Top critical review
Wanted It to Be Better
Reviewed in the United States on December 17, 2010
Few of the reviews here refer to Shteyngart's other novels, and perhaps that's telling. The resemblances between "Absurdistan" and this satire--the unattractive protragonist and his love interest in the foreground, dystopic corporate empire in the background--are too obvious to miss, and therein perhaps the shortcomings here. When a novel is less than wonderful, even an amateur wants to play doctor, and perhaps the problem I can identify is that Shteyngart's favored scenario became a little too formulaic on the second go-round. Or perhaps I was charmed the first time, a little less disarmed the second, or had unconsciously raised my expectations. Or perhaps it's the times? 2010 seems decades beyond 2006; we are in the midst of a world-wide recession and beset with a bought-and-paid-for government that obsesses on serving the rich. It's hard to laugh, or to be induced to laugh, at anything that isn't totally off the wall.
The dystopia of "Super Sad" is hardly much of a leap from where we are now. I scoured reviews of the book, looking for someone who could nail the problem for me, and came upon this paragraph from Ron Charles of the Washington Post:
"Perhaps the saddest aspect of this "Super Sad True Love Story" is that you can smell Shteyngart sweating to stay one step ahead of the decaying world he's trying to satirize. It's an almost impossible race now that the exhibitionism of ordinary people has lost its ability to shock us. Just try coming up with something creepier than middle school girls wearing shorts with the word "Juicy" across their bottoms, or imagine a fashion line cruder than FCUK (Shteyngart comes close). His description of friends getting together after work to text other friends is taking place today in every D.C. restaurant. And how can you parody the TV news coverage when George Stephanopoulos has already presented a straight-faced report on Lindsay Lohan's obscene fingernail stencil?"
Another personal diagnosis is that the novel suffers from overambition. Shteyngart's satiric world clatters and clanks with inventions that constantly make us exporers of a world we should inhabit along with his characters, but he never quite succeeds in creating an environment for them--we remain tourists while he necessarily feels obliged to describe the sights. To get us to inhabit the landscape, to make it real to us, perhaps the novel should have been twice as long; but if that is what was necessary, so be it. A mere sketch of an alien landscape, even one not much more than an exaggeration of our own, is frustrating: I wanted to feel the ambience, be haunted. But it wasn't real, even granting the fact that I live in New York and am familiar with the book's described geography.
Moreover, the mix of humor and disaster didn't work for me. Lenny's friends are murdered, the disenfranchised get machine-gunned or clubbed on the head, and yet we are supposed to laugh in the next scene. A tall order, one I don't think Shteyngart pulls off. With a consistency of satiric tone--if the deaths themselves had been outlandish?-- it might have worked, but I didn't find that consistency.
It could be that Steyngart's clown face is forced and stems from undermediated psychic needs. Lenny's "diary" entries in the novel have a literary power that the rest of the novel lacks, perhaps because Lenny, the source of the humor, is himself quite serious. Maybe this is a Shteyngart voice that will find a satisfying outlet later.
On balance this was an interesting book, and worth the time; but I finished it thinking it might have been (choose one) more powerful, more devastating an indictment, or more moving, or certainly funnier. But as a tossed salad, at least this time, the flavors competed rather than complemented.