved me up, but from one-third into it I inceasingly felt that innumerable threads were piling up that he never quite wove into anything truly memorable. My heart leapt when he started discussing the effect Kundera had on the protagonist, but it didn't amount to very much. In the end, the novel propelled me forward with a certain stylistic elan (much like Jonathan Franzen's Freedom), but ultimately didn't leave me wondering about very much. But I am still willing to try Absurdistan :)


Synthetic Vox Exactly how I felt. I loved Absurdistan so much it still strikes me to think about it. This was a waste of time (and I, too, didn't even finish it).


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