Gary Shteyngart is usually one of the finest, most biting satirists in America. The Russian-born, US raised Shteyngart has both satirized the Russian Mafia in America, the life of the new immigrant here; he has a keen, fine eye for the absurd and for the hypocritical.
His new novel, “Lake Success”, however, is big disappointment. Writing about the hedge-fund world of New York, Shteyngart creates for us Barry Cohen, loose with his investors’ money, married to a partial trophy wife (at least in today’s terms: a beautiful woman, Sheema, born to Indian immigrant parents, who, we’ll learn, does absolutely nothing with her life, or her law degree; it’s fairly clear early on that she’s attracted to Barry’s money, and perhaps to certain parts of his bizarre optimism, his self-created friendliness, and, of course, his money.
This dreadful couple has an autistic child, which embarrasses Barry; we’re never clear on Sheema’s response to this birth, although she does all kinds of research and if very patient with this son. Barry, knowing that his company’s falling apart, that he’s probably cheated investors, and, the final straw, he has a kid he can’t relate to, jumps on a Greyhound bus and tours the country, trying to find “real” people (patronizing beyond belief); the destination of this journey is El Paso, where his old college girlfriend now lives with her own son (she’s divorced). Perhaps trying to recreate a more innocent time in his life, Barry’s journey across the country is occasionally witty, and his tertiary characters met on his journey occasionally fascinate–that they are more emotionally and financially forthcoming as he goes broke will come as no surprise to the reader–the poor are almost uniformly more generous to friends and family than others of higher socio-economic status are. Each reader will have to decide how much of a sexual predator Barry is, and whether he is or isn’t having a kind of bus station breakdown. His time in Texas with the ex-girlfriend’s son is often moving, though everything’s viewed through the prism of Barry’s narcissism. And Pop Psychology rules Barry’s self-pitying view of his upbringing with his widower father.
Barry carries with him a load of preposterously expensive watches, which are tangible signs of his financial success (as is his New York apartment). One hoped that his wife might have been a more sympathetic character, but, although she’s “stuck” with the kid, it’s of course Barry’s money–for which she fights like a demon in the divorce so that she and her new husband can live well together, and supposedly afford needed care for the child—though most of that comes from NYC social agencies, paid by The City-her first response upon Barry’s running away is to have an affair with a neighbor. Such a lovely marriage, such a lovely couple….neither character is particularly easy to feel sympathy/empathy towards; Shteyngart’s obvious knowledge of the lifestyle accoutrements of the newly rich are astute, but we’ve been reading such novels since the greedy l980s and there’s not much new in this one, other than product change and design and cost.
By the end of this novel, I didn’t care about a single character in it—though I rather liked part of Barry, his eagerness to help everyone rise to personal and/or financial heights. But good satire really shouldn’t leave us indifferent to all the characters. The last, oh, 20% or so of the novel does increase in emotional tone, as we kind of root for Barry’s hope in people, his odd desire to mentor, improve. He is a natural salesman, but America’s full of those, and his trip on The Greyhound doesn’t seem terribly original. (Barry ends up quite alone, playing with his watches: that’s a good take on the old King Midas story, updated). But overall, “Lake Success” seems like an extended read of “People” Magazine, or, worse, “The Robb Report”, which I certainly don’t recommend, either (I’ve rarely heard of any of their “people” anyway). “Lake Success” disappoints, from a writer of such great abilities.