hen I first moved out west I found myself completely helpless at attempting to determine people’s ages. My first move here I worked with the Canadian Coast Guard’s summer student program, where university and college students are stationed at locations around the coast to provide additional support in rescue scenarios (think high-traffic tourist areas, or remote summer fishing locales). For the first two weeks of training I was struggling to determine the regular CCG staff (our team leads, i.e., men in their late 30s and 40s) from the 20-something students. I remember the next year when I realized my 37 year old co-worker was not, in fact, my age (21); or even better, when I discovered my room-mate (who I’d pegged at around 35) was in her mid-FIFTIES.
I began apologizing for it, letting people know ahead of time that if I was being presumptuous: I was from the east, and helpless. On the east coast I tended to low-ball people’s ages by about 5 years, but here I was bordering on 15. I would tailor my questions accordingly, asking people I suspected of prepubescence if they were married, or others I assumed penniless 22 year old university students if they had any children or previous careers (one turned out to be burgeoning on 60 and formerly a lighting specialist in the TV industry).
Friends tried to help me develop various explanations for it. The first was that by and large I’m a bit of an outdoorsy person, and although the outdoors ages you quickly (I had laugh lines at 21), and batters your skin, it also keeps you young and active. Most of my friends tend to fit this description and reach this generic healthy ballpark age at about 22 and don’t change much until their hair goes white. The second is clearly the mild weather. Where east coasters live in temperatures spanning 50 degrees or more (-20C to +30C), life in coastal BC is more akin to living in a giant fridge. Never too hot or cold, fluctuating only 10 or 20 degrees over the entire year (10C-20C); like veggies, BCers stay fresh. The final looming indication of youthdom (perhaps, completely unfounded), we pegged up to lifestyle. It didn’t take us long to realize the bar culture on the west side of Canada has some resounding differences from the east. My first weeks in Vancouver quickly found my Halifax and UK friends closing establishments at midnight, and feeling paunchy, foreign and pale compared to the sexy, tanned, rollerblading locals of the beaches. It was the first place I lived where smoking was decidedly uncool and a little taboo. Maybe it’s the aging and retired babyboomers who make us conscious and active in pursuing health, or the gorgeous in-your-face scenery that constantly screams EXPLORE ME but irregardless, there are certainly certain influences at play here that are toned down in the east.
It gives rise to certain lifestyle traits that become humourous (and then humourless) the longer you live here. Wheat-free, sugar-free, lactose-free, organic, fairtrade, local, are all common selling features (or potluck specifications) and comments like “It’s Victoria, everyone has a food sensitivity” are abundant. This obsession with youth is played out in my most recent reads, Gary Shteyngart‘s Super Sad True Love Story. I stumbled upon it’s distinctive cover in the large print section of the downtown public library. They had four, unread copies (unread since their purchase in April last year!). The thought of painlessly reading something glasses-free before bed was a delight-along with the sense of accomplishment in reading a 500 page large-print edition (compared to the puny 320 regular print) was also a delight, I opened to the first page, a diary entry from Lenny:
Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die.
Others will die around me. They will be nullified. (…)
When I outlive the earth and depart from its familiar womb, I will take the memory of this building with me. I will encode it with zeros and ones and broadcast it across the universe..
Given my recent obsession with death, the large print and the funky cover I picked it up and brought it home.
Super Sad True Love Story is written in the future, perhaps about ten or twenty years from now. The timeline is deduced from references to “archaic” Mead Five Star notebooks (from “when I was a child”), insults like “What is that, an iPhone!?” (when looking at an old äppärät), and comments like “I relished hearing language actually being spoken by children.”
The narration consists of alternating chapters between Lenny’s diary entries, and excerpts of correspondence from his lover, Eunice Park (emails, “teening” which is basically like instant-messaging).
I can’t understand why you’re feeling so insecure about him. So he’s brain-smart. Who cares??? It’s not like he’s some superstar Media guy or VP at LandOLakes. So he REALLY, REALLY, READS instead of scans. Big whoop. (…) Anyway, looking good is the new smart, and I don’t think you should have kids with him because you’ll have really ugly children.
