Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story; Lee's On Such a Full Sea; Iyer's Wittgenstein Jr: A Comparison

Gary Shteyngart, Chang Rae Lee, and Lars Iyer

Shteyngart, Lee, and Iyer are authors of three very different books, but at the same time they share, to a greater or lesser extent, the theme of a society in decay … or society past decay. I’ll set Iyer’s Wittgenstein Jr aside for the time being. Unlike Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, Iyer’s book takes place in the all too recognizable present. Shteyngart and Lee offer their readers an unsavory taste of the future, but as Shteyngart elucidated when he read at Grinnell College several years ago, the not too distant future.

I might not have drawn a connection between Shteyngart’s futuristic story of scanning instead of reading, credit poles, onion skin pants, äppäräts that assess the merits and prospects of potential hook ups, and Chinese and Norwegian dominance over the United States both economically (the currency is the Yuan) and militarily, with Lee’s futuristic story of upper class Charters, carefully controlled facilities and Mad Max infrastructure-free counties coupled with Chinese immigrant mass colonization of America’s abandoned urban neighborhoods, if I hadn’t been reading Shteyngart’s Little Failure at the same time that I was reading On Such a Full Sea. I discovered in the autobiographical misery that is Little Failure that Shteyngart had been a student of Lee’s at Hunter College. Very interesting.  Lee and Shteyngart write in very different styles. If you’ve read Lee’s The Surrendered you’ll know how unrelentingly bleak a Lee novel can be or at least how bleak they have become. Shteyngart’s view of human history and human destiny may not be any less bleak than Lee’s, but he can swaddle his tragic outlook in flawless and sometimes (painfully) hilarious satire (and no, whoever told you your first novel was your best novel, was wrong. Super Sad is one of the great American novels.) Two different novels share a similar vision. It is not unlike reading a contemporary novel with Homer’s Odyssey clearly in your memory. As the plot unfolds, it dawns on you that it was all pretty well laid out some 3,000 years ago. But Homer’s epic tale is a beautiful bundle of words worth living with, repeating, refining, ornamenting, and thoroughly examining. (Re: Iyer’s novel: it may be more of a riff on Socrates than it is Homer). 
Lee’s Fan takes such an Odyssean journey. She leaves her carefully cocooned “facility” (B-mor, neocolonial Baltimore) to search for a boyfriend who has disappeared through mysterious but official channels and a cousin who won a place in the well-heeled, well-protected, well-walled consumer haven of the Charters. She slips through a gate, picked up on the local vid, but otherwise lost enough to become a local legend and to inspire a brief period of unrest and rebellion. Fan has to make her way through the dangerous Counties, a sort of infrastructureless, lawless, and governmentless territory outside the enclosed facilities and Charters.  Like Odysseus, Fan has native wit and resiliency, but she is also kind and caring. She is determined, but she has a naïve unsuspecting saintliness about her as well. It is this saintliness that saves her; her kindness repaid with kindness when she needs it most.  Lee’s not too distant future has a well-established wealth disparity, a corporate like organization of society, with those in the facilities well cared for but also mesmerized into maintaining a just sustainable status quo. They comply with their carefully defined niche in society, producing the food and other goods for those in the Charters. In return, they have safety, shelter, and family. Because the climate has become unpredictable and hostile, and the environment has become dangerously depleted and poisoned, the growing conditions are artificial. Fan is a diver in an aquaculture tank—keeping the tank clean and nurturing the fish. Others grow vegetables. Everything is monitored and tested to limit the Charter community members’ exposure to C causing agents. Almost everyone is infected with C, but health care is rationed with none available in the Counties and only carefully allotted care available in the facilities. Charters have the best access and care. Similar scenarios exist for education and opportunities. But Charter life is about spending; Facility life is about family and routine and peace; County life is about wits and survival.

Shteyngart’s New Yorkers are also consumers. Credit is your most important asset. Credit poles are everywhere reading your credit score as you walk by. Students no longer read, but rather scan texts. Shteyngart’s hero is a book owner and a book reader, one of the many ways he is set apart from the rest of his social circle. He is hapless and hopelessly in love. We read his romance as it plays out via texts and emails. He works for a cryogenic lab, where people are frozen in pursuit of agelessness and eternal life. The Norwegians and the Chinese are always threats in the background, until the end of the novel when they are no longer in the background… but have taken control. Shteyngart’s New York is one of social disparity, mindless consumerism, shallow intellect and lack of curiosity. In Shteyngart’s novel, his protagonist, Lenny, is said to be, by his Chinese critics, “ a tribute to literature as it once was…” (327). Following the fall of New York, Lenny makes his way to “Stability-Canada,” finally ending his days in the “Tuscan Free State,” where there is “less data, less youth, and where old people … were not despised simply for being old…” (328). Despite this somewhat bucolic ending, the world is collapsing all around, the human race, according to the Italians, mere horse flies to the roiling climate’s fly-swatter.

