August 18, 2012 § 5 Comments
Finished: Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart.
Shteyngart’s book is full of fascinating names and terminology, so I thought I’d pick a few that especially interested me and look at them a bit more closely:
äppärät: The devices which control social interaction in society, broadcasting information about their owners (all subjective rankings, potentially humiliating and cause for constant anxiety) and also serving as the main entertainment and communication devices. So, yes: iPhone/iPads. Everyone is constantly ranking and evaluating everyone else, and monitoring their own rankings, and the rankings as well as the categories of ranking themselves (Credit, Hotness, Sustainabilit¥, Fuckability, Personality) revealing the coarse, striving superficiality dominating American discourse. As now, the devices themselves are also status symbols, the smaller and sleeker the better.
dachshunds: Kind of the Shteyngart equivalent of Nabokov’s butterflies, they pop up here and there in the narrative. Mostly, however, this is an excuse to show the inscription to and drawing of our dachshund Bruno by Shteyngart in my copy:
GlobalTeens: The Facebookian social media site that dominates communication, especially for our protagonist Lenny Abramov’s beloved, Eunice Park. Her side of the story is told through the semi-literate messages, called “teens,” that she sends to her friends and family through her GlobalTeens account. The emphasis here on an arrested, adolescent-level emotional development and communication is a recurring theme in the work: that the basic messages themselves through which most of society now communicates are called “teens,” to the point that physically speaking is called “verballing” to differentiate it from teening, is both plausible and kind of horrifying.
Media: Both a noun and adjective, as in “He’s so Media,” the ultimate sign of approval. One of the main Media outlets for news information is called CrisisNet; others are FoxLiberty-Prime and FoxLiberty-Ultra. But many people have their own streaming entertainment/commentary shows, and ratings for these shows are monitored in real time to react to what people do and do not want to hear about.
People’s Literature Publishing House: The publisher of an edition of Lenny’s diaries and Eunice’s GlobalTeens messages — in other words, Super Sad True Love Story. As Lenny says, “it never occurred to me that any text would ever find a new generation of readers,” and did not write his diary entries with publication in mind. However, the People’s Capitalist Party of China issued, as the last of its “Fifty-One Represents,” the message, “To write text is glorious!”, leading to resurgence of the printed word. This is one of the few hopeful notes in the book. Lenny is one of the few buyers and readers of “bound, printed, non-streaming Media artifacts” left in the world, and is something of a freak because of it: his friends and Eunice find the books smelly and somewhat disgusting, and he sprays them with air freshener to get rid of the smell of old paper. The representation of how reading functions in a society that places no value on introspection or empathy, and what might come to be valued in it again, is a fascinating subtext in the work.
Post-Human Services: The division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation which employs Lenny Abramov. It is dedicated to achieving eternal youth for its High Net Worth Individual clients through a variety of nutritional, cosmetic, and high-tech medical procedures (“smart blood” being one of the key elements). The process does seem to work, at least to some degree: Lenny’s boss, Joshie, seems to be in his seventies even though he appears a twenty-something. But Shteyngart leaves the exact nature of Post-Human Services ambiguous. It could be seen as a scam for separating the desperate, aging wealthy from their money along these lines. Lenny clearly believes; Joshie, a smooth operator, may be playing at belief. Whatever the case, the inclusion of this thread of life-extension technology exclusively for the superwealthy by a giant, foreign-owned multinational is a smart inclusion in a day-after-tomorrow dystopia.
Rubenstein: The shadowy Secretary of Defense who seems to be the true man in charge of the entire American government — or what remains of it, in the form of the American Restoration Authority, a turbo-charged Homeland Security-like apparatus, run by the Bipartisan Party, given to equal parts paranoid security measures and absurd sloganeering (a digital spy/mascot in the form of an otter, cartoonish anti-immigration posters, a PR campaign based on Mellancamp’s “Pink Houses”). The names are interesting here: in Shteyngart’s dystopia, Israel is SecurityStateIsrael, still a lynchpin of US foreign policy, and our political parties have blended into one “Bipartisan” non-choice, even as the US is eaten from within by its debt, its military misadventures, and its economic inequalities. So, yes: as with all satire, this is not so much bleak vision of the future as slight exaggeration of the current state of affairs. I’m curious about the Zionist angle, here, and what kinds of reaction Shteyngart has received to it.
