The preservation of youth can prove to be both beneficial and a destructive force when implemented in literature and society. Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is no different; throughout the epistolary novel, youth in the form of Eunice Park is what captures the fascination of main protagonist Lenny Abramov, but it is this same fascination that causes him to fear the notion of death entirely. Youth is the characteristic that is most sought after in the dystopian America Lenny and Eunice find themselves in. While youth has natural elements of energy and idealism, Shteyngart satirically transforms youth into something that instead of being treasured once at its end, needs to be prolonged in order to maintain an aura of invincibility, status, and dignity in a society that feeds and survives off youthfulness. In Super Sad True Love Story, Lenny’s constant sense that he will fall victim to death and society’s continuous suppression of maturing are what drives his desire for an injection of youth, something that he sees can be obtainable through Eunice. In order to highlight the dilemmas Lenny and Eunice encounter, Shteyngart utilizes various forms of symbolism, such as technology and literacy, specific to a contemporary as well as dystopian society, to represent an obsession with youth, age, and mortality. Ultimately, the use of symbolism by Shteyngart in Super Sad True Love Story is critical in illustrating the reality of a juxtaposition between the connotations of youth versus the denotations of mortality.
The characters in Super Sad True Love Story are continuously fighting the inevitability of death and thus, become obsessed with staying young forever. The novel opens up with Lenny proclaiming he is “never going to die” (Shteyngart 1). This “major decision” Lenny makes already indicates his inability to grasp the concept of life not being infinite (1). Lenny is “obsessed with death, not life,” and is perpetually “consumed with fear” over the notion that death will occur at an undetermined stage (268). While not all of society is anxious about death, they strive to be young and superficial in an attempt to not grow old. This is best captured by the social network GlobalTeens, which Shteyngart employs as a symbol to satirize the reality that out of the people using the network ‘GlobalTeens’ to “[teen]” each other, none of them are teenagers (99). The reasons why people in the story choose to make use of this tool are complex, but they may be seeking out this form of social media in order to satisfy their urge for nostalgia They miss what happened to them in the past, and they see the future as being scary and uncertain. With this in mind, the urge to remain young is also the urge to remain connected to what they know in an attempt to avoid the unknown of the future. It is not necessarily about death for these individuals, but rather, clinging to a form of life that they hold dear. At one point in the story, Lenny says, “Develop a sense of nostalgia for something, or you’ll never figure out what’s important” (23). His admonition attempts to convince people that in order to live a good, purposeful life, they have to develop a deep and abiding nostalgia for the past.
In addition, despite Lenny’s best efforts to be immersed in the technological trend of social media, he is unable to keep up with the seemingly endless slang that Eunice possesses and is dependent on his friends to teach him how to operate the RateMe Plus after he gets “his ass handed to him” by the new äppärät (92). Lenny is ridiculed at his workplace as a “RAG” (rapidly aging geezer), encapsulating Lenny’s ironic dilemma: while he longs to stay young and resorts to using acronyms and slang in an attempt to do so, the generation after him are creating acronyms to shame and exclude Lenny; the new forms of language and their meanings are not meant for people like Lenny. They are tailored to mock Lenny, but he still decides to keep his obsession to remain young (92). This reinforces the notion that although Lenny and the rest of society can actively attempt to engage in activities designed for those younger than them, one day they will “disappear from the earth,” a sad truth that Lenny struggles to acknowledge and accept (70). This existential frustration eventually leads Lenny to question whether the world itself has grown corrupt and irredeemable. It is a difficult thing for a person to believe that they are the core of the problem. It is much easier for them to just believe that society itself has become the problem. With this in mind, in the later chapters, he likens his own society to Rome before its fall, showing his belief that the changes in technology and way of life are destroying the very core of what makes society run. The author writes, “Reading is difficult. People just aren’t meant to read anymore. We’re in a post-literature age. You know, a visual age. How many years after the fall of Rome did it take for a Dante to appear? Many, many years” (277).
This demonstrates a deep and abiding frustration that with age, there has come not a better understanding of the world, but a sense of loss in a world that is being changed and colonized by people who appear to be destroying the very things that Lenny wants to maintain in life. This brings to life the first part of the quote when Lenny asks why it is so difficult to be a man in the modern world. Prior to asking that rhetorical question, the character reflects on his own frustration with being sold a bill of goods on personal growth. He says, “My youth has passed, but the wisdom of age hardly beckons” (26). This particular part is interesting because it brings to bear an important juxtaposition. First, Lenny is lamenting the loss of literacy for a society. He believes that people at large have lost the ability to read because everything has gone digital. This is one way of assessing literacy, and it is a convenient one for a person who is feeling left behind by the society around him. However, there are other ways to understand literacy. From a personal perspective, people who are unable to keep up with the new forms of learning and knowledge—including those online and the visual medium, are said to in some ways be illiterate. They are computer-illiterate, social media-illiterate, or digital-illiterate. The interesting juxtaposition is that Lenny, while claiming that the world around him is illiterate, is actually the one who has lost the ability to read and understand in a world where the mediums are shifting under his feet. This highlights one of the central themes in the work. Old age brings about the realities of mortality. Getting old and dying is inevitable, and before that happens, a person can become disconnected from the world around them. People like Lenny tried various methods to try and connect to those people who were younger than them in order to stop the rising tide of their own age and mortality, but even in doing so, it was just revealed how disconnected they were. The tragedy of the story is the harder people of Lenny’s age try to remain young in order to tap into the youth and virility that goes with it, the more it was revealed just how far from that youth they actually were.
Throughout the story, Lenny’s relationship with Eunice stands as one of the most distinct elements demonstrating the relationship between youth and age, virility and mortality. Lenny wants desperately to remain young, and he believes he can tap into Eunice to get there. He practically begs her to stay with him, not out of love, but out of a sense of desperation. In doing so, he drains himself of all of the power that might come with a relationship and all of the love that might have otherwise resulted. This brings to bear an important and interesting contradiction—Lenny finds himself seeking out the youthful life, but in that seeking, he destroys the very things that should be helpful about youth. By giving over all of the power, lowering himself to a pathetic place, and forgetting that relationships are based in a youthful sort of love and exuberance, Lenny takes one of the tools and youth and turns it into a reminder of his hastening demise.
Ultimately the book demonstrates important themes about the connection between youth and age. It shows that people have certain ideas about what youth can do. They believe that it can help them stave off their imminent and eventual demise. In reality, though, the book demonstrates that no matter how hard one tries, one cannot hold back the hands of time and the effects of Father Time.
- Shteyngart, Gary. Super sad true love story: A novel. Random House Incorporated, 2011.