In a recent New Yorker article, The Information, Adam Gopnik divided books about the internet into three types – the Never-Bettters; the Better-Nevers and the Ever-Wasers:
“The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.”
The novel gives us a vivid vision of a very-near future New York which seems perfectly believable given the world of today– the US is at war with Venezuela; it’s economy is decoupling from the European Union and China-Worldwide; the streets are lined with credit poles which display your ranking each time you walk past; people are divided into HMWIs (high net-worth individuals) and the opposite LWNIs, destitute families beg for Healthcare vouchers while the rich are trying to live for ever, the young are steeped in pornography and women wear transparent onionskin jeans; the only TV channels are FoxLiberty-Prime and FoxLiberty-Ultra.
Reading physical books is frowned upon in a post-literate age where images are everything:
The world they needed was right around them, flickering and bleeping, and it demanded every bit of strength and attention they could spare.
As befitting a world where people only connect in the ether, the novel is told through emails and electronic diaries and Shteyngart captures the voices of characters of different genders, races, ages and moralities.
People wears äppäräts to constantly stream their lives and emotions to their viewing public and rank everyone around them while being ranked in return – when men look at a girl, the EmotePad picks up any change in their blood pressure and “that tells how much you want to do her” and Lenny Abramov can discover that out of seven men in a bar, he is ranked the seventh most attractive.
The central love story is supposedly between an almost-40 Lenny, the son of Russian immigrants;
a slight man with a gray, sunken battleship of a face, curious wet eyes, a giant gleaming forehead on which a dozen cavemen could have painted something nice, a sickle of a nose perched atop a tiny puckered mouth and from the back, a growing bald spot whose shape perfectly replicates the great state of Ohio, with its capital city, Columbus, marked by a deep-brown mole
and the 24-year-old daughter of Korean immigrants, Eunice Park.
However Lenny only seems to love Eunice because she is “super-young. Super-healthy. Asian. Life expectancy-very high” and Eunice only seems to want to move from one wealthy man to another, and feels “like a recycling bin sometimes, with all these things passing through me from one person to another, love, hate, seduction, attraction, repulsion, all of it.”
For me, the real love story for both Lenny and Eunice is their acknowledgment of ties to family and history, both of which are real compared to the world of data, streaming, viewing and ranking.
Eunice discovers she “was always a Korean girl from a Korean family with a Korean way of doing things, and I’m proud of what that means. It means that, unlike so many people around me, I know who I am” while Lenny discovers he still has the capacity to care “incessantly, morbidly, instinctually, counterproductively for the people who has made of me the disaster known as Lenny Abramov.”
And maybe that is the lesson of this novel. To remind us to care incessantly, morbidly, instinctually and even counterproductively for the real people around us rather than those who just flicker and bleep.
And maybe then the Never-Betters will be proved right.