The most slicing satire in this novel, however, is reserved for the technologized culture of everyday urban life; Shteyngart is the Joseph Heller of the information age. His characters carry networked devices called äppäräti wherever they go, emitting (willingly or not) such data as their cholesterol and stress levels, credit rankings, self-esteem and relationship history, as well as their off-the-cuff evaluations of friends and strangers. “Learn to rate everyone around you,” a co-worker admonishes Lenny: The instantaneously broadcasted metrics include such categories as Personality, Sustainability and Fuckability. When a friend suggests that they “FAC” while hanging out in a bar, clueless Lenny has to be told that this acronym means “‘Form A Community’ … It’s, like, a way to judge people. And let them judge you.” (Lenny, by the way, comes in last place among 40 in the category of “Male Hotness.”)
Shteyngart’s future America is a land of run-on corporate monikers (“LandOLakesGMFordCredit”) and capitalized yet disturbingly vague careers: middle-class people work in either Retail, Credit or Media. Journalism as we know it has been replaced by “streaming” narcissists, whose “shows” consist of a mishmash of political commentary, health tips, celebrity gossip, nostalgia, porn and discussions of such Seinfeldian trivia as “the ‘wah-wuh’ sound of the doors closing on the 6 train versus the resigned ‘sheesh’ sound on the L.”
Michiko Kakutani writes in the Times:
“Super Sad” takes place in the near future, and Mr. Shteyngart has extrapolated every toxic development already at large in America to farcical extremes. The United States is at war in Venezuela, and its national debt has soared to the point where the Chinese are threatening to pull the plug. There are National Guard checkpoints around New York, and riots in the city’s parks. Books are regarded as a distasteful, papery-smelling anachronism by young people who know only how to text-scan for data, and privacy has become a relic of the past. Everyone carries around a device called an äppärät, which can live-stream its owner’s thoughts and conversations, and broadcast their “hotness” quotient to others. People are obsessed with their health — Lenny works as a Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) for a firm that specializes in life extension — and shopping is the favorite pastime of anyone with money.
I loved the book, but it was also painful: The IMF, the corporations, the Credit Poles. As I read it, I felt as though I was saying goodbye to an America I once knew. Shteyngart, who grew up in Leningrad, knows a decaying empire when he sees one.