Had Shteyngart 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 1,300-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 US dollar is pegged to the Chinese yuan, owning books is akin to having leprosy, everyone is connected by an umbilical cord to their äppärätät (Shteyngart’s iPhone-like device of the future) and democracy has crumbled into a rubble of bipartisanship. As our narrator, Lenny Abramov 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 tryst that the pushing-40 Abramov finds promising and the recent college grad Eunice finds repulsive. Nevertheless, Eunice quickly finds herself living with Lenny and making sense of their 1984-like brave new world. The conceit is solid: 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 – though it’s hard to imagine our fearless author could devote another 1,000 pages to the topic, the reader can easily fill in the gaps.