Thursday, November 10, 2011

Two (more) tales of a city

I recently had the serendipitous good (?) fortune to read two tales of a future downtown New York back-to-back. You may not be surprised if I tell you that neither of them--Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story and Colson Whitehead's Zone One--is particularly optimistic about what's coming down the pipeline to us.

I have taken to describing Super Sad, which I read first, as Woody Allen meets the future. It is the story of mostly-endearing middle-aged Lenny, a Jewish guy terrified of death, living on the edge of the Lower East Side (quite a feat--most of the hip young folk had to migrate over to Staten Island), and Eunice, the much younger Asian lady he falls in love with. In Lenny and Eunice's world, technology and corporations rule the day. Everyone has an äppärät, a sort of glorified iPhone which will do fun things like tell you the entire life story of whoever it's pointed at and rank the people in a bar according to attractiveness. Just about every other character is scandalized by Lenny's love for "printed, bound media artifacts" with their funny smell and overly long stories that can't fit on a GlobalTeens screenshot. Meanwhile, as everyone frantically thumbs through their social media profiles, a sinister future is rising in the form of increased checkpoints, riots in public parks, and a shadowy security force. Oh, and China is the world financial leader as the US struggles to stay afloat. Sound vaguely familiar?

Zone One is more of a straightforward apocalypse story, where zombies ("skels," in Whitehead's world) have taken over--the country? the world?--while protagonist Mark Spitz and the other survivors try to maintain Zone One, carved out of lower Manhattan. Spitz and his comrades are sweepers, searching once-prime real estate for rabid skels and the somewhat less violent but no less disturbing stragglers, who remain caught in reveries of their everyday routines--the guy at the photocopier, the woman staring entranced at a television that hasn't switched on in a long, long time. Total meltdown skel-immersion is never far away.

Though I am generally not a fan of zombies (even if I once proofread a book about The Walking Dead), I wound up liking Zone One more than Super Sad. The breezy pace and charmingly oblivious and quixotic protagonist of Super Sad won me over for a while, but eventually his story dragged. Zone One, in contrast, never really picked up speed--but the beauty of Whitehead's sentences (which I've applauded before) is truly awe-inspiring, rendering any type of event rich and complex. It was almost too much for me--I was reminded of my college assertion that reading Nietzsche is like eating chocolate cake and reading the entire Genealogy of Morals at once is like eating a whole chocolate cake in one sitting--but I prevailed and grew to care for PASD (the A's for "Apocalyptic") survivor Spitz and his thoughtful, if at times confusing, interweaving of past and present events.

Writing style is certainly one reason for my preference (and one that shows off my winning erudite side, right, right?) but I suspect it's not the whole story for why Zone One sat easier with me. Shteyngart's no slouch in the writing department either, of course (I felt that the seven pages of rave reviews in the front of the book were a bit excessive, but I guess you should take advantage of what you got) but rather than imbuing me with the beauty of the city, no matter how tenuous, he gave me a jolt of visceral fear. Skels are scary but I don't really think they're coming for me. An äppärät, though, even for an avowed anti-smartphonist such as me? A security force ruling over the country while protesters holed up in parks fall prey to violence? It's only a matter of time.

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