Living as we do in a world rich in entertaining distractions including FarmVille, celebrity nip-slips, and adults building complicated constructs out of Lego blocks and posting photos of their handiwork on the internet, it's easy to forget that everything we know is built on the death of something else. And not just in the Ecclesiastes 3:1, circle-of-life, corpses-fertilize-our-soil kind of way, either: For one civilization to thrive, at least one other has to collapse. In the centuries before this one, those changes happened with the speed and sickening certainty of glaciers. Regardless of what you may have heard, Rome did not burn down in a day, and it took decades on either side of the Revolutionary War for England to realize that the sun was setting on Britannia as the world's only superpower.
But now empires can collapse literally overnight; the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked a bold new era in the destruction of civilizations. The Soviet Union went from an America-sized nuclear monster to a collection of hapless satellite countries floating around a scrawny but mean-as-shit, bare-knuckled Russia. And as we watch our oceans bleeding oil, our populace bleeding money, and our Congress whittling progressive health-care, environmental, and Wall Street reform bills away until they barely maintain the status quo, any reasonable person has to wonder if we in America are just one very bad night away from our very own Berlin Wall. Maybe China's breath on the back of our necks will finally disappear as we fall behind into irrelevancy.
Gary Shteyngart has seen all this before. He was raised in what was then Leningrad (Wikipedia, which might eventually be regarded as one of the last great American innovations, notes that he lived "in a square dominated by a huge statue of Vladimir Lenin") until he was 7 years old. His family came to America in 1979, and so he surely took notice one decade later when his home country fell to pieces in a dramatic flurry of manic energy, like a celebutante's career.
Shteyngart's first two novels, The Russian Debutante's Handbook and Absurdistan, use that unprecedented collapse as a source for humor and dramatic tension. In his debut, a young man who emigrated from Russia as a child becomes involved in the Russian Mafia. In his second novel, a man of similar background finds himself in a high government office in a small ex-Soviet nation nicknamed Absurdistan. In a brilliant self-referential flourish (and perhaps anticipating all the Yakov Smirnoff references that assholes would unleash on Amazon and in blog comments), Shteyngart includes a self-important author named "Jerry Shteynfarb" (author of The Russian Arriviste's Handjob) in Absurdistan, paving the way for his newest, and possibly best, novel. Although Super Sad True Love Story is set in a dystopian future and it doesn't feature a Shteynfarb clone, it feels in many ways like Shteyngart's most personal book to date. It's certainly his most forward-thinking.
America is dying in Story, and it's not a noble death. The whole country is borderline illiterate and teetering on the edge of financial self-immolation. Our main character, Lenny Abramov, a salesman for a service that keeps the wealthy forever young through nanotechnology, treats his modest collection of books like a filthy habit, not unlike public smoking (people complain about the maleficent odor of books when he tries to read on a plane). It's a uniquely American decline, but it bears the same weary, dumb squandered majesty of the Soviet Union's collapse, a giant dressed in tinsel and colorful rags, slipping on its own excrement.
Some elements of Story evoke similar dystopian futures created in a modern context, like the Mike Judge film Idiocracy: Lenny squabbles with a new coworker, "a kid with a small outbreak of mustache and a gray bodysuit with the words SUK DIK stenciled across the breast"; an injured pedestrian is taken away in an "American Medicle [sic] Response ambulance."
It's not all played for laughs. Citizens are required to carry iPhone-like devices called äppäräts that serve as smartphones and government-issued personal identification. Everyone has access to all the information on these äppäräts at all times. The most obvious example of this invasion of privacy is the Credit Poles that have been set up all over New York City: "The old-fashioned appearance of the Poles was obviously meant to evoke a sturdier time in our nation's history, except for the little LED counters at eye level that registered your Credit ranking as you walked by," and large signs billowing from the Poles announce that "America Celebrates Its Spenders!" In the future, as now, your credit rating defines you as a human being, which means that immigrants (like Shteyngart) get the short end of the Pole:
Bleary-eyed overworked Guardsmen with those thick Alabamississippi accents would pull us over, search the vehicle from engine to trunk, play with my data, humiliate the Dominican driver by making him sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" (I myself don't know the words; who does?) and then making him parade in front of a Credit Pole. "Soon the time'll come, grasshopper," one of the soldiers brayed at the driver, "for us to send your chulo ass home."
This is a world where friends livecast their evenings out on the town to viewers at home on their äppäräts. When Lenny talks too much about his recent trip to Rome, his friend leans in close: "'We're losing hits,' he whispered to me. 'Ix-nay on the Rome-ay, okay?' And then, in a really low voice: 'Humor and politics. Got it?'" His friend then brightly chirps, "All right, here's the situation, Nee-gro. You have to fuck either Mother Teresa or Margaret Thatcher..." When you walk into a bar, you are automatically rated in categories like "Fuckability," "Personality," and "Sustainabilit¥." Everything is public, nothing is sacred, and beyond the perfunctory overloud jingoism you can see at Tea Party rallies today, nobody really cares if America survives or not. As someone in the book observes, they just want to be safe.
But really, anyone could write a dystopian future. A little bit of exaggeration, some clever satire, and you've got yourself a cut-rate Orwell in the making—maybe not as ingratiatingly funny as Shteyngart's, but it'll do. The real trick that Shteyngart pulls as a novelist is inextricably tying the collapse of America to the collapse of Lenny. A balding, lonely wreck of a man at age 39, he assures us in the novel's first line that "today I've made a major decision: I am never going to die," and then he spends the rest of the book thrashing in the brine of his own mortality.
He meets Eunice Park, a Korean-American woman 15 years his junior, and because she's drunk and too tired to protest, she lets Lenny go down on her. The cunnilingus seems to be like a magic potion for Lenny: He immediately falls head-over-heels in love with her, Humbert Humbert–style, and he chases her vibrant young body (a body that Lenny often equates with a teenage boy's) the way he chases his own youth. At the same time, Eunice is ambivalent about Lenny in much the same way people in their early 20s are ambivalent about their own youth. She likes him okay, but she has a hard time finding common ground with him, writing in an e-mail to a friend: "He has this American white guy thing where life is always fair in the end, and nice guys are respected for being nice, and everything is just HONKY-dory (get it?)."
We may occasionally like Lenny for his honesty—everyone likes the bravado inherent in Fourth of July celebrations, no matter how antimilitaristic they may be every other day of the year—but it's that same honesty that repulses us. Nobody wants to die, but nobody wants to admit the hopeless arrogance that comes with desiring immortality. And though none of us can really fathom the ending of America, we can't quite fit the whole image of a fallen USA into our brains—the nation, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, is our immortality, our legacy. For generations, politicians have declared that they just want to make the country better for their own children than they had it growing up. We're living in a time when that might not be a possible outcome. The work of Gary Shteyngart, if nothing else, makes us realize that even if we're not the biggest or the best anymore, things just might be okay; after all, it's happened before and it'll happen again, and the opportunity for comedy increases exponentially along the way.