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Gary Shteyngart’s bad fathers (on Super Sad True Love Story)

So much already is written about Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story by readers and reviewers motivated far better than I that it feels redundant to add more. Read the description and reviews on Amazon, if the novel is unfamiliar. Then, if you haven’t already, get a hold of the book and read it – it’s a damn good read.

While lots has been written, I haven’t seen much discussion of what the novel says about the nature of work or what it says about the weird economy of this dystopian future.

Presumably, there are characters in the novel who actually work – Joshie’s Post-Human Services must have some sort of labor at its core (intellectual, scientific, research-related), and someone must be cleaning the office lavatories – but overall, for the superior classes (the High Net Worth Individuals, or HNWIs) work seems to have become weirdly symbolic, if not a-economic. People are obsessed by their credit ratings (publicly visible on the “credit poles” that line the streets, and beamed constantly through social media enabled mobile devices called äppäräts), yet there’s nothing empowering or liberating about the work that people actually do: it doesn’t seem to help anyone get anywhere. Development – personal, intellectual – has ceased as everyone is caught in a sinister empire of signs and spectacle.

There are coveted work sectors, but the people “working” in them could just as well be spending their all their time on Facebook (or, in the novel’s terms, GlobalTeens) or flipping burgers. Same difference. No qualities.

HNWIs “work” in Media or Retail, but the more you learn about the nature of this work, the more confusing it becomes. Lenny (the main male character) spends a lot of his so-called work time simply networking – or, let’s face it: schmoozing. And when he actually hits “the office,” it’s to spar with younger, more hip (more schmoozier) co-workers who desire to supplant him.

Kindergarten, anyone?

Joshua (or Joshie), Lenny’s sugar daddy – er, I mean, big daddy boss – is quite literally a father figure whom Lenny tries to guilt into keeping him “employed.” Not exactly a mature working relationship.

Joshie, meanwhile, is himself the ultimate immaturity freak who’s trying to reverse-engineer his own personal aging process. Perhaps he thinks he can to return to being “merely an egg” (no, not really), but he’s no Valentine Smith – and this isn’t Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s more like “I know everything about you and you’re in my face and that’s ok because I’m in your face and that’s all there is to ‘know’ ’cause who needs knowledge when you’ve got information?'” Information is unattached.

When it’s all over, Joshie’s quest is more like something out of Brazil, where plastic surgery and dreams of eternal youth also go horribly wrong.

Eunice, the book’s heroine, is in her twenties and “volunteers” an hour here or there, but otherwise does not work or earn an income. Instead, she spends her father’s money.

Her dream is to work in retail, apparently a highly coveted sector that only the well-connected are able to break into – ironically (from my perspective), this made me think of Richard Florida‘s idea that service sector jobs should become high-value, just as factory jobs became high-value in the 20th century. When Joshie finagles a job for her in some oh-my-gawd-so-cool ueber-mall that comes across as Dante’s something-circle of hell, we see her (through Lenny’s spying eyes) behind a stall, hawking leather cuffs with inane political sayings stenciled on them. …Shades of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, where Frank Frink and his friend Ed McCarthy manufacture fake American Artistic Handcrafts…

Shteyngart’s emphasis on fathers, and how they succeed or fail in inculcating their children, succeed or fail in bringing them to maturity, struck me as a recurring motif. The mothers are cast very traditionally – and in fact, this is not a woman’s novel, in the sense that it’s definitely a book where a guy seems to be working out his issues. And by “guy,” I could be talking about Shteyngart or about Lenny. Certainly Lenny: the book is all about him and how he works out his issues. I guess Shteyngart sort of universalizes this, as if we’re all Lennys who get to have the last word, while the women – Eunice, for example – disappear from view. I certainly liked Lenny, but I’m not a guy, so my sympathy for/ identification with him had its limits.

America, full of bad fathers, falls apart. America, run by bad fathers, becomes a nightmare state. Where have the legendary and infamous bad mothers gone? Perhaps in previous decades writers (male) could blame “bad mothers” for the personal failings of their (male) characters. It’s a good thing, I suppose, that Shteyngart put the focus back on fathers, even if it’s a Pyrrhic “victory” from a feminist point of view. (What I mean is: when it was “just” personal, we could blame the mothers – and, yes, that got pretty tiresome; but when it’s really Big Picture – the Rise and Fall of America – then we have to re-focus on fathers because, in the end, it’s the men who matter more. Pyrrhic.)

Still, those gripes aside: loved this novel – I was drawn in from the start, and thoroughly enjoyed the ride.


  1. Yeah, I liked this book too. Quite a read. Good post Yule, connecting the ideas in this book to other ideas/happenings. We could be in the land of HNW individuals, and currency pegged to the yuan… very soon. I find that incentive to work for the alternative.

    Comment by Ben Ziegler — December 24, 2010 #

  2. Oops, I mixed up my message in last note. Land of HNW concerns me far more than currency pegged to the yuan (which may not be an issue at all).

    Comment by Ben Ziegler — December 24, 2010 #

  3. Thanks for commenting, Ben. It’s odd: whenever I read about upstairs/downstairs situations (with HNWIs and LNWIs, for example), my thoughts at some point devolve to “uh, I probably would’ve been the dogsbody!” Novels like this are a real kick to the head, a wake-up call. Work for the alternative, indeed!

    Comment by Yule — December 26, 2010 #

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