The Present is the Future: Surveillance, Consumerism, and Class in Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story
The Surveillance State
Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is by turns painfully tragic, painfully funny, and painfully true. One of the more dystopian aspects of the future he envisions is the role of the surveillance state, as represented by the American Restoration Authority and the Bipartisan Party. Lenny Abramov, the middle-aged life extension salesman, has to report to the U.S. Embassy in Rome, due to the length of time he has spent abroad: as his friend in fashion tells him, if he fails to check in with the government, “they can bust you for sedition right at JFK, send you to a ‘secure screening facility’ Upstate, whatever that is” (7).
And as it turns out, checking in with the government entails disclosure of some very personal information. After the computer system’s animated otter asks him some basic questions about his business in Rome and the state of his Credit, Lenny is asked a very personal question indeed: “’Tell me, for statistical purposes, did you have any intimate physical relationships with any non-Americans during your stay?’” (9). Lenny is honest, but the system still flags him (13). After Lenny’s plane lands in New York, it is boarded by several soldiers who detain a passenger (40-41). It is very clear that this is an America where the power of the government to subject its citizens to surveillance and summarily detain them is very strong.
In other words, it is an America not unlike our own. As Weller explains, since the late 18th century state surveillance has generally been getting more effective at enabling governments to keep track of their citizens: industrialization both drove the need for, and provided the means of, consistently keeping track of citizens (57-58). Thus, information technology and political centralization have tended to go hand-in-hand with an organized surveillance regime through record-keeping. However, in an era when large quantities of personal information are the basis of much of economic activity, fears of government invasions of privacy have become common, and are arguably quite well-founded, especially post-9/11 (Lyon 94, Perri 6 17-19).
Consumption and Class
Consumerism is another, very major, theme of the book. Consumption is a central part of the Bipartisan Party’s platform: “In the Chinatown parts of East Broadway, the signs read in English and Chinese—‘America Celebrates Its Spenders!’” (Shteyngart 54). Credit ratings, essential for consumption, are a central preoccupation of Lenny’s, and of course his business caters to High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) (12, 54).
As in contemporary America, fashion is everything, and it is particularly the obsession of the young. Take, for example, this social media exchange between Eunice and her sister Sally: “EUNI-TARD ABROAD: Sally, do you want TotalSurrender panties? They’re those sheer pop-offs that Polish porn star wears on AssDoctor” (47). Contemporary fashion, especially women’s fashion, has been taken to absurd extremes: from nearly transparent Onionskin jeans to the “nippleless Saaami bra” (28, 88).
Consumption also extends to food, sex, and bodies. In one particularly revealing passage, Lenny evaluates the dissolute lifestyle of a famous sculptor, now living in Rome: “What kept the sculptor here… preying on the young, gorging on thick-haired pussy and platefuls of carbs…?” (18). As a middle-aged man who is painfully self-conscious of his appearance and health, Lenny comments on his own indulgence in carbs on more than one occasion (62, 64). Indulgence seems to characterize sexual intercourse as well: instead of love-making, people ‘fuck’ (21, 88). Devices called apparati even rank people on the basis of “FUCKABILITY” and “PERSONALITY”, so that sexual attractiveness and personality are reduced to commodities (95, 161). Hence this passage: “Eunice was FACing a little with three of the other Asian girls in the room, and her FUCKABILITY, I noticed with pride and a little worry, was 795, although her PERSONALITY just 500 (maybe she wasn’t extro enough)” (161).
To put it mildly, this is a portrayal that rings true with contemporary American culture. As Strinati explains, since the advance of industrialization in the Western world beginning in the 18th century, traditional patterns of community life, and the traditional values of family and religious and civic duty they upheld, have steadily eroded (5). What we are left with is an atomized society, a society of individuals selfishly pursuing their own ends, and unburdened by deep attachments to family, community, and land (5). With more affluence and leisure time, Americans have created a culture of indulgence, a “postmodern popular culture which celebrates consumerism, hedonism and style” (224). Of course, the media have been indispensable: they are perfectly happy to sell us more things in order to sustain the ongoing machine of consumerism, and the class lifestyle it both sustains and is sustained by (224-225).
Class is another key aspect of the novel that resonates with contemporary society. The consumerist society, with its endless pursuit of consumption, depends on a ‘leisure class’ of mostly middle-class consumers determined to pursue the trappings of upper-class life (Miles 19). Of course, the reality is that for many, the idea becomes so compelling that it trumps even their means to finance it, and between this and rising living expenses, many middle-income consumers have gone into considerable amounts of debt (49). The system of Credit in the novel is essentially this selfsame thing. Class continues to exist, then: the lower-to-middle-class consumers consume, and thereby enrich the High Net Worth Individuals. Of course, these average consumers continue to try to join the elites or hobnob with them by any means necessary, thus one of Eunice’s friends advises her to sleep with someone who works in Credit, in part because “he must be FILTHY FUCKING RICH” (28). And of course, as referenced above, Lenny’s entire job is peddling Indefinite Life Extension to HNWIs, in other words, selling lots of extra life to the extremely wealthy, branded as ‘Life Lovers’ (12).
Lyon, David. Surveillance After September 11. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Inc., 2003. Print.
Miles, Steven. Consumerism—as a way of life. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Inc., 2006. Print.
Perri 6. “”The personal information economy: Trends and prospects for consumers.” The glass consumer: Life in a surveillance society. Ed. Susanna Lace. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, University of Bristol, 2005. 17-44. Print.
Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. New York: Random House, Inc., 2010. Print.
Strinati, Dominic. An introduction to theories of popular culture. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Weller, Toni. “The information state: An historical perspective on surveillance.” Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies. Ed. Kirstie Ball, Kevin Haggerty and David Lyon. New York: Routledge, 2012. 57-63. Print.