I like books that make me laugh and that make me feel stressed out. It’s even better when I’m laughing and stressed about the same paragraph, or even the same sentence. Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story had me chortling nasally through a windpipe tightened with anxiety. Set in a dystopian America, where social media systems combine that Big Brother ubiquity with that Hello Kitty feel, the novel follows Lenny Abramov, hapless diary-keeper in a time of digital supremacy. Shteyngart’s exuberance, his acidic sense of humour, his high gloss and somersaulting bounce of his language are addictive.
June 1, Rome
Today, I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die.
Others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain. The light switch will be turned off. Their lives, their entirety, will be marked by glossy marble headstones bearing utterly false summations (‘her star shone brightly’, ‘never to be forgotten’, ‘he liked jazz’), and then these too will be lost in a coastal flood or get hacked to pieces by some kind of genetically modified future-turkey.
Nullified. All of them gone for ever. Don’t let them tell you life’s a journey. A journey is when you end up somewhere. When I take the number 6 train to see my pedicurist that’s a journey.
But wait. There’s more, isn’t there? Our legacy. We don’t die because our progeny lives on. The ritual passing of the DNA, momma’s corkscrew curls, his granddaddy’s lower lip, ah huh-lieve duh chil’ren ah duh future.1 But what ah duh chil’ren? Lovely and fresh in their youth; blind to mortality; rolling around in the tall grass with those alabaster legs; fawns, sweet fawns all of them, gleaming in their dreamy plasticity, at one with the outwardly simple nature of their world.
And then a brief half-century later: drooling on some poor Mexican nursemaid in an Arizona hospice.
Nullified. Did you know that each peaceful, natural death at age seventy-seven2 is a tragedy without compare? Did you know that there’s a slaughter going on around us? Every day people, individuals, Americans if that makes it more urgent for you, fall face down on the battlefield, never to get up again. Never to exist again. These are complex personalities, their cerebral cortices shimmering with floating worlds, universes that would have floored our sheep-herding, fig-eating, analogue ancestors. These folks are minor deities, vessels of love, life-givers, gods of the forge, unsung geniuses getting up at six-fifteen in the morning to fire up the coffeemaker, mouthing silent prayers that they will live to see the next day and the one after that and then Sarah’s graduation and then…
But not me, dear Diary. Dear hazelnut-coloured, $1.99 retailing, five-star Mead personal notebook in which the Greatest Story Ever Told will be recorded and carefully annotated. Lucky Diary. Undeserving Diary.
I will live for ever. The technology is almost here. I just have to be good. I just have to stay off the trans-fats and the hooch. I just have to drink plenty of green tea and alkalinized water and submit my genome to the right people. I will need to regrow my liver, replace the entire circulatory system with ‘smart blood’3 and find some place safe and warm (but not too warm) to while away the angry seasons and the holocausts. And when the earth expires, as it surely must, I will leave it for a new earth, greener still but with fewer allergens; and in the flowering of my own intelligence some 10(32) years hence when our universe decides to fold in on itself, my personality will jump through a black hole and surf into a dimension of unthinkable wonders, where the things that sustained me on Earth 1.0—tagliatelle con ragù, pistachio ice cream, the early works of the Velvet Underground, smooth, tanned skin pulled over the soft Baroque architecture of twenty-something buttocks—will seem as laughable and infantile as building blocks, baby formula, Simon says do this.
I am never going to die, caro diario. Never, never, never, never. And you can go to hell for doubting me.
Today’s my last day in Rome. Pretty much the same as all the other days. Got up around eleven, caffè macchiato at the bar that has the best honey brioche, the neighbour’s ten-year-old anti-American kid screaming at me from his window, ‘No global! No way!’, warm cotton towel of guilt around my neck for not getting any work done.
Yet another day of early summer wandering, the streets in charge of my destiny, holding me in their warm pink eternal embrace. Then the familiar dread of the late afternoon—prelude to evening, prelude to night-time, prelude to death. The crush of government workers, tall, balding men jumping in and out of dark-blue official Lancias, the city groaning under scaffolding, welcoming in Diesel and Miu Miu stores and yet more places where a limited-edition sneaker can be bought for over 200 euros. Everywhere, the business of a middle-class city. Everywhere, the march of time. And we all know where it’s marching.
Evening came. Ended up where I always end up. By the single most beautiful building in Europe. The Pantheon. The rotunda’s ideal proportions; the weight of the dome lifted above one’s shoulders, suspended in air by icy mathematic precision; the oculus letting in the rain and the searing Roman sunlight; the coolness and shade that nonetheless prevail. Even the gaudy religious make-over (it is officially a church) and the inflated American visitors seeking shelter beneath the portico do nothing to diminish it. This is the most glorious grave marker to a race of men ever built. When I outlive the earth and depart from its familiar womb, I will take the memory of this building with me. I will encode it with zeros and ones and broadcast it across the universe. See what primitive man has wrought! Witness his first hankerings for immortality, his discipline, his selflessness.
