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In Association with Amazon.com
Super Sad True Love Story
Gary Shteyngart
Granta paperback �12.99

review by Patrick Hudson

Up until approximately 1977, there was a healthy tradition of fantasy and SF in mainstream literary fiction. Before the war, plenty of respectable mainstream writers tried their hands at it - Wells, of course, and Aldous Huxley, but also Wyndham Lewis, Sinclair Lewis and J.B. Priestly. After the war, actual SF writers started getting noticed - Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke! - and the genre's reputation was fuelled by the same cultural yearnings that fed the zeitgeist of the space age and the mysticism of the hippy era.

But in 1977, everything changed. Just at the moment that punk rock blew away the cobwebs of the mystical hippy era and space opera fantasies of glam rock, SF seemed to take a swerve in just that direction. In the face of the challenge of the new realism, the fantastical concerns of SF and fantasy seemed quaint and old hat. A few writers were adopted or changed their habits - Moorcock, Ballard, Vonnegut, M. John Harrison - but the literary establishment seemed to have lost interest in the New Worlds and Dangerous Visions guys, and school syllabus favourites like Ray Bradbury and John Wyndham suddenly seemed a bit na�ve and stuffy.

However, in the way that the wheel of fate spins on its merry course, all things come back into fashion and it's now cool to be a nerd again. This seems to be the peak of a trend that has been going on since about the turn of the millennium. I think Margaret Atwood started it, not with The Handmaid's Tale but with Oryx & Crake, which came out 18 years later in 2003. This took Atwood's SF output from a quirky singleton to part of a pattern, one that she extended with Year Of The Flood, last year.

These later novels also seem more overtly SF: The Handmaid's Tale is a fascistic dystopia of the 1984 variety, but Oryx & Crake addresses a more fantastic premise, admitting a little more SF weirdness into the literary sphere, and the later novel is that most genre-riffic of phenomena, a sequel. Oryx & Crake was followed by David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and the sudden ubiquity of the various works and enthusiasms of Micheal Chabon. Suddenly, fantastic genres seemed to have colonised the mainstream to such an extent that even the news that Jeanette Winterson had signed on to write a horror novel for a revived Hammer movie studios seemed plausible (it's true, NB).

Simultaneously, genre authors have been finding some success with mainstream audiences. Sir Terry Pratchett has reached the status of Stephen Fry-like national treasure, and Neil Gaiman fits a similar role for a black mass of current and former moody adolescents. Kids and young adult series like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials have been seized upon by newly turned-on adults, and at the movies and on TV, fantasy and SF properties are multi-million dollar franchises. (It strikes me all of a sudden that even a decade ago I never talked about 'franchises' and 'properties'. This language of commerce is surely a sign that any fringe activity has gone mainstream.)

All this seems to have been building up to a wave that's crashed in 2009-10. As well as Year Of The Flood, high-profile releases have included Solar by Ian McEwan, How To Live In A Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, a new one from David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet, which promises sci-fi elements to come in its sequel, and this novel, Super Sad True Love Story.

Super Sad True Love Story belongs to a very specific subgenre of dystopian satire, typified by 1984. As well as sharing this niche, though, Gary Shteyngart's novel is an update of and commentary on Orwell's book. There are obvious comparisons in the setting. Orwell gives us pervasive surveillance through the omnipresent screens and network of snitches, while Shteyngart imagines the same effect through a world of constant social networking based on the ubiquitous āpārāt, a kind of iPhone and automatic life blogger that hooks you into social networks wherever you go.

In both worlds the written word is dead, or dying, controlled in one by Newspeak and in the other by Newspeak's digital age cousin that seeks to dispense with words altogether ("Switch to Images today! Less words = more fun!"). Both novels begin with their protagonists starting a diary, a radical act in both worlds: in 1984, it's thought crime; in Super Sad True Love Story, it's a fashion crime. Most of Lenny's contemporaries find books suspicious and slightly disgusting. The idea that anyone might actually want to write any thing down is plain crazy.

Both novels are love stories. For both Lenny and Winston, love offers the hope of freedom - for Winston, freedom from the control of the state, the freedom to feel an emotion of his own choosing; for Lenny it offers a kind of relief from his mortality. Lenny works for a company selling immortality to high net worth individuals and keenly feels his own life slipping away. Eunice makes Lenny look younger and more attractive, and he has records of his hotness factor over the entire period helpfully recorded by his āpārāt to prove it.

We don't get Julia's side of the story in 1984, but here Eunice provides a big chunk of the narrative in the shape of her emails and chat transcripts. Like Julia to Winston, Eunice is more a part of her world than Lenny, who still clings to his wall of books. Eunice's goofy, embarrassed affection for Lenny also gives us some insights into what Julia might have been thinking when she got involved with Winston, just like there's something that Eunice finds complicated and appalling and alluring about Lenny.

