NEW YORK (Reuters) - Russian-American author Gary Shteyngart’s new book is a vision of a fast-declining America, obsessed by youthfulness, gripped by omniscient smartphones and swayed by monopolies and the Bank of China.
A cash-strapped United States is at war with Venezuela and the Chinese yuan-pegged dollars are coveted currency.
“Super Sad True Love Story,” uses e-mails to develop a star-crossed romance. Like Shteyngart, the protagonist Lenny Abramov is his late 30s, slight, balding, Jewish and a native Russian speaker. The fictional challenge is to woo a hyper-intelligent Korean-American beauty, aged 24.
Shteyngart spoke to Reuters about the book and how, like George Orwell’s “1984,” the novel includes a love story to draw readers into a world extrapolated from the present.
Q. How did you come up with the character in your latest book?
A. “I wanted somebody who at age 39 is completely obsolete. In this society, anyone who is not young is finished. And people go to great lengths to be young. Like all satire, speculative fiction, I’m extrapolating from what is happening today. I love characters who are not quite up to the society which they find themselves but are still great romantics. That’s where (Korean-American) Eunice comes in, she’s gorgeous.”
Q. Why a younger Korean-American woman?
A. “I wanted to create a love affair between two children of immigrants. Lenny and Eunice fall in love. They’re very mismatched, but they come from two dysfunctional immigrant families, so they’re kind of made for each other.
“They feel at home here, but the real immigrant is Lenny not because he comes from a different country but because he comes from a different planet, the planet being the analog planet, the pre-digital world, and he finds himself completely without the skills to navigate this world. He tries to learn all the new abbreviations and the acronyms and all the computer gadgetry that surrounds him.
“But for Eunice, this is her native soil, that she knows, so Lenny is the odd man out, and the thing that really makes him a dinosaur, an anachronism, is that he likes books.”
Q. You describe a United States in decline in which the only currencies worth having are yuan-pegged dollars and northern euros. How far into the future is this?
A. “I always joke it’s next Tuesday .... When I started writing this, my initial idea in 2006 was the banks were going to collapse. And all this stuff (like Lehman) started to happen.
“When things go south, they do it pretty quickly. I grew up in the Soviet Union. We left in 1979. We thought the (Soviet) system would go on forever, and 12 years later, the whole thing was gone.”
Q. Do you see your vision of America as a warning?
A. “I don’t like to think of writers as moralists or Cassandras, or great prognosticators. You read “1984.” What Orwell was really working with was Stalinist Russia, and as a predictor of what happened in 1984, it’s not very good, the Stalinist system he really was talking about was beginning to fall apart.
“On the other hand a novel like “Brave New World” is actually a brilliant predictor. So many of the ideas are fulfilled (like) tranquilizers, the idea of genetic breeding. But you know what? I remember “1984” better than “Brave New World” because there was that love story. That made it real, even though it was a novel of ideas. Without a love story, it (my latest novel) couldn’t work. For me, anything where the character is secondary to the ideas is not going to work.”
Q. Your novel features the apparat, an all-consuming (smartphone) device. where people learn about each others’ credit rating, attractiveness, wealth ..., Where did the idea come from, and what do you see as the inevitable progression?
A. “The thing about the apparat that interested me was the rate-me plus technology. Whenever you walk into a bar, you’re immediately told you’re the eighth-ugliest man in the bar but you have the third best credit rating. It ranks you in a 100 different ways.
“This is already true of everything that is happening right now; every month I get a credit rating, which shows me my ranking ... Amazon ranks my books, everything is ranked systematically, all the time, and people are obsessed with their numerical standings...It’s taking on more and more urgency, and part of this maybe has to do with our obsession of our own insecurities of being a nation in decline.
“Rankings are very easy. You’re this, this and this. But they don’t tell anything of what you are as a person, and that kind of depersonalization becomes a by-product of this hyper digital society Lenny has to reluctantly enter with Eunice.
Q. Are there any movies on the horizon?
A. “They keep talking about it; this book I think, yes, we shall see.”
Q. Anyone in mind to play Lenny?
A. “I think James Franco would be the perfect character ... He was my (creative writing) student (at Columbia.)”