But then, wandering out of the Pantheon past the flower sellers and the discarded fast-food wrappers, I felt scared.
Here amid the McDonald’s-choked streets stood this tiny oasis of careful rationalism, and all around its perfect marble hulk were modern-day Italians fighting and cajoling, boys trying to stick it inside girls, mopeds humming beneath hairy legs, volumes of familiar, ancient emotions crashing like tidal waves through the building’s echoing mass, multi-generational families bursting with pimply life. But it wasn’t their life that I noticed. It was the intimation of death. The decline of civilization; its endpoint. And an image came to mind.
The facade of the New York Public Library cleaved into two, a growth of wild tropical trees choking its once grand lobby, empty windows, empty shelves, the heads of one of the famed lion statues pillaged, the other beast mostly missing, just one paw stubbornly attached to the pedestal. A man approaches me. He is dressed in the remains of a T-shirt that reads ollie’s li’l piggy house, fayetteville, nc, his face bears no trace of civility, the forehead slopes and the eyes recede, he makes a sound from someplace in the back of his throat, from a muscle our species has never before used to communicate. ‘Stop,’ I say in English. ‘Stop, friend.’ And then, ‘Wait, friend!’ And then the appeal of the weak to the strong: ‘Please, friend…’ And then the conclusive: ‘No!’ It doesn’t help. The flash of a dull blade against my neck, red warmth trickling down my shirt front, the last-seconds-on-earth chemicals kicking in, flooding my brain with false images of the cheap Hawaiian paradise we have all been promised in the hereafter.
Which is to say: what if I’m wrong? What if I’m crazy? What if I won’t survive? What if all these carefully annotated diary entries are just the prelude to another huge, comic, characteristically impotent letdown? What if our society falls to the barbarians? What if the best of us are left to bleed in front of the public libraries? What if my life is no better than the lives of others? What if my life is just as finite as yours?
Breathe, Lenny, breathe. Enough of your genetic pessimism. Soon you will be home among your own kind. Soon you will embark upon the path to the everlasting. In the meantime, take stock of your Italian sojourn. Learn from your year abroad. You’ve kept careful records as befits an obsessive. Why not share them with your diary?
How I Spent My Roman Vacation:
A Quantitative and Qualitative Analysis
By Leonard Abramov, BA
1.0 Pages of Greatest American Novel completed: 44.
1.1 How that makes me feel: like a failure.
1.2 Pages that will stand the test of time: 21.5 (the lyrical part about my mother’s brassiere works quite well)
1.3 Pages that will not stand the test of time: 22.5 (anything with the word ‘Zeitgeist’ on it must be fed to the flames)
2.0 Cathartic moments not involving sex or food or architecture: ZERO
2.1 Involving sex: 2 (one with Fabrizia when she first straddled me and I came like a fourteen-year-old, one with Sheryl when we did doggy on the roof and the Roman sunlight lit up her great big moony ass just so)
2.2 Involving food: 4 (in particular, the way the bucatini stood up to the sardine and pine nuts at the Sicilian place on Via Giulia)
2.3 Involving architecture: every moment of every day
3.0 Damage to vital organs
3.1 Circulatory system: moderate (from over-consumption of butter and cream)
3.2 Pulmonary system: low to moderate (from second-hand smoke, some pot mixed with tobacco)
3.3 Liver and kidneys: moderate to high (from uncontrolled near-daily drinking stemming from sadness, loneliness, inability to express myself to others because of poor Italian or feelings of superiority)
3.4 Reproductive system: low (possibly contracted HPV from Sheryl, but that only affects future partners not personal health)
3.5 Mental health: moderate (increased anxiety, lower reflex time, lowered intellectual stimulus in Rome vs. New York leading to atrophy in key areas of brain)
3.6 Skeletal: minor damage to coccyx bone when fell on marble flooring in Pompeii in the middle of the day, drunk
4.0 Lessons learned from antiquity: none
4.1 Truths about myself learned from being in foreign land: I am an American, Flushing-born, and there’s no use pretending to be a European
4.2 Truths learned from brief parental visit: hardened immigrant parents incapable of pity and do not have my best interests at heart
4.3 Truths learned about women: they are not as indifferent as men, they have a far-reaching intelligence that nonetheless fails them regularly; if I am to achieve immortality I must spend as little time as possible engaged in the rites of courtship
June 4, New York City
For me there is only one place in the physical universe that matters, that I would actually defend with my own blood and treasure, for even the murky waters of Jamaica Bay are worth to me a hundred Tibers and for the farthest parcel of Queens I would sacrifice all of Tuscany, Umbria and Piedmont besides. To hell with the political situation. I was back in New York.
