This book is the story of Lenny, the 39-year old son on Russian Jewish immigrants to the US, who falls in love with Eunice, the 24-year old daughter of Korean Christian immigrants, though neither of them are religious. On one level this is the familiar story of cross-cultural tensions: between parents brought up in the traditional cultures of their country of origin and their children who have grown up in the US, and the difficulty for Lenny and Eunice to overcome the cultural baggage of different immigrant backgrounds and ages. (Fresh Air recently had an interview with Shteyngart which is where I heard about the book and was interested enough to read it.)
What fascinated me about the book is the background in which this relationship takes place. The time is a decade or two in the future and the state of the US that Shteyngart describes is what I have been gloomily predicting in my political analyses here. What he has done is take the trends that I have been writing about and extrapolated them to the extreme, resulting in a dystopian vision of what to expect if the US does not change course. In fact, the similarities between his vision and mine were so startling that this could have been a novel that I authored if I knew how to write a novel. In a way, this is a weakness of the author’s imagination. He simply extrapolated all the current trends much as I might have done. There was no inspired bit of futurism of the kind that one finds in (say) Kurt Vonnegut’s books, like the latter’s invention of the concept of ice-nine in Cat’s Cradle.
What the book portrays is an America that has collapsed from within. The manufacturing sector has disappeared and all that remains is the credit and retail shopping economy. The country is split between a small group of rich (referred to as High Net Worth Individuals) and many poor (Low Net Worth Individuals), some of the latter living in tent cities in public parks. The country is a one-party state ruled by a corrupt Bipartisan Party that monitors people closely, with checkpoints at all the major intersections with armed security personnel who check your identity and look for any warning signs of deviant behavior.
The immigrants who fled poverty and oppressive governments to come to the US as the land of opportunity decades ago now find that the US has the same kind of poverty and oppressive government they thought they had left behind, while their former home countries are prosperous and much freer. As a result, the more successful immigrants have abandoned the US and gone back to their home countries.
The dollar has sunk to such low values that it is no longer the reserve currency of the world and has been replaced by the Chinese yuan. The Europeans have also decoupled their economies from the US, seeing it as a basket case spiraling into oblivion. The most powerful person in the world is the governor of the Chinese Central Bank. China, Korea, Arab Middle East countries, Western Europe, and other nations are rich and powerful and modern, while the US is decaying everywhere, with crumbling roads and infrastructure and rotten public services, and police, National Guard and other protective services privatized to security contractors.
The US has declined so much that it can no longer win its wars and its latest conflict (with Venezuela) is going badly, with troops returning home injured and finding that there is no health care or jobs for them and becoming homeless.
Privacy has disappeared. The intimate details of everyone’s personal life, down to one’s income, credit rating, and even medical history can be retrieved by anyone on an iPhone-like device called an apparat that everyone carries around with them and is constantly looking at and communicating with as it streams information at them. People are obsessed with the trivial, such as shopping and monitoring the details of other people’s lives and rating themselves and each other constantly using their devices. For example, in addition to giving others your personal history including the most intimate details, the devices can immediately rate your attractiveness, informing everyone nearby both your absolute score as well as your ranking in a room full of people, which is not good for the balding, paunchy Lenny who usually finds himself near the bottom in any group while Eunice is near the top.
Programming on the apparat is provided by ordinary people (like today’s video bloggers) who go around showing what they see live and providing running commentary, and the only major content providers are variants of Fox News, with station names like FoxLiberty-Prime and FoxLiberty-Ultra. Newspaper reporters have ceased to exist. Books are no longer published.
This book has been described as a black comedy. Shteyngart does a good job of trying to interweave the personal story of two people with the broader political message. I found the latter aspect more interesting but the book was an enjoyable read. I probably would have found the book funnier if it seemed like a total fantasy and did not so accurately reinforce my own sense of foreboding about where the US is headed.
I have expressed before my puzzlement that the general public does not share my sense of alarm at the seriously wrong direction in which the US is headed. Most Americans seem to be complacent that everything is just fine and that AMERICA IS AND ALWAYS WILL BE THE GREATEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD BECAUSE IT HAS BEEN CHOSEN BY GOD TO BE HIS SPECIAL NATION, even as their oligarchy pursues policies that are driving it into the ditch. Coming across this book was a relief in a way, to find that someone else shared my sense of concern and that I am not totally nuts. Shteyngart is, like me, an immigrant, the child of Russian Jews who came to the US when he was seven. It made me wonder if there was something about being an immigrant that makes us look more globally and long term, and be more alert to dangerous political trends.