Suk, Reverend: Leader of a Korean Christian crusade, the description of his Madison Square Garden revival is one of the fascinating set pieces of the book, tying together the themes of immigrant families’ assimilation, religion, spectacle, and evolving/devolving language in an astounding display of guilt, shame, and community. It also calls to mind other famous sermons in American literature, from Father Mapple in Moby-Dick to Reverend Barbee in Invisible Man, but as with so much else in this dystopia of America on the verge of collapse, the rhetoric and the presentation are wildly different: flattened, religious experience debased. And yet, even though Lenny’s friend Grace believes Korean Christianity to be a matter of assimilation, gone in one more generation, haven’t we been saying the same thing for generations now? Aren’t we always thinking the next generation will be the one to abandon religion altogether, and aren’t we always surprised to find it still alive and well?
TIMATOV: One of the hilarious GlobalTeens-based acronyms in the book, standing for Think I’m About to Openly Vomit.
Venezuela: Site of the current American military intervention, leading to the veteran-led revolt and credit crisis that finally brings down the US. As with a number of glancing references to corporations here, oil is the subtext: nationalized corporations in oil-rich countries are running the show, and the US attempt to take over Venezuela is obviously about that.
February 8, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Villette.
About halfway through the book Lucy makes one of her recurring points about the misperception of her by those around her: Madame Beck thinks her learned, Ginevra believes her catty and bitter, M. de Bassompierre “the essence of the sedate and discreet,” M. Paul a wild woman.
This is an interesting aspect of the book, this ongoing calibration by Lucy of what others think of her compared to the turmoil she knows in her innermost life. But I’m most interested here in the name she makes up for herself in the next paragraph, and imagines M. de Bassompierre calling her: “Madame Minerva Gravity.”
Gods (capitalized and not), angels, and demons appear throughout this work. There are the two Christian Gods, the Protestant (Lucy’s) and the Catholic (all the non-Britons). There are also the many anthropomorphized attributes that populate Lucy’s thoughts: her Reason, her Imagination, her Hope and Despair, many others. But of all the powerful deities in the book, one stands out: the moon.
Lucy, for all her attempts to squash her inclinations, is a creature of longing and even passion. At night, alone and unable to sleep, she thinks, and worries, and speculates. The moon is somehow her companion in these lonely nights. And she mentions the moon — how it looked, and looked down on the world — at most of the critical moments in the book. At times it seems to guide, advise, or comfort her.
There are two remarkable instances of this very near the end of the book. In chapter 38, “Cloud,” Lucy is given a sedative by Madame Beck when Lucy refuses to sleep, waiting for a visit from M. Paul. Weirdly, the sedative has the opposite affect, reviving and exciting her. In the reversal of the earlier chat with Reason, Imagination now bids her rise, and “Look forth and view the night!” When she does so, Imagination “showed me a moon supreme, in an element deep and splendid.” She has a vision of the moonlit park, and determines to go there. It’s clear the moon equates with peace, clarity, and resignation, to Lucy. But when she gets to the park, her hopes for moonlit peace and reflection are dashed by the false daylight of a festival, and an upsetting appearance by M. Paul and the Jesuit Schemers.
Later, at perhaps the happiest moment in Lucy’s life, the scene is moonlit again: “We walked back to the Rue Fossette by moonlight — such moonlight as fell on Eden — shining through the shades of the Great Garden, and haply gilding a path glorious, for a step divine — a Presence nameless.” (This passage reminds me of the magical moonbeam of The Master and Margarita.)
Brontë employs the moon motif brilliantly: it figures in some of the most beautiful passages in the book. The moon is traditionally female, of course. It’s a satellite, a product of gravity. And it reflects the sun’s light. Minerva, as you probably know, is the Roman goddess equating to the Greek Athena. She’s not the goddess of the moon, although there are some connotations (with owls, for instance). Artemis is the goddess of the moon: both she and Minerva are virginal, but Artemis is a huntress and a woodswoman while Minerva is urban and rational. You might say that Minerva stands for the cool, calming aspects of moonlight, and Artemis for the mysterious, mystical aspects.
Somehow the complexities and contradictions of moonlight are right for Lucy Snowe: the mingled traditions of tranquil cool calm and uncontrolled passion and mayhem (werewolves, witches’ rites) reflect her outer and inner selves, her desired and actual states of being. Likewise, the moon’s status as a reflective satellite, and its presence as the symbol of the night, embody Lucy’s conflict between self-reliance and an utter dependence on those she cares about and that she thinks might care for her: like the moon gets its glow from the sun, she is happy only when basking in the reflected glory of her importance to those she loves.
There’s a bunch of stuff in here about the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, but frankly I think that’s all a ruse: I think Lucy Snowe is a pagan, or maybe an animist.
July 10, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon.
