Monday, 11 October 2010

Book Review: Super Sad True Love Story

How can I describe what has been one of the most true-to-life, craziness-of-life-encompassing reading experiences I’ve read for a while in a short post like this? How can I describe this American disaster novel whose flavour of George Orwell’s 1984 is mixed with probable future medical elitism to create a world where the rich and young aim to live forever, to achieve nothing much, and death is feared and hated, and where America’s myth that they are special is totally deconstructed and spat upon by the rest of the world? How can I describe what is a totally over-the-top look at the world today and yet also a scary prediction of the world to come?

Perhaps we can use the title.

Super Sad True Love Story is not always focused on its own “love story”. Somewhat like the lyrics of White Blank Page by Mumford and Sons, our gormless protagonist Lenny Abramov wants to follow his Eunice Park “with his whole life” while she “desires his attentions” but often “denies his affections”. Warning: There is a LOT of explicitly-described sex, but, contrasting this, as Lenny tries to win Eunice, actual love is weak and doesn’t always last the run, only a kind of dependency is achieved – healthy or unhealthy depending on your point of view.

Perhaps this love story can best be described as the struggle between real affections and the forces which efficiently and seemingly inevitably defeat and repress them. Whether it’s the desire to help the people classed as Low Net Worth Individuals who are casually gunned down in Central Park, New York, or the desire to live for something worthwhile, the characters are teased with answers only for a nightmarish reality to break in on them. It is pure satire, laced with some fleeting observations about how we run from what we can’t cope with, how we settle for less than what is right, and end up contributing to the problem. It is certainly “sad”.

So how “true” is this strange work of fiction?
Well, while one shooting takes place, only across the city, Lenny describes the sentiments in a crowded bar of people: “We absorbed the Images and as a group of like-incomed people felt the short bursts of existential fear (…) Finally the fear and the empathy was replaced by a different knowledge. The knowledge that it wouldn’t happen to us. That what we were witnessing was not terrorism. That we were of good stock. That these bullets would discriminate” (p.155, Granta Books edition). These words, like much of the novel, eerily hold up a mirror to affluent Western society and how we can be totally disconnected from other people’s pain and injustice, even if it is happening close to us.

The language is eccentric and brilliant, at times joyful, as in one early section in which Lenny tells his diary he will live forever, his whole hope rooted in this goal, his drive to share the world with Eunice, despite the futility of the collapsing America around him:
“I just have to be good and I have to believe in myself. I just have to stay off the trans fats and the hooch. I just have to drink plenty of green tea and alkalinized water and submit my genome to the right people. I will need to re-grow my melting liver, replace the entire circulatory system with “smart blood” and find somewhere safe and warm (but not too warm) to while away the angry seasons and the holocausts. And when the earth expires, as it surely must, I will leave it for a new earth, greener still but with fewer allergens; and in the flowering of my own intelligence some 10³² years hence, when our universe decides to fold in on itself, my personality will jump through a black hole and surf into a dimension of unthinkable wonders, where the thing that sustained me on Earth 1.0 – tortelli lucchese, pistachio ice cream, the early works of the Velvet Underground, [sexual reference] – will seem as laughable and infantile as building blocks, baby formula, a game of ‘Simon says do this’” (p.3-4).
This is the new religion, at least for Lenny, who sets himself to believe in something, at times somewhat desperately. This is a world where everything is screwed – family relationships are full of abuse, churches are large, recruiting people to meaningless surface changes of behaviour without dealing with people’s real problems (the opposite of what I believe true Christian communities should be), the ineffectual and bullied US government uses a version of Orwell’s “double speak” to deny their own citizens of their human rights with their own implicit consent, and friendships are about one-upmanship while the young prey on the old. Above all, the inane and useless reigns, and is used, while (we can guess from various clues) political powers get to pursue their unknown agendas behind the scenes. Could this be a world we are in danger of becoming, a world in love with itself and distracting itself from what’s really important? A world of conflicting agendas and power games, a world without any ultimate hope, clinging on to what it can get where it can get it, where good democratic relations are impossible? A world where other people are reduced to a series of ratings about what they can give me? Where we have forgotten people’s inherent worth altogether?

1 comment:

Richard Townrow said...

Realised my review didn't explain all that much of what the world is like in the novel - so try here to find out more, it includes a cartoon!