Archives for posts with tag: Gary Shteyngart

While reading up on Gary Shteyngart for my review of Super Sad True Love Story I realised that he writes blurbs so much he’s become notorious for it. A tumblr is dedicated to it. A short documentary has even been made about it.

 

He jokes that he’s blurbed everything that’s come across his desk – ‘I look for the following: Two covers, one spine, at least 40 pages, ISBN number, title, author’s name. Once those conditions are satisfied, I blurb. And I blurb hard’ – but I thought Super Sad True Love Story was great, I think Shteyngart’s a wonderful writer, so I trust his judgement. But can he really think all these books are as amazing as he makes out?

I pay a lot of attention to the blurbs written by other authors, the excerpts from newspapers and magazines not so much, but the author ones interest me. Most of the time a quote from, say, the New York Times is credited to the publication, not to an individual. And it’s much harder to get a feel for a critic’s personality, you have to know their writing well, and a certain degree of impartiality and objectivity is part of the job description. Whereas, authors’ likes and dislikes are all laid out for you in the types of book they write. When I read a book I feel like I get to know the person who wrote it.

If I admire the author that wrote the blurb I’m intrigued about the book itself (I noted that American Gods has a blurb from Michael Chabon after I’d read The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: ‘Dark, fun and nourishing to the soul’. So, so true).

If I read a book and love it I’ll seek out the author who blurbed it (Neil Gaiman blurbed Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: ‘Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years’).

A little part of me read American Gods because of these two blurbs. Even though I am aware that the authors involved are Gaiman’s friends.

I’m put off a book if the writer that blurbed it wrote a book I couldn’t stand (even for books that sound good). A.D. Miller probably thought his own book was brilliant, how can I trust his judgement on others?

It also puts me off authors I’ve never read because they blurbed a book I didn’t enjoy. Emma Donoghue, I’m looking at you. Her blurb for State of Wonder: ‘Perfect from first page to last … This is her masterpiece.’ I dare to disagree. To be fair I probably was never going to read Room anyway.

Is all this trust in blurbs completely irrational?

If they’re doing the job nature intended, blurbs give you an idea of what type of book it is. Writers usually want authors of a similar type or genre to blurb for them. Like Jon Ronson blurbing for Will Storr – and you know what, having never heard of Storr but having read, and thoroughly enjoyed Ronson I had a good look at Storr’s new book, The Heretics, based purely on the Ronson blurb, and now I want to read it.

Maybe it’s all a ploy on the part of the blurber to get us to read something that’s similar to theirs but not nearly as good, thereby making their books look awesome by comparison.

I like to believe that author blurbing is something more than authors randomly pimping out their name. Sometimes it’s a favour to a friend that inspires them to blurb (others more cynical than I, like Salon‘s Laura Miller, would say it’s merely evidence of the cliquishness and insularity of publishing, because an author’s friend couldn’t possibly love their book on its own merits), plain old admiration or wanting to give new authors a chance by giving them some vicarious credibility. Shteyngart argues that it’s hard enough to get people to read literary fiction so why not be enthusiastic, why not help get people to actually read these books?

In reality blurbing probably is a mercenary business. It must be awkward and painful for new authors to be forced to solicit blurbs from famous authors just because those pesky readers are still silly enough to believe them. Maybe I should know better but, like some superstitions, getting a feel for a book based on blurbs is a habit I can’t let go of. Even if I do know all blurbing’s dirty little secrets.

Super Sad True Love StoryAgeing, ugly, earnest, lover of books Lenny Abramov falls in love with young, beautiful, damaged, naive Eunice Park. Super Sad True Love Story is the story of their sweet, messy love affair. The point of difference here is that it’s set in a dystopian near-future. The world Lenny and Eunice live in is very familiar, a heightened, over-the-top version of now, and it’s scarily real. The obsession with eternal youth, having to have the latest technology, using text language and acronyms in speech, wearing revealing clothes, America’s financial collapse – all of this is happening right now. Gary Shteyngart has mined these present trends and problems for absurdity.

Facelifts and Botox aren’t enough, in Shteyngart’s future High Net Worth Individuals reverse the ageing process using nanotechnology. Instead of iPhones, Facebook and Twitter there are äppäräts; devices for communication and online shopping, everything we use phones and computers for now except more invasive. They constantly monitor their wearers’ health, Credit ranking, mood, hotness, personality, everything you can think of. Instead of people saying LOL and OMG as if they’re real words, in the future of Super Sad True Love Story you’ll have to contend with TIMATOV (Think I’m About To Openly Vomit) and calling each other slut, playa and duder, as well as rampant illiteracy. Instead of midriff tops and short shorts there are nipple revealing bras worn in public and transparent Onionskin jeans worn without underwear.

Obsession with eternal life is all through the novel. Lenny works in Indefinite Life Extension and is continually plagued by thoughts of his own mortality. Everyone acts like stereotypical teenagers in a bid to recapture their youth and remain relevant. Lenny’s middle-aged to elderly (no one actually knows how old he really is) boss Joshie is the worst example of this. The middle-aged clinging to their youth is nothing new but Super Sad True Love Story really captures the dangers and horrors of a nation that never matures.

Super Sad True Love Story is a more playful 1984, not only is the government keeping tabs on everyone but through their äppäräts everyone watches each other. It’s just as terrifying as it is farcical (just the idea of everyone’s äppäräts ranking hotness whenever you go to a bar would make me want to become a hermit). I’d call Shteyngart prescient but so much of what he describes is beginning now. It made me think, is this really what the future holds? It sounds like hell to me. And that’s only the social and cultural issues.

Shteyngart has taken every problem the United States is currently having and has turned the volume up, including political and economic instability. This part isn’t so funny. America is poor, powerless, and on its way to being a military state. The government is always watching for signs of disloyalty. But Shteyngart’s sense of the absurd still comes through. The American government uses a cartoon otter in all its propaganda. There’s the otter in a sombrero trying to jump into a dinghy with the tagline ‘The Boat Is Full, Amigo’. The otter reappears, only this time he’s Americanised, a symbol of the government, unassuming and friendly yet passive-aggressively menacing. He’s a recurring motif, an embodiment of Larry’s paranoia that the government is after him.

Lenny Abramov is a relic from a dead world. He feels at home in Italy, a place steeped in history, decay and rebirth, more so than in America, the land of Retail and Media. In a culture where everyone amounts to nothing more than a collection of data Lenny wants a real human connection. Yet, he too has become caught up in the youth mania. This internal conflict draws him to Eunice, also conflicted about her place in the world but very much a product of her time. She’s bought into the obsession with extreme consumerism and the importance of youth.

Lenny is pathetic and cringe-worthy, even a little bit creepy, and his relationship with Eunice is incredibly awkward. So much so that I thought to myself, can I endure an entire book of this? But compared to everyone else Lenny is a symbol of truth and humanity. I learned to understand and appreciate him. Super Sad True Love Story is Eunice’s story as well. She’s not just Lenny’s shallow love interest, she’s still hard to love though. Eunice toys with Lenny but then she really loves him, she wants to get a shallow Retail job but then she wants to help homeless people living in Central Park. She’s pushy, dismissive and bratty but she’s also compassionate.

Super Sad True Love Story is funny, shocking and sad. It’s relevant and topical, a book you’ll feel compelled to tell people about. The observations Shteyngart makes about life and where the world is heading feel so spot-on. I just hope that he’s wrong.