Super, Sad, True Love Story

It’s 10˚F in Seoul and I’m freezing my balls off. Thank you Gary Shteyngart.

I read Shteyngart’s Super, Sad, True Love Story back in July when Seoul was an uncomfortably humid 85˚F. By the time I’d fully digested the book, it had become a pleasant Autumn. In the midst of Korea’s finest season and under the influence of Love Story‘s pessimistic vision for the US, I upgraded my short-term visit to a long-term relocation.

As we wait for my bits and pieces to thaw, allow me to reflect on that decision.

Love Story is the tale of overweight Russian-Jewish American protagonist Lenny Abramov and his tragic courtship of the much younger, more attractive, Korean-American, Eunice Kim, set against the backdrop of a dystopian Manhattan sometime in the near future.

My dad gave me the book based on the superficial similarity of my wife and I to the book’s main characters. The book’s accounts of Lenny and Eunice’s sex life makes it an extra-creepy present. Creepier still are the far closer similarities of Lenny/Eunice to Shteyngart and his real-life girlfriend. TMI. But I digress.

The character setup, however unsettling, got my attention but didn’t hold it for long. The characters are awful and impossible to sympathize with. Fortunately Love Story‘s characters are simply instruments with which to paint a horrifying portrait of the US in free fall and the lengths that people will go to survive as society around them crumbles. In this, the author succeeds brilliantly.

Written in 2006, Shteyngart is a sort of Nostradamus of the near future, picking up on trends and bringing them into cartoon-like focus.

Privacy, Scores. Lenny’s life is reduced to a set of scores based on his actions and the actions of those of his social network. Credit score, personality score, “fuckability”. Sound… familiar? These scores are overlayed on the real world through ubiquitous äpäräti, de rigeur digital pendants that hang around your neck. And if you don’t happen to have an äpärät, never fear: your scores are also displayed on “credit poles” that light up when you walk under them. Creepy, but for those who followed Facebook’s Open Graph announcement yesterday, this is where we’re heading.

National Debt, Division of Wealth, Camping on Wall Street. The US is fighting another war in Venezuela and finally buckling under its national debt. The rich are above it all. The government and armed forces are revealed as tools of the wealthy, while the riff-raff are sleeping in tents on the streets. China and Norway are divvying up Manhattan as the US becomes insolvent, and all hell is breaking loose.

And So On. Industry has been reduced to credit, media, and retail, and those sectors have morphed into gross caricatures of their current forms. The written language has decayed, taking a page from another classic, Idiocracy. Women wear onion-skin jeans. The rich fixate on life extension. The book contains many other predictions on top of all this, most of which are in some stage of realization today.

But despite Shteyngart’s uncanny ability to see where the puck is going, my move to Seoul had little to do with his predictions. I am hopeful that events like S&P’s US credit downgrade and movements like Occupy Wall Street are wake-up calls to the system, and that it bodes well for our ability to turn things around that these shocks are occurring while the economy is still holding together.

Of course my primary motivations for the move lie elsewhere, mostly around family and career. But every difficult decision needs an extra psychological push, and Love Story was mine. I stumbled through the story and was struck by a feeling of claustrophobia. The book’s characters are caught up in a bubble, and as the bubble collapses, the characters collapse with it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks and I slowly realized that back home I was operating in my own bubble, albeit a healthy one. From there, the pieces quickly fell into place. The best time to break free of a bubble is when everything’s rosy, and the easiest way to break free is a change of environment. Thus my move to Seoul is about shaking things up, stepping out of my comfort zone, building bridges, creating options, and opening my eyes to another way of living.

To wrap up my review, I invoke the old Remington electric shaver commercials with the slogan “I liked it so much, I bought the company.” Super Sad True Love Story: I was so disturbed by it, I moved to Seoul. I only wish I’d brought warmer clothes.

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