- Super Sad True Melting Pot:Reimagining the Melting Pot in a Transnational World in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story
America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!—Israel Zangwill (33)
Remember this, Lenny; develop a sense of nostalgia for something, or you’ll never figure out what’s important.—Gary Shteyngart (Super 23)
As Rachel Adams writes in “The Ends of America, the Ends of Postmodernism” (2007), a new wave of American writers is engaging with globalized, technological consumerism in fresh and innovative ways. Unlike some critics, most notably Fredric Jameson, Adams does not claim that postmodernism is a “cultural dominant” (Jameson 191) without end. Rather, she historicizes postmodernism as an aesthetic movement, lasting from World War II to the end of the Cold War. She considers a shift to “globalism” as a “dominant conceptual and thematic force in contemporary American fiction” (251). While she says this shift is characterized by the work of Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, and other immigrant or second-generation authors, she concentrates on Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel Tropic of Orange (1997), which she claims expresses “the more global, multiethnic perspectives of a generation that is refashioning older understandings of identity and politics” (261). While I agree that globalism and transnationalism are major trends in contemporary fiction, Adams glosses over the work of other writers, such as Gary Shteyngart, who are situated between white male high postmodernist writers and more globally identified writers such as Yamashita. Shteyngart complicates the often utopian reading of transnationalism that Adams and other critics support. [End Page 55]
Adams’s description of Yamashita’s novel could also describe Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (2010), which deserves further critical attention. On its release, the novel received much praise in the mainstream press. In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani ebulliently reinscribes Shteyngart’s hybrid identity into her estimation of the novel’s merits: it “reflects his dual heritage, combining the dark soulfulness of Russian literature with the antic inventiveness of postmodern American writing.” However, the novel has received scant critical attention from scholars and academics, receiving just a mention, for instance, as an example of speculative realism in Ramón Saldívar’s analysis of post-race fiction (5). In a recent anthology of American dystopian fiction, Marleen S. Barr explores the novel as a New York Jewish example of Margaret Atwood’s “Ustopia,” a “dystopia tinged with utopian elements” (Barr 312), which Barr ultimately reads as a celebration of America and the book. By contrast, Shteyngart’s first two novels, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002) and Absurdistan (2006), have been written about extensively, and both, Jonathan Freedman cogently argues, are engaged with subverting and deconstructing the Jewish American success story and registering the “psychic cost of immigration” and the “model minority paradigm” (319). There has not been an effort to explore how Shteyngart’s latest novel fits into larger cultural narratives of immigration and globalization, and I aim to add it to this conversation.
Super Sad True Love Story refashions older understandings of identity and politics by reinterpreting and critiquing the American myth of the melting pot for a transnational America. Shteyngart stages the union of model minorities, providing a multicultural update to the classic melting-pot narrative, in which two immigrants from different ethnic backgrounds overcome significant obstacles to form an American union. He dramatizes the tension between what Werner Sollors calls “consent” and “descent” (6), between those elements of our identities that we choose and those that we inherit. However, in this novel, the melting pot and the very idea of nation are undermined through technological consumerism, globalism, and capitalism. Shteyngart deconstructs the myths of American exceptionalism and the American dream that immigrant melting-pot love needs to circulate. Continuing his critique in an extended metaphor, he posits the nation as a fractured family, blurring consent and descent categories. Shteyngart uses the dystopian genre not only to warn against the instability of a globalized future that is fast approaching but also to explore a transnational identity that is already here since America, in...