9 November 2010

Sad as Hell

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  • Gary Shteyngart. Super Sad True Love Story. Random House, July 2010.

When we self-diagnose, we look for control factors. Sometimes we invent them. The goal of solipsistic anxiety is to find an individual agent that explains our misery. We eliminate possibilities one-by-one in hopes that a single cause remains. This is how people deduce food allergies and come to workable morning routines (no to coffee, yes to tea; don’t transfer trains, walk the extra eight blocks instead). It’s frustrating when changes in lifestyle are not singular but rather come in waves, making it harder to identify and explain away the sole source of pain. We prefer that our personal problems not be overdetermined.

In the past year, I graduated from college, got a desk job, and bought an iPhone: the three vertices of the Bermuda Triangle into which my ability to think in the ways that matter most to me has disappeared. My mental landscape is now so altered that its very appearance must be different than it was at this time last year. I imagine my brain as a newly wretched terrain, littered with gaping chasms (What’s my social security number, again?), expansive lacunae (For the thousandth time, the difference between “synecdoche” and “metonymy,” please?), and recently formed fissures (How the fuck do you spell “Gyllenhaal?”). This is your brain on technology.


I have the sensation, as do my friends, that to function as a proficient human, you must both “keep up” with the internet and pursue more serious, analog interests. I blog about real life; I talk about the internet. It’s so exhausting to exist on both registers, especially while holding down a job. It feels like tedious work to be merely conversationally competent. I make myself schedules, breaking down my commute to its most elemental parts and assigning each leg of my journey something different to absorb: podcast, Instapaper article, real novel of real worth, real magazine of dubious worth. I’m pretty tired by the time I get to work at 9 AM.

In-person communication feels binary to me now: subjects are either private, confessional, and soulful or frantically current, determined mostly by critical mass, interesting only in their ephemeral status. Increasingly these modes of talk seem mutually exclusive. You can pull someone aside—away from the party, onto the fire escape—and confess to a foible or you can stay inside with the group and make a joke about something everyone’s read online. “Maybe you keep the wrong company,” my mother suggests. Maybe. But I like my friends! We can sympathize with each other and feel reassured that we’re not alone in our overeager consumption, denigrated self-control, and anxiety masked as ambition. 

Part of the difficulty is that the pace of online narratives (Tumblr posts, Jezebel comment fights, truffle-whatever) resembles that of tabloids or all-or-nothing friends. Maintaining interest in any of them demands constant devotion and attention. Tabloids are only interesting as long as you’re always reading them; let your checkout-line-skimming lapse for a week and the thought of celebrity gossip seems pointless. Same with all-or-nothing friends: they’re only compelling if you talk to them all the time; when the chatty, daily interactions end so does the prospect of an interesting expository conversation. Without consistency, a long phone call seems not only daunting but also profoundly dull.

This anxiety is about more than failing to keep up with a serialized source, though. It’s also about the primitive pleasure of constant and arbitrary stimulation. That’s why the Facebook newsfeed is no longer shown chronologically. Refresh Facebook ten times and the status updates rearrange themselves in nonsensical, anachronistic patterns. You don’t refresh Facebook to follow a narrative, you refresh to register a change—not to read but to see.

And it’s losing track of this distinction—between reading and seeing—that’s so shameful. It’s like being demoted from the category of thinking, caring human to a sort of rat that doesn’t know why he needs to tap that button, just that he does. I deleted Twitter and Tumblr off my phone about a month ago. For a few weeks, I felt empowered, proactive, “refreshed.” But addicts are sneaky! Soon I was circumnavigating my own artificial restrictions, checking via Safari.

How did this happen to me? Was it graduating, the sudden alleviation of the pressure to read critically, think dialectically, and write rigorously? Is it the desk job, the nine static hours each day during which I’m “allowed” to be on the internet? Is it the iPhone, that little monster in my pocket “pushing” me an uninterrupted stream of distractions? I’m reluctant to admit the obvious: that the factors are of course conspiring, that the major and bad thing that has happened in the past year is, in fact, the result of multiple developments, of a constellation of circumstances.


