1. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
There comes a time when you’re reading a high-concept novel and the thought hits you: you’re not having as much fun as you’re supposed to be having. I felt it when I was trying to finish Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, and I had it again reading Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.
This book pulls you in with its conceit. It takes place in the near future, a mostly-recognizable America where people are continually plugged into their mobile devices (here termed apparati), hyper aware of their diets and status, youth-obsessed and swimming in debt. The main character, Lenny Abramaov, is dealing with being thirty-nine and schlubish, with a dwindling personal wealth. And he’s in love with an 86-pound girl named Eunice.
For the first third of this book, the novelty of its backstory (which owes a tip of the hat to David Foster Wallace and George Saunders) is enough to propel the reader along. However, once I got the hang of the exposition and became acclimated to this world, my concentration was able to return to the story, character, and themes of the book. And that’s the problem with Super Sad True Love Story. The main characters are shallow at best and just plain dumb at worst. One wants to root for Lenny Abramov, but he never rises above the lovable (kind-of) loser that he was in the first pages. His bitchy girlfriend, Eunice, repeatedly accuses him of being a small-minded nerd, and that’s really all he is. The plot gives him many chances to act heroically, but he lets them all pass him by. By novel’s end, he’s just as meek as he always was, and the denouement finds him as a frustrated bystander who is bitter about how he could have made a difference but didn’t.
Shteyngart’s prose is often hilarious (JBF!), but is more often tedious. In satirizing the pretentious bourgeoisie lives of its dull characters, Super Sad True Love Story gives in to dullness. It turns out that accompanying your girlfriend on a shopping trip in a dystopian near future is just as dull as you would imagine it to be. And so is reading about it!
A major disruption comes in in the last third of the book, but even as the tone turns darker and more interesting, the main characters remain as they always were–spectators. I found myself counting the pages remaining in this one.
2. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
Prep is a coming of age novel about a witty middle-class girl at a prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts. The blurbs on the back of the book state that it is “warm,” and “tender,” “hilarious” and “excruciating,” and compare the author to Salinger (shocker!) and Sylvia Plath. And while there’s nothing really false about any of the praise the book advertises for itself, Prep is also overly-long and frustrating. Allow me to enumerate my problems with this novel.
First, the names. The names are terrible and fake, fake in the way that a writer creates fake names in the first draft of her work and thinks, “I’ll obviously change these fake names later.” One of the major characters is named Cross Sugarman. No one is named Cross Sugarman. Here are some others:
- Aspeth Montgomery
- Ferdy Chotin
- Tig (Yes, Tig! There’s a character named Tig!)
- Mr. Paulezks