When Gary Shteyngart released his novel, "Super Sad True Love Story," last August, its comic-dystopian vision of America seemed madcap, hilarious and implausible. Now it just seems prophetic. A major turning point in the novel comes when nerdy protagonist Larry Abramov receives a cellphone text alert from a news organization that "China Investment Corporation Quits U.S. Treasuries," forcing the American government into default. Only after this juncture do things in the novel go from bad to apocalyptic. The political system collapses, basic services evaporate, New York becomes a war zone.
In the real world, of course, the American government's debt position is being threatened by legislative intransigence, not Chinese aggression. And in all likelihood, the government won't actually default on its debt. Still, I wondered whether Shteyngart agreed that his novel showed a kind of prescience, so I decided to give him a call.
"When 'Super Sad True Love Story' came out," he said, "I would joke that the book is set next Tuesday. It looks like it's not really a joke anymore."
Some small details of the futuristic world of the novel came to fruition almost immediately. Upon the release of "Super Sad," many noted that the omnipresent PDA in the novel, the äppärät, bore a striking resemblance to an iPhone 4. Some speculated its inclusion was a sign of Shteyngart's Apple antipathy. (He's said he likes iPhones.) Many of the women in the world of "Super Sad" wear tight, translucent jeans called Onionskins; Shteyngart told me that he saw translucent jeans on a Paris runway two months after the publication of the novel.
But his prophetic tendencies started to crop up as early as 2006. "When I started writing 'Super Sad,' the research took me to the idea that the real estate market, because of all the sub-prime mortgages, was going to burst, and that it would take along with it all the hedge funds and investment banks, provoking an economic meltdown," he said. "Well that happened in 2008."
He was forced to make his satire more and more extreme. He shifted focus from the real estate bubble to China.
"Flying from the stunningly modern Beijing airport to the Newark airport now is like flying from Paris to Burkina Faso," he said. "There's a different spirit in China. They have a market of a billion people who are so extraordinarily energized, in the way we haven't been since the fifties."
The currency of choice in "Super Sad" is the yuan-pegged dollar, and luxury Manhattan apartments are priced in yuan and "Northern Euros." China's rise culminates in a Washington summit between the ruling "bipartisan party" and a group of Chinese dignitaries, which leads to the announcement of the U.S. default. It's a chain of events specific to the satiric world of the novel -- which Shteyngart noted makes the current standstill in Washington seem even more absurd. We don't yet have other central banks breathing down our necks. So why trigger such a potentially catastrophic event?
"The debt talk is just complete nonsense," he said. "It's all calculated to appeal narrowly to a political base. No one really thinks that it'll help anyone if our debt rating gets downgraded."
Shteyngart said that he's depressed by how many of the parodic, extreme predictions he's made have come true. So with his next book, which he's in the midst of writing, he's getting out of the futurist game. Instead, he's looking back, in a memoir, to his experience growing up in the Soviet Union.
"I'm going to write about my childhood," he said. "It's about time."