A quick jump to Iyer’s Wittgenstein, Jr. Iyer has an oddly repetitive writing style that you either sink into comfortably or become very annoyed with (or both!). In addition, he makes heavy use of italics so that in your head, you continually lean on words. Iyer becomes a voice in your head. If you’ve read his Spurious, Dogma, and Exodus trilogy, with twin heroes as "Madmen" of philosophy, you’ll be familiar with it. I admit that I read right through Spurious and Dogma, but stumbled part way through Exodus, never quite finishing it. The theme of a humanities phobic academy is continued in Wittgenstein, Jr. The interesting difference is that the tale is told from the perspective of a student rather than from that of the philosophy professor. The students have decided that their professor reminds them of Wittgenstein, and thus his name. “He dresses like Wittgenstein…and he behaves a bit like Wittgenstein too . . . . And of course, like the real Wittgenstein, he has come to Cambridge to do fundamental work in philosophical logic.” The professor leads the class in a Socratic fashion, asking questions but never explaining. The class dwindles down to a loyal few who are interested to varying levels. The remnant make up a a microcosm of student stereotypes. The students party heavily, indulging in alcohol and drugs as they re-enact ancient drama and relive ancient debates. Through the theatrics, the posturing, and the increasing distress and weakening sanity of W., Iyer takes us a little distance into questions of being and nothingness. The students are in pain and confusion, party wildly, play like children (there is a brilliant scene where they form a human orrery), do their homework (I think). The narrator, Peters, is in love with Wittgenstein, but this only unfolds in the final section of the book. Peters stays behind during the winter break to take care of Wittgenstein, who is in a fragile state. Peters as caretaker to Wittgenstein has a different narrative voice from Peters as hilarious hijinxing student. He demonstrates a tenderness and maturity not otherwise revealed in Iyer’s characters. And in a similar way Shteyngart sends his protagonist to a thoughtful but dark retreat in the Tuscan Free State, Iyer’s novel moves from black, chaotic humor to bittersweet reflection. Iyer's novel, like Shteyngart's and Lee's, surprises by being a sad love story. But, while Lee and Shteyngart portray the demise of society and the earth’s ability to sustain human life, Iyer focuses on the life of the mind and the world of the academy. But this life and its world are crumbling as well. 

All three novels leave us thinking about the future or maybe trying not to think about the future. If anything, the world is even bleaker than when I finished each of these novels. Surely something will turn around? Lenny, visiting friends in a rustic villa, listens to them talk about “global warming and the end of human life on earth . . . . I could not understand how, as parents, my friends could even begin to imagine the extinguishing of their son’s world . . . .” (330). This is a question I continuously ask, especially of our elected officials. Are none of you parents? Have you no desire to see a future for your children? Your grandchildren? Are you kidding me—this is all okay with you? Let no one say that the novel is an unimportant genre or that we’re better off with nonfiction. By shedding a fresh light on our world, by adding another dimension to Homer's truly timeless epic, we become able to recognize aspects of ourselves and our world that might have been ignored, overlooked. We may not like what we see, but we benefit from the revelation. The revelation may leave us confused and uncertain, but as Socrates suggested, knowing how much we don't know (or understand) is to be that much wiser.

If you are having trouble finding novels that seem to be worth dedicating the little undistracted time you have, I would recommend that you sit down to give a good read (no scanning) to these three novels. You will laugh and you will cry and you will contemplate and consider. You may also want to take more naps or set out to read (or re-read) all of P.G. Wodehouse as respite and escape.

Find these at your local library!
Shteyngart, Gary. Little Failure: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2014.
Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2010.
Lee, Chang Rae. On Such a Full Sea. New York : Riverhead Books, 2014.
Iyer, Lars. Wittgenstein Jr. Brooklyn, NY : Melville House Publishing, [2014] 

By the way: Melville House is an awesome publisher--go to their Web site, see the cute hamster and check out their catalog of books. There is much to indulge in!


Walter Giersbach said...

I'm a third of the way through "Super Bad True Love Story" and find it dispiriting and slow going. Will this be one that I put down without finishing? Do I care about Abramov or any of the others who are victims of their own confusion? Thanks for your review for helping me make up my mind.

Anonymous said...

Hi Favorite Books,

     I am contacting you to ask if you, or anyone you know would be so kind as to read and post an Amazon review for a book I have recently finished writing.

    It is currently available as an ebook on Amazon. The length of the book is 449 pages.

    It's about a Jewish lawman, a Texas Ranger, who, though not famous, was known to have used his guns as well as any famous gunmen, thus he had a measure of respect from his peers. He gradually, over time, begins to identify with and protect Mexican refugees fleeing in to Texas from the regime of the dictator, Porfiro Diaz. At the cost of his reputation, and safety, not only his but the safety of his family as well, he begins to protect the refugees from his fellow lawmen, who are being bribed by the Mexican government to persecute and harass the refugees.

     Here is the brief synopsis I posted with the book:

     In the summer of 1973, a fourteen year old kid spends time with his grandfather and his friends, George Burns, Jack Benny, Georgie Jessel, and others, as they play cards at the Hillcrest Country Club near Beverly Hills, California. He later sits down to listen as his grandfather tells him the action-packed tale of his great-grandfather, the first Jewish Texas Ranger, and how his grandfather came to Hollywood to become one of the pioneers of the movie industry.
       The young man learns about how his grandfather came to be friends with the early stars of the silver screen, like Tom Mix, William S. Hart, Lionel Barrymore, and Doug Fairbanks, and his grandfather's association with the great Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, the famous lawman Wyatt Earp, and other fascinating characters.

Author Name: Roger Raffee

The title is: Devil Out Of Texas

link to book:

Thank you,

-Roger Raffee