I really don’t know how to approach a discussion of this book.
It is a satire, yes. Of our rampant consumerism, of our self-absorbed nature, of our total ignorance. Of America at the start of the 2010s, an America headed rapidly towards the America of the not-too-distant future of Shteyngart’s book. Because that’s what the book’s really about. To me, anyway. A reminder to those of us living in the right-here-and-now that this is where we’re headed if we don’t shape up. Or, actually, it’s where we’re headed no matter what and we’ve realized it too late.
This book surprised me twice. Perhaps three times. That ‘perhaps’ comes from the fact that I expected it to be lighter than it was. This is probably a result of the hilarious trailer (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfzuOu4UIOU) featuring cameos from Eugenides, McInerney, and Franco. Of course, the trailer really has very little to do with the novel itself – it has more to do with how weird Shteyngart is. The book was far more somber than the trailer implied – indeed, than its rather bright and colorful cover implied.
The novel is split up into roughly alternating sections – the diaries of our hero, Lenny Abramov, and the “GlobalTeens” account of Eunice Park, the object of his affection. The story starts off ordinarily – guy meets girl, falls in love, courts her, etc. It was pretty predictable but charming, too. The future seems scary as all get out but also, in the way that the future always gets away with, shiny and bright and exciting. The äppärät – the device all the characters have that is the next step from the smartphone, apparently – reminds me way too much of my Palm Pre. of the iPhone. of our dependence on those tiny finger-queued machines. I’m currently staring at my Pre with light suspicion.
I don’t want to give away the facets of this slightly dystopian future so I won’t say much more about it. I also don’t want to violate my spoilers code by revealing too much, so I’m going to tread carefully here. That said, consider a SPOILER WARNING in effect for this blog and its outlying counties.
The second surprise comes about 2/3 of the way through the book. A moment that comes to be known as The Rupture. It is so skillfully executed that as the characters scramble to figure out what’s going on and their tension rises, so too does the reader’s. Its a bit like Cloverfield – everyone at a party, trying to figure out what the hell is happening. That very intense, very close-up small-group view serves Shteyngart well as the shit hits the fan and the section of Lenny’s diaries called “The Rupture” is paced so perfectly that at the end, your breath is taken away. It is astonishing, scary, exciting, and a masterfully executed literary moment.
The novel slips somewhat back into more mundane territory as the events surrounding The Rupture settle down. But I didn’t feel like this was a mundane story, not anymore. This was musing on the way humanity can spring back in the face of the most horrifying disaster. How, after a time, our lives return to a relative normalcy. The logos surrounding us have just changed a bit, that’s all. There’s a different guy calling the shots, that’s all. We just go back to work, back to our apartments, back to our lives and adjust.
The third surprise comes in the last chapter, where Shteyngart pulls a fast one on the reader with an interesting semi-meta-narrational twist. The feelings I had about the alternating chapters – how Lenny was kind of a bit of a navel-gazer (those exact words were my thoughts as I read) and definitely an idiot, how Eunice was more alive but less refined and how she was so flighty – are laid out in almost those exact words. The book becomes an artifact instead of a new piece. The events don’t change – but your perception of them is altered, just slightly. They aren’t real-time in the present-tense-action of the story anymore. This is hazy, I know, but I’m trying not to blab the whole book away.
Needless to say, I was surprised. Not let-down, necessarily – but there was a feeling of some emptiness at the way the book ended. I’m having trouble categorizing it, to be honest. I’m having trouble putting a numerical concept onto this book – because there were flaws, most definitely… but the surprises were handled so well and totally recalibrated my relationship to the novel that I can’t help but sit in awe.
I finished the book nearly an hour ago and I’ve not done a lick of work since then – I’ve simply been thinking about the book. And that, to be honest, says a lot more than anything else. That fact outweighs the objections I might have to the style of the satire, to the sometimes rather 2-D (and kind of unlikeable in that “you’re so… like normal people” way) characters, to the fact that it’s probably 30-40 pages longer than it needs to be.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. I really wrestled with this. Evidently ^. But I can’t ignore the level of engagement, the intensity of emotion – the fact that, sitting on the train home last night, I found myself sucked into this book as The Rupture occurred to the point that I could barely tear myself away from it to walk to my house. To the fact that, deep down, I’m actually very scared of what this book presents as our future – because I want to believe its a satire and it could never get that bad but honestly? It might. It just might. The short-comings of the novel pale in comparison to the gut emotion and thought provoked by reading it.