She's more than just Lenny's love interest though; in fact, Lenny is just as much her love interest, and the relationship explores the cracks and fissures of her internal landscape just as much as it does Lenny's. Eunice has her own drives and challenges that bring another point of view to the setting. Importantly, far from being stunted and stilted, as Lenny fears, Eunice and her correspondents show that the desire to express oneself, and the ability to do so with eloquence, has not disappeared, just evolved with the medium.

As 1984 has the Party and O'Brien, Shteyngart gives us the Staatling Wapachung Corporation, as represented by Lenny's boss, Joshie Goldman. While Orwell gives O'Brien a patrician charm and eloquence, Shteyngart can't help mocking Joshie's corporate horse-shit and sordid thirst for youth. He's hilarious, one of those brilliant conglomerations of little details that makes a great comedic grotesque, even if he doesn't have quite the same chilling authority as O'Brien.

But then, Shteyngart has a far more overtly comedic purpose than Orwell. If 1984 is tragedy, then Super Sad True Love Story is a black farce. Shteyngart's satire is sharp and the book overflows with funny little one-liners and bits of comic business. I couldn't help being reminded of Woody Allen - it's not just the Jewishness and neurotic morbidity, but the whole doomed May to September romance between Eunice and Lenny. This is like one of the good Woody Allen movies, Manhattan or Annie Hall, and if you want to add another generic layer, the love story makes an effective romantic comedy, albeit one with a rather downbeat ending.

For all this genre play, Shteyngart's novel is being marketed as literary fiction, and has attracted a lot of critical attention from the mainstream press. The question of what separates literary from genre fiction is one that vexes genre fans. It's not always easily answered: genres are fuzzy things, and the words 'genre' and 'literary' describe extremes on a spectrum that measures only one dimension of a book's worth or interest. What's more, plenty of literary writers borrow from genres, and there are many supposed genre writers producing work that leans heavily on more literary approaches.

To get to the heart of it, we have to decide what it is we mean when we say 'genre'. One way of looking at genre - perhaps the most common one - is to see it as a set of aesthetic choices, those setting elements that are closely tied to it by convention. It's what you might call the genre furniture; you can re-arrange it, maybe boldly leave something out or include one or two startling novelties, but there are common setting elements that keep coming up: the body in the drawing room and the amateur sleuth; the virtuous poor girl and her passionate but troubled lover; spaceships, time machines, ray-guns.

These elements tend to affect the type of story that's told; the types of characters that appear, and the thematic content of a genre. Crime novels and thrillers revolve around matters of crime and retribution, while romance follows a path from emotional turmoil and disunity to union and tranquillity. Sci-fi is dominated by the logic of the setting in a type of story that at its most rarefied becomes an extended philosophical metaphor. To confuse matters further, genres can meld and merge into each other, borrowing aesthetic elements to produce sub-genres and hybrid works not easily fit into any one category.

The aesthetic elements of genre are created by a community of readers and writers. All writers learn what works by their sales, to some degree, but when an author is part of a community of readers then the feedback comes in a little louder and stronger. This gives rise to the 'bookshop' definition of the genre, a product of a more or less formal arrangement of booksellers and publishers, supported by readers and writers.

Literary fiction is supposedly a product of a more undiluted artistic process. Literary writers are supposed to channel complete solipsistic creativity. At one extreme you've got Finnegan's Wake - the product of one man's single, creative act, but nearly impenetrable to anyone else without a lot of work. At the other extreme is stuff like phone-in lines to see if characters live or die (this happened to Robin in the Batman comic) and shared settings like Warhammer novels and TV tie-ins, where content is heavily directed by a nest of fan and corporate interests. The critical and academic community certainly have their own expectations of what type of book they think is 'right' (and there's a similar community among SF fans, at least: if you're reading this you may well be part of it), but it's a more reactive presence than genre fandom - after all, it was the readers of Sherlock Holmes that finally convinced Doyle to bring the character back.

You'll be screaming now that any of this could apply to literary fiction. This is true, to an extent, but there is some thing else at work in literary fiction, something that I think separates it from genre.

The essence of it can be seen in the contrast between two classic novels of dystopia, Orwell's 1984, and Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, published within a few years of each other in 1949 and 1952, respectively. They both deal with the loss of individual freedoms, and their origins on opposite sides of the Atlantic provide an interesting insight into the contrasting worries of the age, Orwell's totalitarian state against Pohl and Kornbluth's consumerism gone mad. However, they also show the differences between two contrasting schools of fiction, the American genre writer versus the British intellectual literary writer.

