27 June, 2011Issue 16.5FictionLiterature

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Something Better than Empire

Mike Jakeman

Super Sad True Love StorySam Lipsyte
The Ask
Old Street Publishing, 2011
304 Pages
ISBN 978-1906964573

Gary Shteyngart
Super Sad True Love Story
Granta Books, 2010
272 Pages
ISBN 978-1847081032

The noughties were a bad time for US morale. The decade began with a bubble bursting on a series of dot-com follies and ended with a housing crisis that left entire towns deserted and the national debt spiralling. In between was a hitherto unimaginable attack on the financial heart of the nation, a sullying of the country’s international reputation through two hugely unpopular foreign wars, the destruction of one of the nation’s best-loved cities by a hurricane, and the inexorable economic rise of a rival to its status as the world’s biggest superpower. Given this litany of misery, the election of the first black president stands out as an anomaly, a rare moment in which Americans were granted the privilege of optimism. The somewhat inevitable response from members of the literary community is humour, but only of the darkest variety. Post-noughties New York novels The Ask by Sam Lipsyte and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart poke around in the ashes of a decade to see whether there is any flicker of a flame—even a glowing ember?—left in the American dream.

The signs aren’t good. Lipsyte’s protagonist, Milo Burke, is a straightforward everyman figure, a middle-class Queens-dweller living in the period of “late capitalism”. Unfortunately for the future of America, he is also a hopeless loser. Let go from his job as a development officer at a mediocre university, through a lack of motivation he slots straight into a new role as a stay-at-home dad, beholden to the notes left by his frustrated wife, Maura (“Call if there’s a problem. Please don’t have a problem.”). Lacking the imagination to start again, his plan consists solely of recovering his old job. Through a series of unlikely plot twists he finds himself with a shot at redemption. All he has to do is investigate Don Charboneau, the illegitimate son of a fantastically wealthy college buddy, Purdy Stuart. Purdy is concerned that Don, a wounded veteran of the second Iraq war, is about to expose the identity of Purdy’s father, and he wants some prior warning.

If this sounds rather thin, one suspects Lipsyte may concur. His plot is simply a series of fictional triggers that allow his characters to bump into each other and riff on his real interest, the superficiality of modern middle-class American life. Milo’s and Maura’s travails in getting their 3-year-old son educated are a prime example. The experiential learning of the Happy Salamander nursery appeals to them as left-wingers, although the “idealistic and adamantine young educators” with “a smug ideological tinge about them, a minor Red Brigades vibe” hints at an unhappy pretension. It comes as no surprise, then, when the Salamanders stick “a hand-scrawled sign over the door” that reads “Closed indefinitely due to pedagogical conflicts”. When Milo asks about the possibility of a refund on his fees, the founder responds: “This isn’t about money, okay? The whole project has been ripped apart. There are former colleagues out there spreading intolerable lies about our methodologies…And you’re worried about reimbursement?”

The shadow of the war in Iraq looms over the novel in the tragic figure of Don, shuffling around his Jackson Heights apartment on his titanium legs. This causes the “pedagogical conflicts” of a Queens nursery to appear even more absurd, although it also clear that the war is not the sole reason for US decline. Purdy’s drinking hole, The Best Place, is “one of those establishments that signalled the end of empire, or perhaps the advent of something better than empire, at least to those who could afford it”; when a whole subway train is held at a station in order for paramedics to resuscitate a man suffering a stroke, Milo says, only half-jokingly, “We were losing our superpower superpowers. Would they stop this train in China?”

Due more to luck rather than skill, Milo is able to return to his job of asking rich men for money. Such requests are part of the fabric of everyday life in Super Sad True Love Story. Set in the very near future, New York bends over backwards to welcome the new master of the universe, the Chinese Central Banker. Shteyngart’s New York has become a second-rate place; the inertia of The Ask has progressed into irreversible urban decay. Central Park has been transformed into a neo-Hooverville, a temporary home for the foreclosed. The dollar has slumped and is now pegged to the dominant yuan. Oscar Niemeyer’s UN Headquarters, now redundant, has been given a new lease of life as the UN Retail Corridor. The army is at war with a resurgent Venezuela. The city’s inhabitants live in a social media wonderland, where all-encompassing iPhone-type gadgets called “äppäräts” broadcast their owners’ profiles, including their credit rating and perceived “fuckability”.

Unlike Milo, Shteyngart’s protagonist Lenny Abramov is not a symptom of his society’s ills, but is another familiar literary device—a man out of time. The son of Russian immigrants, Lenny is the most unfashionable thing he could be in the New York of the near future: a sentimentalist. Not for him fuckability ratings and a girl who works in media: he believes in the old-fashioned concept of true love and the antiquated hobby of reading books, objects whose physical form now provokes widespread revulsion (“I noticed that some of the first-class people were staring me down for having an open book. ‘Dude, that thing smells like wet socks.’”). His overflowing emotions find a target in a young Korean woman named Eunice Park. Their subsequent relationship becomes a tug-of-war between old and new, overweight and lithe, his synthetic fabrics and her onionskin jeans and TotalSurrender panties. The symbol of hope for the US is that Eunice’s own insecurities are such that she is willing to look through Lenny’s physical inadequacies in a society whose obsession with youth that is more acute than even our own. That this is extinguished by an intervention by Lenny’s boss, a 70-year-old Dorian Gray figure, feels inevitable, as civil war breaks out on the streets of Manhattan.

A frequent failing levelled at a host of dystopian novels is that the future that they portray subsequently turns out to be false, and as such they become dated and somehow irrelevant. Should the current US administration improve the reputation of its country in the Arab world and in Asia, and stimulate the domestic job market, the United States of Super Sad True Love Story could, in a decade, read like pessimism of the most ill-grounded kind. However, the real purpose of dystopian novels is to show us the anxieties of today. Fiction writers are not soothsayers, but they are expected to be skilled at reflecting the world that they see around them. Yet both novels strike a discordant note that it would be remiss not to touch upon. Given that the beloved country is going to hell in a handbasket, both books are written with remarkable wit and vibrancy. Dialogue and observations fizz off the page in such an irrepressible manner that dystopia seems like a bit of a riot (the good kind). Shteyngart and Lipsyte write dystopian novels in the way that they ought to be read; they are not performing the last rites over the corpse of the United States, but are using stylistic verve to write the cautionary tales that they hope will ensure its survival.

Mike Jakeman graduated in 2006 with a BA in English from Keble College, Oxford. He now works for the Economist Intelligence Unit.