It’s an apocalyptic tale set in the near future of the United States. The story is told from two viewpoints. Lenny Abramov is a middle-aged nebbish, a salesman of über-expensive rejuvenation treatments to the hyper-rich. His job is under threat because he no longer looks young enough to hawk immortality. Lenny comforts himself with the nearly extinct luxury of classic books, failing to conform to the texting culture of his time. The son of Russian immigrants, Lenny constantly caves in to please those around him, particularly his manipulative boss, the elegant but sleazy Joshy Goldman. Lenny’s chapters in the book take the form of journals.
Perhaps because he longs to reconnect with his youth, Lenny falls for Eunice Park, a petulant, often shallow Korean-American girl, represented here by text messages to her manipulative family and callow friends. Like others of her generation, Eunice is addicted to shopping, fixated on health food, media trends and casual sex. Lenny is anything but her type, but she responds to his devoted attentions. The security and kindness he provides contrasts with the pressure placed on her by her family. And so begins an unlikely relationship.
While the characters are good, the real star here is the truly terrifying world that Shteyngart describes in his zingy, snappy, semi-obscene slang. His future America is surprised to be failing in a war against Venezuela and in deep debt to China and Norway. Privacy is dead, with the credit ratings, vital statistics, and emotional reactions of passersby broadcast on poles in the street and on the äpääräts (horrifyingly invasive microcomputing devices) of everyone in the vicinity. Media pervades every aspect of culture, mostly with personal confessions, ever-present sexual references, ads for healthy, youth-maintaining foods, and demands that consumers buy more goods to show their patriotism. Everything is aimed at young people, with those over 30 considered over the hill. What I find especially terrifying about Shteyngart’s “future” is that much of it has already happened.
All of this leads to a kind of end times—not the Rapture, but in Shteyngart’s play on words, “The Rupture.” America comes apart, the creditors move in like sharks, corporate national guard troops take over the streets, and the poor begin to be eliminated. Against this Lenny and Eunice play out their pathetic and doomed romance, a romance that is something of an allegory for the death of the American immigrant dream.
This isn’t for everybody. Lenny and Eunice aren’t likable people, and Shteyngart’s language is peppered with phrases that may make readers uncomfortable. The humor here is very dark. Some readers will laugh hysterically, while others won’t appreciate the acid bath. This style is essential to the arguments that Shteyngart is making, but readers who prefer happy, innocent, and uplifting should look elsewhere.
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