Here's what I read in May.
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
Granted, this is a minor point, but a distracting one. Now, onto the more grievous errors.
There is no overarching conflict in this book. It is structured to follow the course of the narrator's high school career, divided into the trimesters of each school year. (Freshman Fall, Freshman Winter, Freshman Spring, etc.) The narrative takes off for summer break. The plot is thus passive; whatever happened to this main character, Lee, at a given time, regardless of its emotional impact, takes center stage. The school calendar, with all its tedious ups-and-downs, directs this story. Therefore, a large portion at the beginning of the book concerns itself with a minority character who is expelled for stealing; after this the school year moves on to the next crisi, the incident fades away, and the character is practically never mentioned again.
When Lee learns early on she has a hidden affinity for cutting hair, the reader is amused and entertained, perhaps, but wondering why the narrative spends so much time on it. The novel seems to be picking up steam when Lee flirts with a member of the kitchen staff and roils up interesting socio-economic conflicts, but the flirtation ends with a whimper and is ultimately nothing more than a speed bump in the story. In fact, when the name of the kitchen worker pops up again at the end, I had to stop and try to remember the entire insignificant incident.
The book finally does come to a more explosive climax at the end, merging sexual awakening, class animus, and a young lady finding her voice. But then senior year ends, and the story is over. It really wasn't that interesting after all.
Also curious about this book is its vague historical context. As the book progresses, the reader deduces that it must be the 1980s or early 1990s, but this is unnecessarily vague. Ault, the boarding school, exists in a vacuum, uninfluenced by the world at large. There's no mention of the political climate, or current events, or sports or movie stars or anything like that. If that was the point, then I guess I didn't get it--I spent more time working out this context than I did worrying about the characters.
Also, the narrative distance between the narration and the events of the story is vague and underutilized. The person doing the narrator is maybe ten (fifteen?) years older than the Lee of the story, but this distance is not put to good use. One would hope that the intervening years would create a sense of ironic detachment in the narration, creating an opportunity for humor and insight on the part of the narrator. (Not to compare any book to To Kill a Mockingbird, but consider To Kill a Mockingbird for a moment. The adult Scout who narrates that book is deliciously wry and perceptive, and its her ironic voice that the reader falls in love with.)
The adult narrator of Prep intrudes, to be sure, but only to take up for the younger version of herself or clumsily clarify what she is trying to say. By the end of the book, she does this often, in parenthetical interruptions that become more and more distracting. And usually, these interruptions only fill in what happened to characters in the future. And usually, I couldn't care less.
Let's hope for better luck in June!