Sunday, 23 October 2011

Quick: write about something that isn't politics!

I've been having trouble not posting about political things recently, as you may have noticed. So instead, I'm going to post about a book I read recently: Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story". I'm going to try not to include snark, but I'm sorely tempted.

See, the thing is, the book is an absolute darling to the critics. The New York Times called it "a book that not only showcases the ebullient satiric gifts he demonstrated in his entertaining 2002 debut... but that also uncovers his abilities to write deeply and movingly about love and loss and mortality." said it is "a high-wire act, pulling off a novel that’s simultaneously so biting and so compassionate... Shteyngart, while unfailingly shrewd and funny, wasn’t always this tender." Ron Charles, writing for WaPo, says "This may be the only time I've wanted to stand up on the subway and read passages of a book out loud."

And I really, really didn't like it. At all.

And I've been trying to figure out why.

Shteyngart has created a New York of the (supposedly) near future, where consumerism, techno-centrism, and solipsism rule. The story follows the day-to-day life of one Lenny Abramov, son of Russian Jewish immigrants, living in an America on the verge of economic (and moral) bankruptcy. Dollars come in two varieties: regular and Yuan-pegged; a cheerful cartoon otter decorates the US embassies of the world, with the caption "The Boat Is Full, Amigo!"; people of all creeds and colours spend their time glued to a device called an äppärät (read: more engrossing iPhone) ordering clothing from clothing stores named "JuicyPussy" and "AssLuxury"; the "younger generation" speak in abbreviations like JBF (Just Butt-F*cking) and TIMATOV (Think I'M About To Openly Vomit); books, sorry "bound, printed, nonstreaming media artifacts", are only for the old, because the kind of literacy needed to enjoy Tolstoy is over.

It's satire, though, and so this is supposed to be okay.


See, the way I think satire is supposed to work is, well, take my favourite example: Swift's "Let's Feed Irish Babies to the Poor" (known more properly as his "Modest Proposal"). In it, Swift adopts a point of view opposite to his own and magnifies it to the point of absurdity to make it clear how batsh*t insane this idea is. So he's not saying "hey, let's take those Irish babies and feed them to the Irish poor -- it'll kill two birds with one stone" he's saying "this is this kind of crap you d*ckheads are proposing and it really has to STOP." See also: Steven Colbert.

And if that's the way this book were operating, I think I'd be more on board with it. This book takes all the things that old, curmudgeonly people are afraid of about the current pace of progress, all the "get-off-my-lawn" crap like "kids these days don't know how to read", "kids these days have no attention span", "kids these days are too sexualized", and "kids these days are crude disgusting excuses for human beings", and turns them into a reality. Turning those dials (as Nigel Tufnel might say) "to eleven" makes those criticisms seem ludicrous.

Because, let's face it, they are ludicrous. The future is scary as hell, but it's also promising as heck. Thanks to the primarily text-based web, more people read than ever before. And if it's not the classics, then it's in new modes of literacy -- in the creation and distribution of videos, images, memes -- hell, we're even crowdsourcing science-fiction storylines and selling them to movie-makers now! We're remixing, redistributing, reinventing ourselves every day and it's not shallow, it's not coarse, it's not in any way a lessening of ourselves as a culture. It's bigger, it's better and it's way the hell scarier than that. It's NEW. And that doesn't always mean "out with the old," but it does sometimes mean a shift away from it.

Which is, I think, the problem I have with this book. You see, I don't think it's satire. I think I wish it were satire. But I've met Gary Shteyngart, and I don't honestly think it is.

I think the way the creation of this book went was that he took all the things he didn't like about our culture -- the misogyny, the consumerism, the solipsism, the growth in what only a member of the New York Literati could call "illiteracy" -- and yes, he turned them "to eleven". But he didn't do it to prove the absurdity of fearing them. He did it to try to show that the misogyny, consumerism, et al. were absurd. He's not saying that being afraid of change is absurd; he's saying that the direction our culture is headed in is absurd.

And I like the direction our culture is headed in.

Because I don't think we're anywhere near as consumerist, misogynist, technology-addled, over-sexed, and terrified of human contact as he seems to. Having seen him speak in person I believe he actually links technological culture -- blogging, vlogging, tweeting, facebooking, and so forth -- with a crippling, world-changing solipsism, and with the consumerism, misogyny, and "illiteracy" that accompanies it.

But I don't think his book can ever support it.

In person, he spoke of the death of journalism, of how something great was being lost. He spoke of how, in his book, everyone's a broadcaster -- but they're broadcasting inane garbage to nobody, because everyone's so involved in their own lives that they never actually listen to other people.

In the book, there are "Media" people (always with a capital-M) who broadcast in real-time from their äppäräti to tens of thousands of viewers. But try as he might to suggest that this is about too many broadcasters and not enough viewers (or, as he repeatedly said to us, too many MFA-endowed novelists and not enough readers) the novel shows something different. To me, anyway. To me, it shows a digital world where news has been democratized. Where the censors can't stop local news about local protests getting around, because they can't block every feed. Where an ordinary schmoe can get the eyes and ears of ten thousand viewers with a glorified iPhone for five minutes to rant about politics, society, or culture.

I guess what it comes down to is that I'm optimistic about the future, and this book couldn't be further from it. I guess I don't find it very funny because I think it's over the top for the wrong reasons. And I guess I feel like even Shteyngart can't paint a picture of a future I won't like.

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