Kvetch-22

A Korean student in one of my adult ESL courses walked up to me after class one evening and asked, “Are you Jushi?”  For a moment I thought this might be related to Bushi, which is what all my Korean students called the President at the time, but it turned out she had described me to her husband and he had suggested that I was Jewish.  He claimed that there was a special affinity between Koreans and Jews.

Lenny, the protagonist of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, would surely agree, since he keeps falling for Korean women, especially those with a childhood history of abuse.    This is a bit disturbing but at least introduces some novelty into what is otherwise a  shopworn scenario: middle-aged male Jewish New Yorker, son of Eastern European immigrants, is plagued by various anxieties (what we used to call neuroses), especially a fear of aging and death, and becomes obsessed with a sexy young Gentile  girl.  You can probably supply the meditations on the nature of Jewishness, the decay of the flesh, the decay of Manhattan, the object of desire’s tiny ass and inadequate knowledge of Freud and Tolstoy.  I love Woody Allen as much as the next goy, but could we change some of the props once in a while?

To be fair, the story is set in a 2007 which is also somehow (don’t ask me) a dystopic future.  It is a fairly boilerplate Bush-era dystopic future, with oppressive government security, pointless wars that have made America an international pariah, economic collapse that has left the dollar at the mercy of the yuan, poor people camped in Central Park while the rich buy life-extension treatments.

Super Sad  belongs to the comic-satiric sub-genre of near-future dystopic fiction, and the fun depends on whether you find its exaggerations spot-on or just cranky (I, for one, could have done without the hundred or so references to currency exchange rates).  Here is a typical example, in which Lenny’s friend Noah rants on his video-stream about an atrocity committed by government troops under orders from the Defense Secretary:

And R-stein won’t feel good until all the niggers and spics are cleared out of our city.  He’s dropping bombs on our moms like Chrissie Columbus dropped germs on the red man, cabrons!….Half the Mamis and Papis in the city are going to end up in a secure screening facility before the week is over!

 

Oh, snap!  You can judge for yourself—for me, this is a reminder of why it is a suboptimal satiric strategy to have one of the characters serve as the author’s sock-puppet.

Or maybe his grandpa’s sock-puppet.  Lenny is only 39 in this future America, but he has a true Junior Geezer’s antipathy to e-books, the crazy way those kids talk today (with all those initials), and the slutty clothes those young girls wear (yes, those same young girls whose tiny asses he is always nattering on about).  The brand names of these transparent pants and nipple-exposing bras are intended to shock (Juicy Pussy, Suck Dick, Ass Luxury), as are the young women’s enthusiasms (anal sex, being peed on).  So, did I miss some recent trend that is being satirized here?  It is possible that sexual tastes have suddnely gotten a lot more kinky without anyone telling me, but I suspect that Shteyngart is using exaggeration to highlight his anxiety about  recreational sex, waving his angry little hanky at a ship that sailed in like 1972.  No wonder he thinks 2007 is in the future.

 

PS In case you’re wondering, the book was published in 2010.

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4 Responses to Kvetch-22

  1. Hmm, I enjoyed Super Sad — especially having it read aloud. It is painfully funny, though you’re right about the exchange rates. Didn’t realize it was supposed to be in 2007, I thought it was near-future dystopia with titillating bits and bites.

    • Roy says:

      It’s the sort of book I should have found hilarious, in the mold of personal faves like George Saunders and Kurt Vonnegut. But somehow about 75% of the laughs failed to tickle me.
      As for the year, when they’re FACing at Cervix, Lenny’s birth year is listed as 1967, which makes now 2007. If the now of the book is really 2025 or so, which is probably intended, then Lenny was born in 1985. He should not remember the Reagan Admin. (as I think he does at the end), and in general shouldn’t be so crabby about modern technology.

  2. Amanda says:

    What’s being satirized isn’t kinky tastes, it’s the overall coarsening of the culture. As for the year issue, yes it’s confusing and inconsistent. I’m reading the book a second time now, and have finally concluded that it’s a kind of alternate vision/alternate universe… somewhat like you find in Vonnegut. I think this book is absolutely brilliant. His satire is spot on. He’s not just mocking the political system, but our soulless consumer culture and our dehumanizing digital culture. And the book is about nothing less than what makes life worth living. Lenny, who works for a company selling immortality to HNWI (High Net Worth Individuals), is obsessed with death. Wrapped up in a different kind of consumerism, he worries about his own ability to afford immortality treatments, but the simple things that make life worth living – books, love – are really what he wants and needs. Lenny – Mr. Shteyngart, want to save us all from ourselves. Great layered book. I loved it.

    • Roy White says:

      You’re certainly entitled to the pleasure this book gives you. I doo think, though, that someone who spends an enormous amount of time satirizing clothing must think that’s a particularly egregious example of the supposed coarsening of our culture, and having grown up in the America of the ’70s and ’80s, I don’t think that our current culture of fashion is any worse. Frankly, I don’t think any fashion trend except maybe the use of slave labor to make clothes is worth satirizing.

      Likewise, there is nothing intrinsically dehumanizing about, say, an exchange of views on a blog, any more than there is about the technology of the book. A medium is wworth what you put into it. It seems to me that the author is obsessed with superficial phenomena rather than the real threats to our human lives.
      Or rather, he combines the two, for there is a love story here, and there is genuine pathos despite the distractions. I could enjoy the book a lot if it weren’t for the “You kids get the hell offa my lawn” aspect.

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