Friday, July 16, 2010

Short-a-Day: Gary Shteyngart's "Lenny Hearts Eunice"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 83.

In an exaggeratedly militaristic and consumerist future America, the sort of place you'll find George Saunders hanging out, the sweetly satirical Shteyngart wonders if love can still exist beneath all the superficial concerns. The narrative choices to have the two "lovers"--he, the meek, very old (almost 40) Russian-Jewish salesman; she, the unabashedly young (24) Korean-American--write in diary entries (or "teens"--digital e-mail), in a world that shuns books, is a good one, and it speaks to this literary concern. "The fact that [technology] knows every last stinking detail about the world, while my books know only the minds of their authors." There was a time--and still is--when knowing a singular mind was a beautiful thing.

I'm not totally sold on how much of a sad-sack our hero is ("Lenny Abramov, your humble diarist, your small nonentity, will live forever"), but I can understand why he feels that way, working for a company that promises Indefinite Life to the High Net Worth Individuals that can afford it, and watching his boss--sixty-something--walk around with a "moustache as black as eternity"; younger, in other words, and therefore more important than Lenny. Also, because we're given Eunice Park's epistolary views, as well as Lenny's observations of how people like the "SUK DIK" T-shirt wearing Darryl view him (not well), it's understandable that although Lenny's a smart man, one of the last to still read Tolesoy [sic], that is not an attractive quality.

The real question for a story like this, however, is if the author can find a heart beneath all the sorrowfully snarky details about our "future." As this is an excerpt from a larger novel, his upcoming Super Sad True Love Story, it's hard to tell if he can sustain an even balance--the conclusion here seems a little forced into resolution mode. I don't think he's quite up to the world-building of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. But he's a funny, solid writer, and at worst his novel will be as emptily entertaining as the world he envisions.

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