Maybe there really is a zeitgeist
floating around. Some time ago, I posted an article on this website entitled “How Chic Was My Progress,” depicting an end-of-empire scenario in which everything was going to hell in a basket, but nobody was that concerned because they had some state-of-the-art laptop or cellphone into which they could stare or talk, thereby feeling that all was right with the world. At the same time that I was writing this, give or take, the Russian-American author Gary Shteyngart was putting the finishing touches on his spectacular novel, Super Sad True Love Story
, in which precisely that scenario plays out in the United States. In his version, Americans are on their digital screen device—“apparat” (umlauts over the a’s)—24/7, except when they are sleeping. Relationships of any kind, whether with a book or another human being, are pretty much passé; the screen, along with mass consumerism, has become a total world. In many ways, SSTLS
reads like the fictionalized version of my last two books, The Twilight of American Culture
and Dark Ages America
. I knocked it off in two days, but it was an eerie read.
My own vision of the collapse of America is based on the Roman Empire model, which is one of slow disintegration. Sure, there are “nodes” that punctuate the process, such as 9/11 or the crash of 2008, but all in all one day is pretty much like the next, another step on a downhill slide. Not so for Shteyngart. Given his Russian background, he sees the U.S. following the Soviet pattern, in which a long period of decay issues out into a period of outright collapse, with the economy/society/culture imploding almost overnight. In SSTLS
, the dollar is basically worthless, with the Chinese yuan becoming the de facto currency of the country. China effectively owns the United States, in this scenario, as Americans scramble just to survive (cafés have names like “Povertea,” and grocery stores sport signs saying “We accept only yuan sorry”). The government has tried everything—“privatization, deprivatization, savings stimulus, spending stimulus, regulation, deregulation, pegged currency, floating currency, controlled currency, uncontrolled currency, more tariffs, less tariffs”—and the net result is zero. The nation “is no longer critically relevant to the world economy. The rest of the globe is strong enough to decouple from us. We, our country, our city, our infrastructure, are in a state of freefall.” Meanwhile the U.S. is, of course, engaged in another phony war, this time with Venezuela; except that in this case, it is clearly losing, as Venezuelan warships make their way up the Potomac. Human relationships are completely commercial, with Americans constantly using their apparati to calculate the “fuckability” of potential partners. If the novel is an absorbing read, it is also a bleak one, as the citizenry finally tries to escape to Canada or return to the land from which they originally emigrated. The most depressing aspect of the book is that much of what the author describes is already with us; the endgame feels like it’s only fifteen to twenty years away.
A few additional quotes might provide a more vivid portrait. The central character, Lenny Abramov (Shteyngart’s obvious alter ego), is returning to New York from Rome, where he spent a year escaping the United States. He is doing something unusual for an American: reading a book (Chekhov, appropriately enough). People on the plane are staring at him; the young man next to him says, “Duder, that thing smells like wet socks.” Abramov records in his diary: “As the passengers returned to their flickering displays, I took out my apparat and began to thump it loudly with my finger to show how much I loved all things digital, while sneaking nervous glances at the throbbing cavern around me, the wine-dulled business travelers lost to their own electronic lives.” Lenny reflects on the life of one of his friends, Noah, now a trendy broadcaster of meaningless information, but prior to that someone who actually thought about things. “His personal decline,” Lenny writes in his diary, “paralleled that of our culture and state. Before the publishing industry folded, he had published a novel, one of the last that you could actually go out and buy in a Media store.” (Books are now popularly referred to as “doorstops,” inasmuch as that is seen as the only thing they are good for.) Sitting with Noah and a few other “Media” friends in a bar, Lenny and his mates talk about the latest disaster in the Venezuelan war (being managed by a Cheney-like character named Rubenstein, the Secretary of State); the near-collapse of a major credit bank (subsequently bailed out by the Fed); their shrinking stock portfolios; and “the fact that, like most Americans, we would probably lose our jobs soon and be thrown out onto the streets to die.”