“Dense with panic and media”—that’s how Gary Shteyngart describes the technologized air of future-America in his third novel, Super Sad True Love Story. Fragmented and partially epistolary, Super Sad True Love Story presents us with excerpts from its protagonist Lenny’s first-person diary. Along with his library (the smell of old books is repulsive to future noses), the diary is meant as an objective correlative to his personal antiquity. Its traditionally narrated (and correctly punctuated!) passages are interspersed with text from GlobalTeens, a monopolizing social network. “GLOBAL TEENS SUPER HINT: Switch to Images today! Less work = more fun!!! GLOBAL TEENS SUPER HINT: Harvard Fashion School studies show excessive typing makes wrists large and unattractive. Be GlobalTeen forever—switch to Images today!”

The love story of the novel’s title is superlatively tragic. Lenny is 39 years old (like Shteyngart himself, a fact the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list won’t let us forget) and works for a company that sells life extension to HNWIs (High Net-Worth Individuals). Obsessed with his own decay and the entropic political climate he occupies, Lenny falls in love with Eunice Park, a young Korean-American woman just out of college with a degree in Images and Assertiveness. Their intimacy is aching and codependent and familial and relatively unmediated. In the movie version, the two are played by Woody Allen and Soon Yi circa 1992.

Lenny falls in love with Eunice’s newness and cleanliness, and the cognitive dissonance between her maternal instincts and childish desperation. Eunice falls for Lenny’s tweedy nebbishness, his corporality, his willingness and ability to have her absolutely. For only in Lenny do we get a character attuned to the unstreamed world. Like the extreme disparity between inner and outer beauty that so often stumps the moral compasses of fairytale heroines, Lenny’s low “fuckability” (baldness, hairiness, shortness) is dissolved not only by his seemingly inexhaustible capacity to love but also by the careful and, in his world, rare attention he pays to what it feels like to be alive.

On getting drunk: “But by the end of said night I remembered very little. Let’s just say that I drank. Drank out of fear (she was so cruel). Drank out of happiness (she was so beautiful). Drank until my whole mouth and teeth had turned a dark ruby red and the pungency of my breath and perspiration betrayed my passing years.”

On his parents’ house: “The floor beneath my feet was clean, immigrant clean, clean enough so that you understood that somebody had done their best.”

On his lover’s despair: “Eunice exhale[d] in such a sad, hurt, elongated, final way, it made me wonder if she would ever be capable of replacing that breath.”

On spicy food: “I closed my eyes and let the lining of my mouth turn into pure heat.”

Such instances of specificity are on every page of Super Sad True Love Story. To articulate this register of existence, one so subtle that it usually exists only as preamble to thought, is what good writing is supposed to do. It’s also supposedly what a social media profile does. The success of both is contingent upon loaded detail: how efficiently can you render a character fully and richly? How can you most tastefully curate your reveals? How to stream a self both believably realistic and seductively aspirational?

Only in a sort of extra-textual reading can we get a sense of Shteyngart’s hopefulness. It’s a radical and ultimately optimistic project to write a dystopian novel about the super sad future of an acronymed-America, an America whose currency is pegged to the Chinese yuan, an America in which all citizens carry äppäräti, mobile devices that stream all of their statistics (depression levels, cholesterol, income, address, spontaneous opinions). It’s a corrective to write speculative—but more or less inevitable—fiction about a world in which people don’t read. Like all great science fiction writers, Shteyngart deals in absurdist teleology, taking what is farcical about the present day to its logical extreme. Everyone in this world is ranked within categories: “personality,” “fuckability, “anal/oral/vaginal preference,” “male hotness.” Often, Lenny scores within the lowest of these percentiles. The premise is super funny but also super true. What else are we doing on the internet if not asserting our rank?


