This time we are in New York, but a New York some untold years hence, an amped-up version of today’s city.
Wall Street has consolidated into a small handful of corporate monoliths like Land O’Lakes GMFord Credit; America’s ruling Bipartisan Party, mired in debt to China, enforces its power with Halliburton-like military contractors; books, now antique objects, draw distaste less for their highfalutin obscurity than for their peculiar smell; and all aspects of life are governed by all-knowing äppäräti.
Lenny Abramov, our hero, is a weak-willed, first-generation American, the son of Russian immigrants with an unwavering faith in their new motherland despite its increasing resemblance to the authoritarian oligarchy they left behind.
Shteyngart specializes in places slightly askance of the real—the Prague-like Prava of his debut, the hapless post-Soviet state of Absurdistan.
We have been reading a curated version of their past.
(Why books are suddenly fashionable again is not addressed.) “Since the first edition of my diaries and Eunice’s messages was published in Beijing and New York two years ago, I have been accused of writing my passages with the hope of eventual publication, while even less kind souls have accused me of slavish emulation of the final generation of American ‘literary’ writers,” Lenny reflects.Your äppärät runs that against the stuff you’ve downloaded about yourself and then it comes up with a score.Like, you’ve dated a lot of abused girls, so it knows you’re into that shit.” It’s a narrative convenience, how little Lenny takes for granted.Lenny, on the brink of forty, works for a company that promises eternal life to “High Net Worth Individuals”; Eunice, some fifteen years his junior, is a full-fledged citizen of the new world order.She speaks in acronyms and scrolls through her äppärät for deals on sheer pop-off panties.It’s fitting that with his new novel, Shteyngart has devoted himself more fully to his adopted homeland than in either of his previous books.He tends to traffic in provincial nations staving off collapse, and here that role falls to the United States.The awakening of her consciousness owes itself, at least in part, to Lenny, a man-child in the vein of Shteyngart’s earlier protagonists.For all his anachronism—or more likely, because of his anachronism—Lenny is able to provide Eunice with an unquestioning love that re-humanizes her.The reality is, Shteyngart could stand in their company if he would allow himself, instead of giving in to his tendency to burden his novels with increasingly outlandish plots. After writing what, for all its futurism, is essentially a tragedy in the classic mold, did Shteyngart feel he needed a gesture of deference to that most alluring of contemporary commodities—hope?Or is he issuing an apologia for the minor flaws of his novel? The author manages at once to satirize the grotesqueries of our era, our hubris and our excess, while sustaining an intense pathos for the individuals forced to bear the fallout, as the best satires do.