“You can bet your bottom yuan”: Money in the Language Bank

April 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story depicts a world that has, to put it crudely, gone to hell in a handbasket. People never read anymore, because the smell of books disgust them; instead they “scan” or “stream” their narratives. They hardly talk (or “verbal”) to each other anymore, but instead communicate on aparats, something that seems like a crossover between holograms and smartphones. The American dollar is absolutely worthless, and to have any worth, money must be “pegged to the yuan.” There are riots and wars all over the place, and Central Park is filling up with the tents of the poor.

The scary part of the dystopia, though, is how close it seems to our lives now. Having just acquired an iPad in order to read lengthy Victorian novels while traveling, I understand the fear of books becoming obsolete. I’ve talked on the phone for a total of 4 hours this month but have sent and received close to 2,000 texts–and who knows how many emails. Through Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, and whatever newest website-for-social-connection out there (Google Plus? Pinterest? Foursquare?) we can apprise the public of anything and everything we’re feeling, thinking, doing, pursuing, eating, watching, hearing, experiencing. The American dollar does depend on other nations–particularly, yes, the Chinese economy. And the Occupy movement does not seem to be going away anytime soon.

What Shteyngart also reveals in his novel, however, is just how much our existence is tied, intricately, to our modes of speaking. I felt the loss of the familiar world, less from the account of Lenny’s job (“Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) of the Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation” (5)) or from the hilarious account of the animatronic otter-cum-automated service agent at the United States Embassy, than from the loss of certain words. In this world, books are no longer books, but “bound, printed, nonstreaming Media artifact” (90). There is no more talking, only “verbaling.” I feel the same disorientation as Lenny does in not being able to understand the short-hand speak of Eunice: “LPT…. TIMATOV. ROFLAARP. PRGV. Totally PRGV” (22). And I assume–if I couldn’t read Chinese–that the sudden appearance of Chinese characters in the last chapter gives other readers the same feeling of disorientation.

I know there is a camp that believes our language and our culture keep changing, have always changed, and that this is just the normal state of history. This may be true; there is a wonderful humor (wonderfully humorous because absolutely recognizable, for me, in my own parents) in the way Lenny’s and Eunice’s parents speak; they create new affect by changing, or being superfluous to, or coming up short of, American idioms. But Shteyngart has also expertly created a sadness (or supersadness) attached to the loss of certain linguistic turns. For example, Eunice comments at one point, “And if I’m as good as you and M. Cohen say then it’s just a fluke and I’ll come shattering back down to earth pretty soon, you can bet your bottom yuan” (280). The phrase “you can bet your bottom dollar” has deep cultural resonances for us; we think of times of prosperity in America’s past, optimistic characters from movies and cartoons of yore. Does the new saying, “you can bet your bottom yuan,” carry the same weight? Has it lost its deep resonances? Or does it gain meaning, because now it speaks of a different history, in which American self-sufficiency is replaced by deep economic and cultural fear?

In the same vein, I wonder about the Chinese phrase in the last chapter. Lenny has translated Cai Xiangbao’s comment on his diaries as “a tribute to literature as it once was [emphasis mine]” (327). But the Chinese phrase actually has two parts: (and this is my own imperfect approximation, so I apologize ahead of time for being off the mark) “a kind of tribute to bookwriting; in fact, a kind of tribute to literature.” What gets lost in the translation? What is gained? And all of the above makes me wonder: Where is culture located for us? Is it in our technology? In the art we create? In language itself? Or in none of those places; is culture so amorphously fluid, and that’s what allows us to feel interconnectedness with what should be entirely foreign worlds?

Dan Fang


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