UK Publisher: Granta Books
Genre: literary fiction, near-future sci-fi, dystopic fiction
This was another book sent to me by a pen-pal, Travelling Book number two! So, again, you’re seeing the US cover above – which I like considerably better than the UK cover. Despite this book getting rave reviews in the USA, I had never heard of it. I wonder if part of this is because the book is very strongly set in America.
An undated, near-future dystopia, the book follows Lenny Abramov and his romance with Eunice Park, told through Lenny’s diary and Eunice’s emails and chat logs. America is a society driven by social media, everyone constantly streaming their lives, ranking and rating people around them based on their personality, appearance and ‘fuckability’. Society is obsessed with how they appear to the people around them, has given up on reading, moved away from books, and is driven by trying to continually maintain youth and avoid death. Credit ratings are displayed everywhere, America has become a police state, 1984 but the people are asking to be watched.
Lenny in particular, at 39, is terrified of death, and desperate to buy immortality, becoming obsessed over Eunice – fifteen years younger than him – after a single night spent together. He tries desperately to be cool, relevant, and young, and Eunice at first tolerates, then uses, and then unwillingly starts to think she loves him.
A lot of the reviews say that the book is hilarious, but I found it sad and uncomfortable. The way older men in the book become obsessed with Eunice on first sight is awkward, and their continued behaviour only makes me uncomfortable. Love is conflated with obsession, and their behaviour and the speed at which these people form relationships is more akin to that of a young teenager than that of mature adults.
And this is where I feel the crux of the book lies. It feels like Shteyngart has cast his gaze across the ‘youth of today’, found them wanting, and extrapolated what he sees to create a society for when this generation has become the older generation and shaped the world in their image. He has looked at people putting selfies on instagram, people rating each other on facebook, youtube celebrities, buzzfeed and twitter, and then gone “this is how these people want the world”. It smacks of reductio ad absurdum, and a little of technophobia.
The world Shteyngart presents is one that ‘scans’ text for important data rather than reading, where news articles are reduced to pictures and a smattering of sentences, and if someone leaks a picture of themselves having sex, their public profile immediately rises in esteem. Sexual slurs are now nicknames, overt sexuality is ingrained in every aspect of society, whilst racial profiling is common – certainly we understand that Lenny prefers Korean woman, and the way he thinks about Eunice suggests more than a little fetishisation. He also likes girls who are younger than him who have been abused by their fathers. This is common enough knowledge that his apparat (the new word for the phone-like device carried by everyone, broadcasting data about them wherever) can use this to match him to appropriate women.
This is not meant to be a happy book, this book is meant to act as a warning. This is what happens when you turn towards the shiny, image-heavy, personal exposure culture of social media. This is what happens when your self-worth rests entirely on how other people rate your life as seen through Facebook. He sees the world – America specifically, although we get snippets which suggest the same is true for other countries – as being so self-involved that society crumbles around it, until it is literally run by bankers, milking a consumer culture for everything they have.
Whilst this novel was well-written, and I did enjoy it and read it quickly, I felt a bit jaded as I read it. It feels like a culmination of every article about how Millennials are self-obsessed, lazy, shallow, consumer-driven. It feels like Shteyngart is going “here’s what your generation is going to make of the world”, glossing over all the positives of the Millennial generation (rise in literacy, for example, somewhat contradicting his idea that books would lose their cultural value). I also am tired of the ‘older man finding new life in younger woman’ trope, because it happens all the time, and it still feels gross. Possibly in this book it was meant to be gross, but I felt like Lenny still comes out of the book a hero of sorts, a navel-gazing genius lauded for his writings. Which, for me, was inherently dissatisfying, as I found him crawlingly unpleasant.
- Almost reads as a manifesto against social media culture. Yes, data mining is bad; yes, some people over-share online. No, this is not going to lead to a breakdown of society.
- Hur-dee-dur, technology is bad, Thomas Edison was a witch, the machines will end the world.
- Quite uncomfortable reading as a May-December relationship (I guess?), particularly reading the way Lenny ascribes thoughts, feelings and motivations to Eunice which she is not experiencing.
- It’s easy to read, however, and not as slow going as some literary fiction I’ve read. The format of mixed traditional narrative in Lenny’s diary entries, and e-mails and chats from Eunice’s side make for an interesting contrast, and move the plot along quite quickly.
- I wish there had been a resolution for Eunice, but perhaps that is indicative of Lenny’s self-involvement that we never get a satisfactory ending for her.
Rating: 3/4 – I wouldn’t necessarily read this again, but I’m glad I’ve read it. I just wish it hadn’t sounded at times like a conservative news article about how terrible younger generations are.