In an essay in the New York Times Book Review, Shteyngart makes literal the pervasive disquiet that organizes his novel. Published mid-summer, “Only Disconnect” laments all the ways in which the internet imposes on his thinking. He seems to have woefully accepted the words of the “20-something Apple Store glam-nerd” who sold him his iPhone: “This right here . . .  is the most important purchase you will ever make in your life.” The essay serves as a supplementary text to Super Sad True Love Story, one that makes explicit just how much Shteyngart is actually writing about the present. “With each post, each tap of the screen, each drag and click,” he confesses, “I am becoming a different person—solitary where I was once gregarious; a content provider where I at least once imagined myself an artist; nervous and constantly updated where I once knew the world through sleepy, half-shut eyes . . . With each passing year, scientists estimate that I lose between 6 and 8 percent of my personality.” 

Sometimes I can almost visualize parts of myself, the ones I’m most proud of, atrophying. I wish I had an app to monitor it! I notice that my thoughts are homeopathic, that they mirror content I wish I weren’t reading. I catch myself performing hideous, futuristic gestures, like that “hilarious” moment three seconds into an intimate embrace in which I realize I’m literally rubbing my iPhone screen across his spine. Almost every day at 6 PM my Google Alert tells me that an “Alice Gregory” has died. It’s a pretty outdated name, and most of these obituaries, from family newsletters and local papers, are for octogenarians. I know I’m being tidy-minded even to feel a pang from this metaphor, but still . . .

It’s hard not to think “death drive” every time I go on the internet. Opening Safari is an actively destructive decision. I am asking that consciousness be taken away from me. Like the lost time between leaving a party drunk and materializing somehow at your front door, the internet robs you of a day you can visit recursively or even remember. You really want to know what it is about 20-somethings? It’s this: we live longer now. But we also live less. It sounds hyperbolic, it sounds morbid, it sounds dramatic, but in choosing the internet I am choosing not to be a certain sort of alive. Days seem over before they even begin, and I have nothing to show for myself other than the anxious feeling that I now know just enough to engage in conversations I don’t care about.

The internet’s most ruinous effect on literacy may not be the obliteration of long-format journalism or drops in hardcover sales; it may be the destruction of the belief that books can be talked and written about endlessly. There are fewer official reviews of novels lately, but there are infinitely more pithily captioned links on Facebook, reader-response posts on Tumblr, punny jokes on Twitter. How depressing, to have a book you just read and loved feel so suddenly passé, to feel—almost immediately—as though you no longer have any claim to your own ideas about it. I started writing this piece when the book came out at the end of July, and I started unwriting it almost immediately thereafter. Zeno’s Paradox 2.0: delete your sentences as you read their approximations elsewhere. How will future fiction work? Will details coalesce into aphorism? I wonder if instead of scribbling down in my notebook all the familiar aspects of girls I see on the street, as I used to, I’ll continue doing what I do now: snapping a picture and captioning it, in the words of Shteyngart, “so media.”

The temptation to blame unprecedented worries and bad memory and addled attention on technology is nothing new; it’s at least as old as The Phaedrus. Is Google Making Us Stupid? Duh! But not only that: the internet is also making us troublingly self-sufficient. It’s sublimating our personalized antidotes to loneliness. Lenny describes a couple he knows as being “together for the obvious and timeless reason: It was slightly less painful than being alone.” To be on the internet is to never be alone. I haven’t succumbed to amorphous feelings of isolation since sophomore year of college. For years now, this has been a pillar of my dignity, a tenant of my self-respect. Sophomore year of college was the last time I remember attending a party I didn’t want to go to in spite of myself, the last time I remember choosing people I didn’t really like over solitude. How dumb of me to think that I don’t do this online every day now.

Shteyngart says the first thing that happened when he bought an iPhone “was that New York fell away . . . It disappeared. Poof.” That’s the first thing I noticed too: the city disappeared, along with any will to experience. New York, so densely populated and supposedly sleepless, must be the most efficient place to hone observational powers. But those powers are now dulled in me. I find myself preferring the blogs of remote strangers to my own observations of present ones. Gone are the tacit alliances with fellow subway riders, the brief evolution of sympathy with pedestrians. That predictable progress of unspoken affinity is now interrupted by an impulse to either refresh a page or to take a website-worthy photo. I have the nervous hand-tics of a junkie.  For someone whose interest in other people’s private lives was once endless, I sure do ignore them a lot now.

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