This may come as a surprise to you, but I don’t just read real estate books all day. In fact, from time to time I like to highlight fiction books on the Weekly Book Scan blog—sometimes with no relation to real estate whatsoever—and share a passage or two that reflects on property ownership in some way. A few weeks ago, I read Super Sad True Love Story (Random House, 2011), a dystopian novel about a near-future America that is crumbling economically and culturally. Set mostly in New York City, the story centers around a doomed love affair between the middle-aged and nervous Lenny Abramov and the young but damaged Eunice Park. Author Gary Shteyngart’s clever language and excellent sense of humor allows readers to feel at home in this pre-apocalyptic setting, and it’s a rollicking-though-slightly-depressing read overall. I admit to a bit of disappointment over the ending; it seemed somehow both overwrought and anticlimactic. Still, it was a good beach read for cynics such as myself. If you want to read it and don’t appreciate spoilers, stop reading now and go buy yourself a copy.
Photo: bosela, 2010. Morguefile
Aside from the characters themselves, architecture functions as a tidy literary device, and it struck me that I thought Book Scan readers might best appreciate way Lenny regards the structures that surround him. As the nation begins to crumble on all sides, he hugs tighter to the material items he loves dear, particularly his slice of the American Dream on Grand Street. Early on, Lenny makes an effort to celebrate what he has left in life, and writes at the top of the list: “the 740 square feet that form my share of Manhattan Island.” The near-constant repetition of the square footage is a great place-setter for a world that is increasingly rating Lenny and everyone around him, placing people into categories of worth based on their assets and credit rating. Though he calls the building an “ugly co-op,” he’s clearly proud of his stake in the city, and often compares his building to that of others surrounding him in the doomed city. His description of his workplace offers an interesting commentary on commercial repurposing projects. His company, which specializes in gene therapy to help wealthy people reverse the aging process, is ironically housed in an old synagogue:
The Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation is housed in a former Moorish-style synagogue near Fifth Avenue, a tired-looking building dripping with arabesques, kooky buttresses, and other crap that brings to mind a lesser Gaudí… …We had enough employees at Post-Human Services to repopulate the original Twelve Tribes of Israel, which were handily represented by the stained-glass windows in the sanctuary. How dull we looked in their ocean-blue glare.
As the country begins to truly collapse into a police state, Lenny and Eunice are forcibly removed from the condo. They’re made to move to Uptown, into what Lenny describes as “a boxy 1950s nurses’ residence on York Avenue that resembled a jigsaw puzzle left out in the rain” (which is one of my favorite similes in the novel). He describes how seeing his co-op building destroyed to make way for foreign investors and tourists reduces him to tears:
“On the day Media showed the Grand Street co-op buildings, my sunburned brick beauties, coming down in a cloud of red bricks and gray ash, I started crying.”… “Eunice,” I said. “My apartment. My home. My investment. I’ll be forty in two weeks and I have nothing.”
In the end, the United States appears to have turned into a playground for wealthy foreign nationals, and Lenny has fled the country alone. The final scene opens on Lenny visiting with friends in Italy, where he bids farewell to the life and country he’s known through a meditation on his surroundings:
Last winter, I visited my Roman friends Giovanna and Paolo at their country home, a fourteenth-century stone barn in the direction of Orvieto. I spent the first night beneath the wide-beamed timber ceiling of the redesigned living room, drinking my allotted Sagrantino di Montefalco, marveling at the recently built alcoves and wooden shelves, which with their rough-edged simplicity complemented the barn’s age… …I realized what was happening to me. I had begun to grieve. For all of us …and for the land that still shudders between Manhattan and Hermosa Beach… …They stared at me, at each other, and then at the beautifully laid wooden floors leading out to the pergola, beyond which a tableau of olive trees and grain fields, arrested by winter, dreamed of a new life.