Majoring in Images

Peter Wood

Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story was picked by many critics as one of the best novels of 2010. It is set in a near-future New York, as the United States collapses into a Greek-style debt crisis, futile military exploits, domestic repression under the rule of the “Bipartisan Party,” and corporate autocracy. That sounds grim enough, but Shteyngart is mainly a satirist, and the novel is not so much an extrapolation of our economic and political anxieties as it is portrait of our cultural descent.

The love story of the title is between 39-year-old Lenny Abramov and 24-year-old Eunice Park, who appears to Lenny as “a very young Asian Audrey Hepburn.” Lenny is a reader. One of his friends calls him the “last reader on earth,” and his Lower East Side co-op holds his prize possession: a wall of books. Eunice is appalled at the sight. She is a graduate of Elderbird College in Massachusetts (a stand-in for Mount Holyoke, perhaps) where she majored in ‘images” and minored in “assertiveness.”

Lenny anticipates her prejudice—“that terrible calumny of the new generation: that books smell,” and prepares for Eunice’s arrival by spraying his library with Pine-Sol Wild Flower Blast. Eunice appreciates the gesture.

In one of the book’s small masterpieces, Eunice, caught between wonder and disgust, tells her girlfriend about watching Lenny read a book:

Anyway, what kind of freaked me out was that I saw Len reading a book. (No, it didn’t SMELL. He uses Pine-Sol on them.) And I don’t mean scanning a text like we did in Euro Classics with that Chatterhouse of Parma I mean READING. He had this ruler out and he was moving it down the page very slowly and just like whispering little things to himself, like trying to understand every little part of it. I was going to teen my sister but I was so embarrassed I just stood there and watched him read which lasted for like HALF AN HOUR, and finally he put the book down and I pretended like nothing happened. And then I snuck a peek and it was that Russian guy Tolsoy [sic] he was reading. I thought Ben was really brain-smart because I saw him streaming Chronicles of Narnia in that café in Rome, but this Tolsoy [sic] was a thousand pages long BOOK, not a stream, and Lenny was on page 930, almost finished.

Eunice is invincibly ignorant of the past, and aspires to what has become the prestige career for graduates of elite colleges, clerking in a retail store. Lenny, however, is given “one luminous moment” when he discovers her “looking at my Wall of Books with some curiosity, specifically at a washed-out cover of a Milan Kundera paperback.” When she sees that Lenny is watching, she slides the book back, “smelling her fingers for book odor, her cheeks in full blush.”

Super Sad True Love Story has been widely and ably reviewed, and has its own You Tube satiric promo. Shteyngart deserves all the attention for the pathos, hilarity, and soulfulness of the novel, but also for his deft touch with how American higher education is sinking further and further into triviality. The topic, of course, has been visited many times before, most memorably in Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, White Noise. In Super Sad True Love Story, college is always off-stage, but not far off. Eunice recalls her college teachers and sometimes even regrets “things that I never learned at Elderbird, like that New York used to owned by the Dutch (what were they ever doing in America?)”

In Shteyngart’s America, everyone is equipped with an “äppärät,” a device that maliciously combines the worst of Facebook and the iPhone. In lieu of any sensible connection to the past or to civilization, educated Americans live in the constantly shifting vagaries of the social network. They take this situation for granted, and when the system crashes and remains down for several weeks, some are driven to despair.

Against this deadening presentism, Shteyngart poses the old-fashioned sensibilities of Lenny, who likens himself to a character in one of Chekhov’s stories, and who prizes the glints of reality not yet drowned out by the ubiquitous media:

I relished language actually spoken by children. Overblown verbs, explosive nouns, beautifully bungled prepositions. Language, not data. How long would it be before these kids retreated unto the dense clickety-clack äppärät world of their absorbed mothers and missing fathers?

Lenny is only semi-alienated from the world he finds himself in. He likes his work as a salesman of life-extension treatments at Post-Human Services. He moves easily in world of corporate combines such as ColgatePalmolive Yum!BrandsViacomCredit and AlliedWasteCVSCitigroupCredit. He shares the disdain of his class for Low Networth Individuals (LNI’s) and takes in stride the desperate slogan of the failing U.S. government: “Together we will surprise the world.”

Mortality weighs on him, however, and Steyngart gives him a slowly awakening realization that “we all die.” Whether this is meant to include civilizations isn’t said, but it seems that too. The things that Lenny love will pass away.

We can take some comfort that books like this are more like exorcisms of possible futures than prophecies of what will actually happen. Steyngart’s exaggerations of current path of credit-driven self-indulgence and cultural amnesia are wickedly funny. We are seeing the world—Chatterhouse, “Tolsoy,” and all—after the final dissolution of the liberal arts. Fortunately, we don’t actually have college majors in “Images” and “Assertiveness,” and students don’t actually “scan a stream” rather than read. Do we?


This article originally appeared on June 27 at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

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