Eunice is a recently graduated 20-something student, whose Korean-American parents keep pushing to go into law school (so she can pursue a career in Retail), and Lenny is a 39 year old, paunchy Russian-Jew who works at an organization that sells immortality to High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI). HNWIs need to be super healthy to have their lives extended. Immortality the highest goal of most working for the organization, health is their number one obsession, drinking anti-oxidant teas, no elevators and low-stress lifestyles the culture of choice:
the blip board displayed the names of Post-Human Services employees, along with the results of our latest physicals, our methylation and homocysteine levels, our testosterone and estrogen, our fasting insulin and triglycerides, and, most important, our “moods + stress indicators,” which were always supposed to read “positive/playful/ready to contribute” but which, with enough input from competitive co-workers, could be changed to “one moody betch today” or “not a team playa this month.”
In addition to being obsessed with youth (39 is ancient), people have become hyper sexualized and hypersuperficial. Slang and informalities seem to be hallmarks of youth. Consumption and sex, the only two real things you can’t seem to do online (food has been reduced to pill formats, although cooking and cheap street food still exist). Women are 80 or 90 pounds, and a massive industry exists for undergarments, as see-through pants (“Onionskins”) are now in vogue. Similarly, in America the economy now focuses primarily on Credit, Retail and Media, the only three viable career streams.
People are obsessed with the internet. Media are bloggers and webcasters, who feed the constant streams of information that people are endlessly consuming from their äppärräti.
Four young people committed suicide in our building complexes, and two of them wrote suicide notes about how they couldn’t see a future without their äppäräti. One wrote, quite eloquently, about how he “reached out to life,” but found there only were only “walls and thoughts and faces,” which weren’t enough. He needed to be ranked, and to know his place in this world. And that may sound ridiculous, but I can understand him.
I found the descriptions of Shteyngart’s favourite books also somewhat hollow. I felt hurt by the way he name dropped some of my favourite Russians and Czechs (Chekov, Tolstoy and Kundera). Mind you, Lenny is Russian, and I have a penchant for that dark type of fiction, but when you read, so often you feel like you are being written to from the only other person in the world. That their story is just for you, and your eyes only. The idea of these authors being dragged into the next decade in all it’s inhuman superficial glory…it was a gross and harrowing thought. Nice to know the Russians make it to the next century though.
Shetyngart extrapolates on the current era to make predictions that were already beginning to execute themselves when the novel was published in July 2010. Protestors took over Central Park. He describes Asia as a powerhouse (all dollars are pegged to the yuan), northern Europe a nexus of exclusive sovereign wealth, and northern US as “Stability-Canada.” He paints entrenching racism, emerging as recent immigrants see their new chosen country fall to the ground in tatters. He looks at the credit crisis: poles on street corners broadcasting people’s credibility to the world.
It alludes a little to background checks on people. Which I think is legitimate and I can see happening already. In 2010 I attended the Open Gov West conference, and I remember an ADM confronting me with “Would you want your landlord to have access to all your data before you signed lease?” to which I replied with a shrug, saying I Google all of my potential landlords before moving, and I have nothing to hide, so why not?
In summary, it was a great, funny and thought-provoking read. With interesting predictions, extrapolations and concepts, made all the more harrowing by the events unfolding over the past two years since it’s release.
I leave you with a non-spoiler excerpt from the end, which captures perhaps my most haunting take-home of the book:
She is not a born writer, as befits a generation reared on Images and Retail, but her writing is more interesting and more alive than anything else I have read from that illiterate period. She can be bitchy, to be sure, and there’s the patina of upper-middle-class entitlement, but what comes through is a real interest in the world around her – an attempt to negotiate her way through the precarious legacy of her family and to form her own opinions about love and physical attraction and commerce and friendship, all aset in a world whose cruelties gradually begin to mirror those of her own childhood. I would add that, whatever one may say about my former love, and whatever terrible things she has written about me, unlike her friends, unlike Joshies, unlike myself, unlike so many Americans at the time of our country’s collapse, Eunice Park did not possess the false idea that she was special.
It offered closure. As if finally, despite all of the technology and advances to be as ‘evolved’ as possible, ultimately, we will revert to the natural, generic masses of the world. When everyone is unique there is relatively nothing telling us apart. And that might be okay too.