When I lived on Via Giulia I’d meet this little American homo guy for lunch at da Tonnino and we’d talk about what we missed the most about Manhattan. For me it was fried pork-and-scallion dumplings on Eldridge Street, for him bossy older black women at the phone company or the unemployment office who called him ‘honey’ and ‘sugar’ and sometimes ‘baby’. He said it wasn’t a gay thing, but rather that these black women made him feel calm and at ease, as if he had momentarily won the love and mothering of a complete stranger. The first face I saw after deplaning at JFK belonged to just such a woman, if younger and more petite, her lips luminescent with gloss. She was doing her job, screaming at the herd of arrivals in an attempt to separate us into ‘foreigner’ and ‘citizen’ queues, and I impulsively went down the wrong line just so I could ask her, ‘Is this for American citizens, ma’am?’
‘This way, sugar,’ she said, and physically extricated me from the dark sea of Italians, then gently pushed me in the right direction. I felt a wave of pride and belonging. Here I was, an American in America. A country steadily going to hell according to my friends and the Internet, but at least I no longer had to spend entire dinner parties accounting for the sins of our military. ‘This way, sugar.’ Such kind words. Such tender professionalism in the face of mounting insanity. This is who we Americans really are in the end. This is why the best of us will live for ever.
Heartened by the black woman, I submitted easily to the immigration officer in the mauve pocket vest who shone a laser into my eye, took a recording of my teeth and clipped one of my precious receding hairs from the front of my head. ‘It is forbidden to discuss our interaction,’ the man said. ‘Sedition Omnibus Four.’
‘Yes?’ I said. It was my first encounter with the fabled Omnibus.
‘You said “yes”,’ the man said.
There was something wrong with one of his bloodshot eyes, it seemed dilated and independent of the rest of his face, and I realized there was a small rectangular box attached to the upper eyelash like an errant piece of mascara.
‘Yes,’ I agreed.
He looked at me crookedly. His mascara-filled eye scanned downwards. ‘Did you mean “yes?” in the form of a question or “yes” to imply consent?’
I think I have a genetic instinct for run-ins with the security services. My parents were born in the Soviet Union and my grandmother had survived Stalin, although barely. ‘”Yes”‘ to imply consent,’ I said, and showed the man my opened palms, as if to demonstrate how utterly helpless I was. The immigration man touched his eyelash and waved me through. No sooner did I collect my bags, when the customs crew pulled me over and searched the hell out of my luggage (somehow managing to miss two kilos of prosciutto crudo I had stashed away in my socks). They passed a flashing light sabre over me and demanded that I both deny our interaction and imply consent, conditions to which I expressly agreed.
As I rolled my suitcases down to the arrivals hall I saw two naked men, one brown and one white, with their hands tied behind their backs lying on the cold, air-conditioned floor, their buttocks smooth and oddly beautiful, their faces turned towards each other to avoid the stares of my fellow passengers, the Italians among them muttering ‘Che cosa barbarica!’4 and ‘A che serve?’5 , while the Americans hurried towards the promise of early summer sunshine, their eyes on the person in front of them. I stopped for a moment, just to take in how incongruously bestial these two naked men appeared amidst the high-tech neon splendour of the arrivals hall, like zoo animals forced to lie in a hospital bed, when a middle-aged man in civilian clothes began walking towards me, a large pistol in his hand. ‘Gah!’ I said. I threw up my arms, once again flashed my empty palms and ran for the exit. I glanced back to see if the armed gentleman was behind me (he had disappeared), but before I could gain the automatic doors, my gaze skirted the two gleaming, coin-sized bald spots of the naked men on the floor. It’s silly to be sure, but nothing touches me like hair loss on an otherwise healthy body. And I knew then, with a shock of spectacular clarity, with a chill against my forehead and the flash of heat in my armpits, that whatever the gravity of these men’s crimes, however they had wronged our country, this day would not end well for them.
I stood in the warm and perfect afternoon, breathing in the familiar American car exhaust, whose volume and ubiquity coat not just the eyes and nostrils but the throat and anus as well. Something was off. There was quiet all around me, or at least a kind of lingual inversion. I strained to hear the sweet emotive English of a busy transit point, the ‘hey, man’s and ‘watch it, mister’s, yet nothing crossed my ears. Foreigners were speaking, but our people were not. I walked past a camouflage-coloured armoured personnel carrier with no markings idling at the kerb, ahead of an armada of taxis respectfully keeping their distance. A black-on-orange highway sign warned us: it is forbidden to acknowledge the existence of this vehicle (‘the object’) until you are 0.5 miles from the security perimeter of john f. kennedy international airport. by reading this sign you have denied existence of the object and implied consent—sedition omnibus ix-2.ii
After hiring a cab and leaving the terminal, the fear began to dissipate. A deep unmoored anger began to take its place in my solar plexus. I was angry at everyone. The immigration officer, the crew at customs, the man with the pistol, even the two naked, balding men forced to lie on the floor. My last half-year in Rome was spent dreaming of my return, of the embrace of the warm and provincial, the crunch of Gus’s pickles and the soft, excited jabber of young American Jews. And now my homecoming was ruined! I had merely left one foreign country for another.