I think I can safely say that the first two chapters of Vineland were the most fun I’ve had with Pynchon since I read Lot 49 in college. Gravity’s Rainbow is awesome, but it’s exhausting. This is a straight-up blast. Case in point: “More Is Less, a discount store for larger-size women…” Our hero (apparently), Zoyd Wheeler, buys a garish dress there which he wears to better seem insane for his annual jump through a window to keep receiving mental-disability checks.
Nothing’s an accident with Pynchon, especially not the jokes, and even more especially not the names. This one got me, made me laugh out loud. And after getting the joke, the store’s name made me think of that “less is more” dictum of writers’ workshop lore. (Surely no one actually uses this line anymore.) It occurred to me that the star of Raymond Carver, the minimalist’s minimalist, Mr. Less-is-More (well, with Gordon Lish’s help), had risen and fallen between Pynchon novels: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? came out in 1976, three years after GR, and Carver died in 1988, two years before Vineland.
Pynchon’s a maximalist. He’s setting his story in the mid-80s, and it’s clear from the get-go that part of the point here is going to be mediation, inundation, the sensory saturation that had been kicked up a notch since the 70s. I suspect that Pynchon believes that to trim out the details of modern life to tell intense stories of personal relationship and unspoken tension is a goddam lie. You are not going to get a discussion of how a former dive lumberjack bar has been transformed into an upscale gay bar and restaurant (still named the Log Jam, of course) since Return of the Jedi was filmed nearby in a Raymond Carver story. You are also not going to get brilliant and semi-prescient descriptions (seemingly offhand, like so much important stuff in Pynchon) of TV newscasts and their insatiable appetite for “human interest” fluff, their selective reporting of inconvenient details (choosing not to mention that Zoyd’s jump this year was through a window made of candy, and that the media had more or less directed where he would jump rather than reacting to his decision), and their willingness to analyze in absurd detail worthless trivialities while overlooking massive atrocities (here, a panel discusses the development of Zoyd’s jumping technique, and I can’t help but see this as in part a comment on the rise of the ESPN family of networks).
I don’t know that Pynchon cares enough about his contemporary literary milieu to have done this intentionally. But I do think it’s interesting that the reigning dictum of 1980s literature has been inverted and put to work as a plus-size ladies’ clothing store.
June 18, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Decameron.
I have to admit, Dioneo’s day was a disappointment. I really thought we were in for some truly filthy stories and maybe an orgy or two, but there wasn’t really much of an uptick in filth or sex. That being said, it is a day befitting a trickster-figure like him: Boccaccio begins by telling us Lucifer is the only star left in the sky when they awake, and the tales revolve around wives tricking husbands. (As an aside, the names of the three men in the group are interesting and probably important, at least rhetorically, in ways I don’t understand: Panfilo, the all-lover; Filostrato, lowered or tortured by love; Dioneo, a Dionysian reveler.)
This seems like a setup for some old-fashioned misogyny, but most of the time the stories are really quite gentle — or at least, no harder on the wives than the husbands. Lauretta speaks best for him, introducing her story, the fourth: “O Love, how manifold and mighty are your powers!… What philosopher, what artist could ever have conjured up all the arguments, all the subterfuges, all the explanations that you offer spontaneously to those who nail their colours to your mast?” Women who trick out of love, or boredom, or for anything but money, really, are okay in Boccaccio’s book; as Lauretta sums up her story, “Long live love, then, and a plague on all skinflints!”
The most interesting stories are the first, Emilia’s, in which a wife convinces her husband that it is a werewolf, not her lover, that is tapping at their door at night, and the ninth, Panfilo’s. This is one of the most famous stories in the work, the magic pear tree story. It’s one of the few stories to take place outside of Italy, in Argos, Greece. In order to win the love of one of her husband’s handsome retainers, Lydia agrees to undertake three crazy tests. To show just how committed she is, Lydia says she’ll not only accomplish them all, she’ll make love to Pyrrhus (the retainer) while her husband watches. Once Lydia has completed her tests, they fulfill her final wish when Pyrrhus climbs up a pear tree and convinces Lydia’s husband that he can see him making love to his wife, even though they’re just sitting under the tree. Afraid the tree is enchanted, the husband climbs up himself, and sure enough, there’s Pyrrhus and Lydia, getting it on.
I mean, this is brilliant in any number of ways. It’s a mockery of magic and superstition; it’s breezy and utterly Boccaccian (is that a word?) in its insistence that people who want to screw will screw, and it’s silly to fight such forces as Love and Horniness; it’s ingenious in that the trick is that there really is no trick: it’s all in the husband’s head, all in his strange but utterly plausible combination of credulity and disbelief. All perspective and self-delusion. I think Chaucer uses it, in the Merchant’s Tale, which I need to go back and read again.