Feb 5, 2013

[Books] Super Sad True Love Story

It's interesting how I still seem to be going through io9's 2010 list of best speculative fiction books in terms of my various reading choices in the past few years. But since the books are so hard to source locally, it took me getting an Amazon Kindle to finally acquire copies of many of the more interesting titles that had been featured. And I don't particularly regret any of these choices thus far, which is certainly a good thing.

Now this particular book didn't quite strike me as a science fiction book at first glance. I mean come on, the title is Super Sad True Love Story, of all things. And it's not like I particularly go for love stories or romances in terms of my typical reading fare.

But this book impressed me more because of its setting rather than the core premise. The universe that the author creates is far more interesting than the core love story. And it could be used as a sort of road map for other writers who want to explore the near future potential for a dystopian reality.

Synopsis: Super Sad True Love Story is an romance story set in a near-dystopian future as the US stands on the brink of financial collapse. It was written by Gary Shteyngart and managed to win the 2010 Salan Book Award for Fiction and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for 2011.

At the center of the story is Russian immigrant Leonard Abramov. He's a middle-age salesman for a unique product - life extension technology. He too is obsessed with saving up enough money to achieve indefinite life extension and thus has been in Italy for the past year or so trying to locate wealthier European clients who can afford the expensive treatments. While there he has a chance encounter with Eunice Park, a young Korean-American who is on vacation in Italy in order to avoid taking her schooling more seriously.

Leonard, or "Lenny", becomes quite obsessed with Eunice and constantly messages her in the hopes of getting her to agree to visit him. But in the meantime his lack of success in Europe has resulted in all his expenses being charged back to him by the company, thus disrupting his plans of starting life extension treatments. And Eunice is dealing with a lot of pressure from home to do better, while her mother and sister seem to be covering up the abuses of her father. In time the Lenny and Eunice reconnect in New York.

The story is told from both Lenny and Eunice's perspectives in alternating chapters. We periodically switch between Lenny's journals and Eunice's various communications on the GlobalTeens network to her best friend, her mother and her sister. Naturally the two have very distinct tones employed. Lenny's accounts are clearly the writings of a love-struck man somewhat past his prime while Eunice's messages only stress her shallow, materialistic and superficial nature.

I have to admit that the core love story is the biggest turn-off in this book since both of them aren't exactly highly impressive or endearing characters. But it's not quite their own "fault" as it were - their unusual views that seem despicable to us are the result of their highly materialistic and consumer-driven society. And that's where the real fun is.

The vision of the world that Shteyngart has created is centered around the premise that the United States is severely in debt. While the US Dollar still exists as a currency, there are more valuable "Yuan-backed Dollars" that represent currency reinforced by the Chinese creditors who seem to control most financial assets of the country. The problem that the US faces has drastically changed things as well in other ways. There are displays that report the credit rating of any citizen that passes them by - and they're as common as street lamps. The government is constantly encouraging people to spend more in order to fuel the economy and help them get out of the recession. And perhaps a million other tiny things that contribute to painting the overall picture of the global landscape of Lenny's world.

Shteyngart really invested a lot of time into painting all these little details in narrative world, but I just wish that there was a bit more detail applied to the love story itself. Given already unlikable characters, add in the fact that the structure of the book means that we don't see as many narrative details as we'd like. This is not exactly a story told from the first person perspective. Instead we have the writings of these people, which will always present a limited view of the person's thoughts. Even in the form of a personal journal, this will still limit how much we can see of the whole story.

Super Sad True Love Story is a good story overall, and a decently enjoyable experience. I still recommend it to any fan of speculative fiction given the richness of the setting - that alone makes it worth the read. Thus the book gets a respectable 3.5 creepy images of a mascot otter out of a possible 5.

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