By Ujala Sehgal

A response to a public conversation with Gary Shteyngart on November 10, 2011. 

Gary Shteyngart, raised in the Soviet Union, took up Judaism when he immigrated to America at the age of nine much the same way he became a devotee of Ronald Reagan and surfing attire. All three of these religions—Communism, Judaism, American-brand Capitalism—have since fallen by the wayside for him.

Now the closest thing Shteyngart has to a religious experience, he told an audience at Columbia last Thursday, is writing a book. Literature, in both its production and consumption, possesses divinity in its capacity for transcendence: it can allow something to pass through two people who might otherwise seem incapable of sharing anything. Books continue to provide whatever lingering feelings of divinity Shteyngart encounters, but, he said, every other force in his life is conspiring to make him more digital by the day.

The process by which the religion of literature is ceding ground to the religion of technology is the landscape of Super Sad True Love Story, Shteyngart’s latest novel about a collapsing, somewhat fictitious New York empire. At the talk, Shteyngart came across as the self-assured, cooler brother of the protagonist Lenny Abramov, who lives in a not-too-distant future in which books are disappearing. Lenny saturates his wall of smelly books with Pinesol so as not to offend the aseptic sensibilities of his electronically reared, younger girlfriend, Eunice Park.

The digital era, Shteyngart suggested in the discussion, poses a double threat to the divinity of literature: it both erodes it and replaces it. It certainly feels true that technology is insidiously rewiring our brains, limiting our attention spans to those of hyperactive cocker spaniels. It’s worth pointing out, though, as Nicholas Carr does in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, that the human brain remains in a constant flux of forging connections between neural cells throughout our adult lives. Even if we now spend more time spastically Tweeting about a novel than actually reading it, we are capable of retrieving that lost skill of concentrating on printed pages someday.

But will we want to? Or will technology give us everything we require? Spiritually inferior though he may find technology, Shteyngart doesn’t hesitate to call it a religion in its own right. Technology is holier than we might think. Aside from the recent shrines outside Apple stores to Steve Jobs, technology possesses a similar strain of divinity as literature: it enables us to overcome our physical existence and to connect. It offers the possibility of transcendence.

In Super Sad True Love Story, literature and technology’s respective faithful are Lenny and his boss, Joshie Goldman, who runs the “dechronification” company where Lenny sells life-extension treatments like organ transplants and blood infusions. The two are not so different in disposition. Both are lifelong nerds (Joshie loved science fiction, while Lenny, like Shteyngart, was conceivably reading Checkhov in elementary school). At the beginning of the novel, the two even looked alike—that is before the anti-aging treatments transformed Joshie into a 25-year-old beefcake. While Joshie threw his lot in with technology, Lenny kept on carting around his wall of books.

In the apparat-dystopic New York of the future, Joshie plucked Lenny’s girlfriend straight out of his arms. Had the plot taken place in New York of the 1960s, when the religion of books reigned in America, it might have been Lenny who got the girl. At the talk, Shteyngart marveled that there was a time when women hounded Saul Bellow’s publishing house for the recipe in Herzog so they, too, might bed a Jewish intellectual. The degree to which technology now, and literature then, has enabled average-looking, middle-aged men to bed young, beautiful women is surely some measure of transcendence—of overcoming the limits of one’s physical existence—for all it might otherwise lack in divinity.

That evening, Shteyngart made the case that literature and technology offer the closest approximations of transcendence available on the market (while books remain on the market, that is). Our collective desire for this sort of religious experience may grant visionaries like Steve Jobs and writers like Bellow (and Shteyngart), if not immortality, then at least their share of earthly power.

But in the novel neither technology nor literature delivers redemption ultimately. The thesis that emerges over the course of Super Sad True Love Story is that, whatever blessings such religions bestow on their followers, they are pointless. Eunice Park’s many suitors eventually fail not despite the virtues of their creeds but because of them: nostalgic Lenny holes himself up with decaying books, and Joshie disintegrates, literally, from his anti-aging efforts. At the decline of a civilization, the myth that we might be able to overcome the limitations of our physical existence is revealed for being just that—a myth. Any religion that plies us with false feelings of our own specialness has only led us astray.

Ujala Sehgal is an associate editor of the online literary magazine The Millions