“Only Connect…:” Super Sad True Love Story and the Semiotics of Palo Alto

Ea_sstlsAbby Kluchin over at Rethinking Religion:

I put off writing about Gary Shteyngart’s conversation with McKenzie Wark about technology, religion, and literature—well, mostly because I had to write a conference paper. And then I went to San Francisco for the conference and I put it off again, because I took a side trip to Facebook HQ in Palo Alto—metonymically, at least, the epicenter of everything that Shteyngart’s latest novel Super Sad True Love Story laments—and I had to reconsider my reaction both to the book and the conversation.

As Ujala Sehgal and Sephora Markson Hartz have already noted on this blog, Shteyngart spoke eloquently at the talk about his encounter with books as the only religious experience available to him. He didn’t hammer home the solid, satisfying ‘object’-ness of a book as opposed to an e-reader, as opponents of such technologies frequently do, including Super Sad’s protagonist, Lenny Abramov—“the last reader on earth!”—who delights in his wall of real books in a not-too-distant future in which such “bound, printed, nonstreaming Media artifacts” bring down one’s “PERSONALITY rankings” and are primarily known for their repulsive smell. Rather, he remarked that a physical book is a ‘rudimentary technology.’ You can’t, he observed, use a book to order other things; it has only one function. There is something about this rudimentary technology that in the hands of an undistracted person (should we be able to locate one) can give rise to an encounter that enlarges the parameters of ordinary selfhood, that creates a space in which something can occur, something can arrive.

In person, Shteyngart didn’t seem ready just yet to mourn the death of the possibility of this encounter, although Super Sad is certainly, among other things, an elegy for its vanishing. The question that Shteyngart, deliberately fiddling with what he called his ‘iTelephone,’ asked is, should he, as a writer (and, I sensed, equally as a reader), stick to his guns about the importance of this encounter with this singular rudimentary technology, or should he adapt? Super Sad suggests in its very form and its engagement with social media, albeit primarily in the mode of blistering critique, that Shteyngart will adapt, though, certainly, he will not go gentle into that buzzing digital night. But the conversation, as well as the audience, was filled with nostalgia. Shteyngart didn’t bring up E.M. Forster, but I thought repeatedly, as he spoke, of Forster’s famous, poignant plea from Howard’s End: “Only connect . . .” And then I went to Palo Alto.