By necessity, all fiction is an approximation, but genre fiction includes immediate concessions to real life that are understood by the reader while they're reading it. In The Space Merchants, Mitch Courtenay is a hip-talking 'competent man' (Heinlein coined the phrase, I believe) of the classic SF type. He's a short-hand for a certain heroic ideal, a fast-talking rogue who can bend people to his will and use his wits to his advantage.

1984 does more to show us the experience of a real person living in those times, facing dramatic choices of a sort we can recognise from our own lives. Winston Smith is a different type of character, a low level-functionary in the great Party machine. He is an everyman type, with a sad but mundane wartime backstory that would have been immediately familiar to his contemporary readers (many of them might think of their own children growing up in IngSoc, an alternative baby-boom generation).

While Smith's detailed inner life is the driving force behind all his actions, Courtenay's role is based entirely around acting against antagonistic forces. Courtenay is the victim of a conspiracy that threatens his life, and as the story progresses he comes to grips with the situation and puts in motion a plan to escape the clutches of his antagonists. He spends his whole time under threat and his only immediate ambition is to survive. None of his actions reveals much about him. It provides a useful engine for the plot, but we never see what he really wants out of life. The anxieties that drive Smith to act are a product of more familiar internal pressures. We hate our government, we find our world oppressive, and we are alone: we all feel this from time to time and Smith's experience speaks directly to our own.

The life and death scenarios of genre fiction take us away from the concerns of our daily lives. Very few of us here in the middle-class west are likely to be abducted and sent to work in a slave farm; we can explore that exciting possibility without worrying about ever finding ourselves in that situation. We can fantasise about being gifted grifters like Mitch Courtenay, ready to wheel and deal our way out of danger. The action-packed scenarios of genre fiction provide a comforting illusion of competence that is highly unlikely to ever be challenged. Winston Smith's anxieties feel very close to our own lives. We recognise these situations and feelings because we've lived versions of them ourselves in, sometimes badly, sometimes well.

As well as the pains of real life, great fiction also reminds us of its true joys. Orwell rhapsodises on the power of physical love to relieve Winston's depression and anxiety. Mitch's love for Kathy seems a bit shallow in contrast with Smith's ecstatic, reckless passion. There's some screwball-style banter between them, and a strong sense of the hero-gets-the-gal, but Pohl and Kornbluth never even attempt to portray the transformative power of love that Orwell evokes.

Genre fiction tends to focus on shallow, generalised pleasures - riches, lust, security, although it needn't be that much fun, as I'd include the empty piety of religious tracts, or the reactionary moralistic humbug of various types of cautionary tale. These unconsummatable pleasures can make our own lives seem tawdry and grey, and blind us to the joys of the mundane. Great fiction celebrates ordinary pleasures and reminds us what is great and joyous in the world.

Literary fiction aims to show us ourselves. Genre fiction can entertain us, comforts us, sometimes show us something new, but the more it sticks to familiar genre elements, the more chance of losing the ability to show us how we live. At the extremes of genre, at its sticky gooey heart, lie clich�s and short cuts that obscure the truth.

These aren't binary positions, though. There's a grey area in the middle of the spectrum where the literary and the genre meet. While 1984 is literary fiction, it is also science fiction. Orwell creates a rationally constructed alternative world and considers its logical consequences and the structures that support it: his description of Newspeak is as detailed an examination of a piece of setting technology as you'll find anywhere in SF. In this sense, literary fiction can also use the aesthetics of genre without being part of the genre culture or indulging in generic clich�s.

In this market segment, perception of a work or writer can play a role in how a book is received. Shteyngart comes with a track record in more mainstream fare, so he gets reviews in the literary press and an interview on Front Row with Kirsty Wark. Super Sad True Love Story is a terrific book, and deserves all the praise it's received, but it's entirely fair to say that there are deserving books out there that don't get quite the same degree of attention because of where they sit in the bookshop. (On the other hand, the same could be said for who-knows-how-many works of deserving literary fiction without the muscle of Random House behind them.)

Think of all the genres I've mentioned in this review: science fiction, tragedy, farce, love story, romantic comedy, and dystopian satire. Based on its aesthetic choices, Super Sad True Love Story could definitely be included in any of those subsets in the great genre Venn diagram. It could do all those things and still be a good book - it's funny enough - but it attempts something else that genre works, especially those at the more extreme edge of the big genre sets, don't attempt. Literary fiction tries to show us what we are, rather than what we want to be. It tries to show us people like ourselves in situations like our own to show us the realities of life. It tells the story of the type of person any of us might meet or even be and the type of life any of us might lead.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart



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