This cyber-apocalyptic vision of an American future seems eerily like the present, in a bleak comedy that is even more frightening than funny.
Though Shteyngart received rave reviews for his first two novels (The Russian Debutante’s Daughter, 2001; Absurdistan, 2006), those appear in retrospect to be trial runs for his third and darkest to date. Russian immigrant Lenny Abramov returns home to Manhattan of the indeterminate future, following a year in Italy, only to find his career as “Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) of the Post-Human Services division” in jeopardy. Just shy of 40, he is already coming to terms with his mortality amid the scorn of much younger, hipper careerists, as he markets eternal life to those with the wherewithal to afford it. The narrative alternates between the diary entries of Lenny and the computer log of Eunice Park, his much younger and reluctant Korean girlfriend whom he’d met in Italy and eventually persuaded to join him in the States. Lenny’s diary is itself an anachronism, since this “post-literate age” lacks the patience to scan text for anything longer than political bromides or marketing pitches. The society at large finds books “smelly,” though Lenny still collects and even reads them. “Media” has become an adjective (positive, all-purpose) as well as a noun, and some familiar institutions have morphed into Fox-Ultra and The New York Lifestyle Times. Both Lenny and Eunice are fully fleshed–out characters rather than satiric caricatures, but their matter-of-fact acceptance of Bi-Partisanship masking a police state, and of the illiterate, ebullient and Orwellian American Restoration Authority as a bulwark against the country’s collapse (the waiting list to move to Canada exceeds 23 million), makes this cautionary tale all the more chilling. The narrative proceeds in a surprising yet inevitable manner to the outcome the title promises.
When Lenny realizes “I can’t connect in any meaningful way to anyone,” he’s writing about not merely a technological breakdown but the human condition, where the line distinguishing comedy from tragedy dissolves.