Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book: Why Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story is a Planner's Nightmare

Imagine a world where books are are viewed as smelly relics from the past, where everyone scans information on screens instead of reading, where "credit poles" set up along streets broadcast your credit rating to everyone, where the subway has a first-class and coach section, where shopping has become the only leisure activity besides streaming yourself to the world on handheld devices that can also instantly evaluate your hotness level in relation to everyone else in the room. Oh, and the most popular form of clothing are Onionskin jeans, which are not only super tight, but completely transparent. Yowza.

This is the world Gary Shteyngart creates in his book Super Sad True Love Story.

It's a satire of the highest order; meaning that it takes things that we immediately recognize in our world today and makes them ridiculous--but not so ridiculous that we aren't a bit afraid that it will actually come true. The laughter derived from the book is a nervous laughter. You laugh because you recognize a bit of this society today, a bit of these characters in yourself, and then you stop laughing because it's not funny at all actually.

And maybe it's because most of my life in the past few months has been so focussed on urban planning, but I couldn't stop myself from seeing this book through that framework.

Basically, Shteyngart paints the portrait of a city (it takes place, of course, in New York City) completely devoid of planners. Reading this book we are reminded what would happen if the market, with its callous hand (invisible or not), was what ran everything. People are classified as either High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI) or Low Net Worth Individuals (LNWI) and you don't want to be considered the latter. In this world, corporations have merged to create super-conglomerates, with scary multi-syllabic names like the airline UnitedContinentalDeltamerican. The city is nothing except a venue for shopping, with Retail (yes, now featuring a scary capital "R") as the prime use of streets.

As mentioned previously, transportation planning has also be taken over by the market, with erratic scheduling and a separate compartment for HNWIs (if you can afford it). Urban design and architecture, if they exist at all, are there simply to facilitate the creation of flashy, Retail avenues. The city ceases to become a place that can (or should) be planned and become instead just a conduit for capital, for endless consumption.

The way I saw it (and I'm completely leaving out the entire love story portion of the book) Super Sad True Love Story is a lament for regulation. Planners exist to balance interests between stakeholders, to (and I'm being idealistic here, I realize, but so what?) create communities that are more equitable, more livable and not simply based on market calculations. Shteyngart's book shows us a future available to us if we want to do away with that vision for the future and leave everything up to the market. While the market may be efficient at delivering certain services, it's also highly volatile (as we've seen the past few years first hand) and discriminatory. The city and the people in it have become the complete slaves of capital in Shteyngart's future. A planner would take one step inside this world and her head would explode.

Without getting into the debate, the book made me reflect on Rob Ford's push for privatization and contracting out city services in Toronto. Shteyngart's city is one where everything has been privatized from transportation to police. Of course, it may be unfair to draw parallels to our current situation based on a satiral novel, but then again it's exactly those parallels that make the satire so biting, so funny, and so scary in the first place.

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