Traffic was slow, one lane of the Van Wyck taken up with a row of gun-mounted Jeeps in camouflaged jungle garb and Seditions Omnibus signs warning us not to acknowledge their existence until we were 0.5 miles outside the airport’s security perimeter. ‘What are all these motherfuckers doing?’ I said to the driver, savouring the ease of speaking normal, obscenity-laced, working-class English. The cabbie looked up from his Hispanic phone conversation, met my eyes in the rear-view and quickly looked away.
We drove through New York’s few remaining ghettos, which lulled me with their quaint linear charm, the streets given over to deadly fried-food establishments and Baptist Cavalry ministries.6 I saw black people strolling past or fanning themselves atop rickety chairs and basked in the familiar recognition that this is how it ever was. ‘Homeland’ basically refers to the poor people who keep a country’s lowest denominator common.
And still my anger would not abate. Why shouldn’t I ‘acknowledge or discuss’ the existence of some disgusting war vehicle squatting like a dead water bug on a minor highway in my beloved city? And why should I ‘imply consent’ to this kind of visual pollution? When the cabbie had ceased his Spanish cell phone jabbering I said to him, ‘What was that all about, jefe? What the fuck is a 0.5-mile security perimeter anyway?’
His eyes went wide and brown in the rear-view as he stepped on the brakes and pulled over. ‘Out!’ he shouted.
‘Wait a second,’ I said, but the little fellow had already unlocked the trunk and was soon throwing my luggage out on the kerb. I got out too and approached him with as menacing a stride as possible, my arms crossed at my chest. I may be scared of men at the immigration counter but I still know my place around actual immigrants. ‘You can’t just leave me here,’ I said. ‘I’ll fuck you up.’
‘Omnibus, asshole!’ he shouted, his hair standing up in thick ethnic spikes. He was looking at the ground, the sky, the poor people oddly quiet on their benighted porches, anywhere but my face, as if I was diseased or demented or both. ‘Om-ni-bus,’ he spelled it out for me, then drove off without his fare.
Well, dear Diary, as you can imagine, the rest of the day was spent in a state of serious existential panic. It took three hours to find a gypsy cab in the sticks, another hour to crawl over the heavily armoured carapace of the Williamsburg Bridge, and another hour to clear the Omnibus checkpoints at Delancey, where more armed men in civilian clothing pointed hollow tubes at our eyes and spoke quietly into their collars. They were ruddier and whiter than most New Yorkers, with elliptical blond moustaches that even from a distance smelled of coffee and ham. I wondered what it would take for them to shoot me dead and which authorities would come to inspect my body.
By the time I got to my co-op on the banks of the East River I felt once removed from myself, as if I were just a poor relation to the man who had left for Rome a year prior. My parents never successfully learned English, but after my father would wrestle me down as a child and beat my head and body, I would burble through my tears in English, ‘You can’t do this to me, Poppa, I know my rights!’ And now that silly American sentiment took on the mantle of cold immutable fact. I knew my rights. As a prosperous citizen. As a landholder. As a man working at the cutting edge of technology. If a taxi driver of dubious green-card status could throw me out in the middle of an outer borough to fend for myself, if anyone could stop me on the Williamsburg Bridge and shine a flashlight into my soul, what else was possible? I briefly entertained the possibility of suffering the kind of grievous bodily harm that leads to death. I saw the blows coming, raised my hands in mock defence, and shut my eyes so tightly for that for several seconds I successfully ceased to exist.
1 From ‘The Greatest Love of All’, by 1980s pop diva Whitney Houston, track nine of her eponymous first LP (Arista Records, 1985). Utter nonsense. The children are the future only in the most narrow, transitive sense. They are the future until they, too, perish. The song’s next line encourages an adult’s relinquishing of selfhood in favour of future generations. The phrase ‘I live for my kids’, for example, is tantamount to admitting that one will be dead shortly and that one’s life, for all practical purposes, is already over. ‘I’m gradually dying for my kids’ would be more accurate.
2 The average life expectancy of an American woman born in the year 2000 is 77.6 years. Men, for all their violence, disregard and self-hatred, will meet their end three years sooner.
3 US Patent pending.
4 How barbaric.
5 For what purpose?