It’s a weird coincidence that I finished reading Gary Shtyengart’s Super Sad True Love Story on the same day that six people were killed and 13 others were wounded in Tucson, Arizona. It’s also a weird coincidence that I found out about the shooting through Twitter. It’s not such a weird coincidence that I’ve been scanning tweets and clicking links for three days. I jump from one post to the next, experiencing little flickers of emotion in the course of my reading — horror, outrage, despair, confusion — and have this vague sense of a shared experience while still sitting alone, in silence, in my house.
Strange too, that I’m writing so seriously about a novel that made me laugh out loud for the first 280 pages, but comedy is serious business. In Shtyengart’s novel, Lenny Abramov and his girlfriend, Eunice Park, navigate a world reduced to random statistics and a tidal wave of data. Try not to see yourself in his descriptions of High or Low Net Worth Individuals, credit scores flashing on screens as characters walk down the street. Try to forget how much you may be like these people who are obsessed with their various rankings that change from minute to minute, depending on where they are and who they’re with. How many people follow you on Twitter?
No, skip that; don’t try to forget anything. Just laugh at it while it’s still funny, because this is Shtyengart’s point: gently implicating us in the confusion. After all, in his essay “Only Disconnect,” published last summer in the New York Times Book Review, he places himself squarely in the data stream as he tells the story of how he lost himself in his iPhone and his attempts to live beyond that tiny screen again. That same struggle made me wonder if I should write this this week; I wondered if I wanted to contribute to the stream of ideas — at this point a raging river — many half-formed. Certainly mine are. Then I thought it over and decided I should just go with it, accept my place in history. I’m just as much a character in this as anyone else.
What the novel becomes is a sort of blueprint for what’s been happening these last few days in response to the unfathomable events of last Saturday, this creation of a massive collection of information and opinion that must be sorted through, but ultimately never can be. Behind all the writing and tweeting and posting and talking are people, some of them gone, some of them wounded in ways most of us will never comprehend. All the writing in the world will never quite pin it down. By the way, what were we laughing about on Friday — can anyone remember?
In the novel, when New York is invaded by Venezuela, there’s a transition where the humor and the horror overlap and awkwardly coexist until life settles down, harder than it was before. Lenny and Eunice try to find their way back to each other, but they have other priorities now, more serious responsibilities than shopping for see-through jeans. Last Saturday afternoon I watched the postings and the retweets, the 140-character commentary, the misinformation about whether Gabrielle Giffords had survived. I also still caught the sex jokes, the recipe links, and the happy birthday wishes that also occur both on my computer and in real life as tragedies unfold. There were those few hours where it felt wrong to find anything funny.
Then on Sunday Facebook told me one of my friends had become a fan of the Clarence Dupnik Is My Hero group. Yes, I thought. Of course. Click here and something has been done. Press this and show that you felt something, or just to show that you exist. Those Twitter stars, Tumblr hearts and Facebook Fonzie thumbs provide us an electronic version of a reassuring nod, a comforting hand on a shoulder. A faint but hopeful sign of life.
Video: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart (book trailer)