A bit later, Noah has Lenny on his TV program, trying to get him to say whether he is sleeping with Eunice, the Korean-American girl he’s been dating. “I know we’re living in Rubenstein’s America,” says Lenny. “But doesn’t that just make us even more responsible for each other’s fates? I mean, what if Eunice and I just said ‘no’ to all this…What if we just went home and read books to each other?” Noah responds:
“Oh God…You just halved my viewer load. You’re killing me here, Abramov…Okay, folks we’re streaming live here in Rubenstein’s America, zero hour for our economy, zero hour for our military might, zero hour for everything that used to make us proud to be ourselves, and Lenny Abramov won’t tell us if he fucked this tiny Asian chick.” As it turns out, the American infrastructure is heading toward zero hour as well. Part of the Williamsburg Bridge collapses, and the government’s response is to put up a sign that says “Together We’ll Repare [sic] This Bridge”.
Looking around the streets of New York, Lenny’s impression is similar to my own, when I last visited the city in May 2010 (see “An American Diary”):
“And the looks on the faces of my countrymen—passive heads bent, arms at their trousers, everyone guilty of not being their best, of not earning their daily bread, the kind of docility I had never expected from Americans, even after so many years of our decline. Here was the tiredness
of failure imposed on a country that believed only in its opposite. Here was the end product of our deep moral exhaustion.” As one of Eunice’s Korean friends writes her in a text message, “This country is so stupid. Only spoiled white people could let something so good get so bad.” After things collapse in earnest—officially labeled The Rupture—a taxi driver says to Lenny, “now I see what our government is. Nothing inside! Like wood. You break it open, nothing
.” (This parallels my experience of being in Berlin during the time that the Wall came down, and seeing tables set up near the Brandenburg Gate, where small-time entrepreneurs were selling Soviet artefacts, such as commissars' hats and hammer-and-sickle pins, now devoid of any real energy. One can easily imagine such a scenario for American flag pins and iPads.)
Finally, the ether grid breaks down, and the electronic devices to which Americans are enslaved fail to work. This leads to suicides, with people writing departing notes “about how they couldn’t see a future without their apparati.” For one thing, it becomes impossible to buy anything. But the corporations are ready, as always, to capitalize on whatever is going on, The Rupture included. Signs go up in New York with messages such as “Tourism NYC: Are YOU Rupture-Ready?” and “New York Cit-ay Edge
: Do U Have What It Takes 2 Survive?” Chic to the end; what can one say? Lenny does, however, manage to escape some of this cultural holocaust, spending time reading—from books—to his girlfriend. “Because we can’t connect to our apparati,” he writes in his diary, “we’re learning to turn to each other.” Lying with her in bed, he thinks, “I wanted this complex language, this surge of intellect, to be processed into love. Isn’t that how they used to do it a century ago, people reading poetry to one another?” (He’s not exactly representative of the rest of the country, needless to say.) Eunice, who is fifteen years younger than Lenny, tells him: “I never really learned how to read texts. Just to scan them for info.” He replies: “People just aren’t meant to read anymore. We’re in a post-literate age…How many years after the fall of Rome did it take for a Dante to appear?” Eunice eventually gets a job selling wristbands featuring “avant-garde representations of decapitated Buddhas and the words RUPTURE NYC” for two thousand yuan a pop.
Meanwhile, the government-corporate plan is to rebuild New York as a kind of “Lifestyle Hub” for the elite, the very wealthy, while the rest of the nation will be carved up by a group of foreign sovereign wealth funds. China may “get” New Jersey, for example, but apparently Norway and Saudi Arabia are interested as well. Order will be maintained by a private security company, playing the role of the former National Guard. And with this, the curtain falls.
Ezra Pound once remarked that artists were the “antennae” of the human race, but that the “bullet-headed majority” would never learn to trust them. We shall, of course, ignore Gary Shteyngart; that goes without saying. Which is a great pity: I have yet to find a more canny, intuitive, and yet, oddly enough, entertaining, description of America’s final days.
(c) Morris Berman, 2010