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'Super Sad' And Satiric, Two Stories Of Doomed Love

"Looking good is the new smart," says a character in Super Sad True Love Story. Welcome to Gary Shteyngart's vision of America in the near future, where intelligence does indeed take a backseat to sexual desirability. Books are a thing of the past; they're now considered curios that "smell like wet socks." Americans now spend all their free time shopping and watching videos on their ''apparats,'' smart phone-like devices that nobody is ever without.

The last shreds of modesty have long since disappeared -- young women buy obscenely named undergarments that reveal pretty much everything; and the harshest, most degrading varieties of hard-core pornography have now become mainstream entertainment. This isn't your father's New York -- but if Shteyngart's manic, alternatingly hilarious and terrifying vision is right, it might be your son's.

The surprising and brilliant third novel from Russian-American satirist Shteyngart is actually two love stories -- and while they're both, as promised, super sad, they're also incredibly (but very darkly) funny. The first love story chronicles the affair between Lenny Abramov, a shlubby but large-hearted salesman, and Eunice Park, 15 years his junior, a confused, shopping-obsessed daughter of Korean immigrants. Lenny is sweet but oblivious; Eunice is troubled, and runs hot and cold. Their relationship is uneasy; it hangs obstinately by a thread.

Adding to the strain is the fact that America has become a financially strapped police state, and the poor and disenfranchised are threatening to revolt. The States are now all but owned by China (now "The People's Bank of China-Worldwide") and are in the political grip of an ultrahawkish defense secretary who's in charge of America's war on Venezuela. The ruling Bipartisan party brooks no dissent, and publishes menacing warning signs with the party's mascot, a cartoon otter. When poor people begin to rise up in places including Tompkins Square Park (perhaps a reference to the infamous 1988 police riot there), they're put down with brutal efficiency.

And that's the second love story. Shteyngart writes with an obvious affection for America -- at its most chilling, Super Sad True Love Story comes across as a cri de coeur from an author scared for his country. The biggest risk for any dystopian novel with a political edge is that it can easily become humorless or didactic; Shteyngart deftly avoids this trap by employing his disarming and absurd sense of humor (much of which is unprintable here). Combined with the near-future setting, the effect is a novel more immediate -- and thus more frightening, at least for contemporary readers -- than similarly themed books by Orwell, Huxley and Atwood.

Shteyngart is relatively straight-faced when it comes to Lenny and Eunice's love for each other; he keeps his sharp tongue and jaundiced eye temporarily in check, and it's a smart move. The novelist knows how to get well-earned, knowing laughs, but it's the deeply sad, though not quite despairing, tone that makes this such a remarkable and unexpected novel. Anyone who remembers Sept. 11 will get chills reading Lenny's description of the New York skyline, the empty Freedom Tower rising above it all: "Is this still my city? I have a ready answer, cloaked in obstinate despair: It is. And if it's not, I will love it all the more. I will love it to the point where it becomes mine again." Lenny could be talking about America; he could be talking about Eunice. He could be talking for anyone who's ever been in love, with a person or a place, anyone who knows that the truest kinds of love can also be the saddest.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.