by Joshua Loveday
At first glance, the two main characters of Gary Shteyngart’s fourth novel Lake Success seem superficial and one-dimensional, but the story reveals so many nuanced layers that their entwined arcs become both tragic and heartwarming. Set against the backdrop of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Lake Success tells the story of wealthy hedge-fund manager Barry Cohen and his first-generation American wife Seema, who receive the news that their three-year-old son Shiva has been diagnosed with a severe form of autism. Neither of them gracefully accepts this news, but they deal with it in very different ways.
Under investigation for insider trading, Barry flees New York on a Greyhound bus in an absurd cross-country quest to see his old college girlfriend Layla, running from his responsibility to his son. He lives for the future, making unrealistic plans the reader knows will never reach fruition. In Baltimore, he has an idea to start a foundation to help young black men care for expensive watches. In Jackson, he dreams of starting a REIT with a young black woman he met on the bus. In El Paso, he tells Layla he wants to marry her and raise her son as his own. Her response: “‘You go around and you do things and you don’t know why you do them . . . And that’s the story of your gender writ large.’”
At times during Barry’s bus ride, it seems as if the backdrop of Trump’s election is incidental, as if the scenes of Trump’s campaign were tossed in so it could join the growing category of Trump-era novels, but we’re left with the uneasy feeling that Barry and Trump could be interchangeable characters, that if the circumstances were slightly different, Barry would be in the White House and Trump would be on the Greyhound.
The title of the book comes from the village of Lake Success on Long Island. While not part of the uber-rich one-percent, it is solidly upper middle class, and for an impressionable young Barry from the bordering Little Neck neighborhood in Queens, Lake Success represents an ideal of the American dream, an ever-changing goal he will never realize. Barry sees himself as the struggling American hero in his own story—a middle-class “Pool Boy’s Son” that rehearsed “friend moves” in order to be accepted who grows into an upper-class hedge fund manager with thirty-three thousand-dollar bottles of Karuizawa whiskey and an overpriced watch collection. And in a way, he is this mythological hero: a white male who believes his success is a result of hard work and not a system designed to benefit superficial and materialistic people like him. His allusions to Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Kerouac reinforce his illusion of rugged individualism. He says, “‘All I know is I never had any advantages . . . I wasn’t even lucky enough to be born to immigrant parents.’”
Barry’s wife Seema is as superficial as her husband, and the birth of their son fills her with shame, as if she had failed to maintain a perfect American life. The daughter of American immigrants with high expectations who forced her to graduate with a law degree from Yale, and a mother who gave her a chart ranking the social acceptability of different ethnic groups, Seema married Barry in part to please them. She doesn’t tell them about Shiva’s diagnosis, and attempts to hide him from the world. But after Barry leaves and with the help of her lover’s wife, Seema connects with her son on a level Barry cannot, confesses the diagnosis to her parents, and finally accepts his condition.
Barry’s change during his trip is subtler, feels natural and ultimately changes his paradigm. By the time he confronts the poverty in El Paso and the illegals from across the border, he has an epiphany. “He burned with the excitement of having been born on the right side of the fence, of having been lucky.” After losing his suitcase full of expensive watches in Phoenix, he breaks down, admitting to everyone in earshot that his son is autistic. Shteyngart describes Barry’s mind as “a maze with the entrances blocked.” Like crumbling dams, his tears break those blocks with his admission. “Everyone knew now . . . The secret inside him had not made him a good man.” Like any paradigm shift, the changes are fleeting unless followed by action, and it takes Barry a decade to internalize them.
At the novel’s end Barry attempts to patch things up with Seema, but Trump’s victory on election night is more misogyny than Seema (or any other woman in the room) can tolerate, and Barry becomes the personification of the white male privilege that often accompanies it. “The energy in the room began to flag. It was mostly feminine energy. About half of the male attendees were secret Trump supporters—many were hoping for tax breaks—but the women were all on the same page.” Seema sums it up: “We lived in a country that rewarded its worst people. We lived in a society where the villains were favored to win . . . The system was wrecked. She felt it on election night.” She tells Barry: “‘You make money because the world goes to shit around you.’” In El Paso, Barry tells Layla: “‘You can’t be held responsible for how this country votes.’” Her response: “‘We’re all responsible.’”
Ultimately this novel has a story that is both more mundane and deeper than the Cohens’ materialism and Trump’s victory. It is the story of how the parents of a child with severe autism accept the diagnosis. Barry: “He thought of Trump mocking a disabled man, those fake twitches. No, this could not be happening. He had always wanted to spit in the faces of liberals who kept calling everyone they disagreed with a ‘fascist,’ even liberals like his wife. But now?” By the epilogue, Seema remarries, Barry starts and fails two more hedge funds, but increases his own net worth each time, and Shiva grows into a bright young man who gives “one of the best self-deprecating Bar Mitzvah sermons ever given.” At the reception, Barry feels out-of-place “in the noisy room where all the neurotypicals had gathered” and wants “to go back to the rooms filled with his son’s quiet . . . friends, not because their world was better or more innocent, but because he no longer knew what to do in this one.” As the novel ends, Barry fixes the Tri-Compax watch he wore on his bus trip, repairing it himself, so he can give it to his son as a Bar Mitzvah gift. It is his first selfless plan that works.
Shteyngart writes with blunt sarcasm. His descriptions are visceral. Every scene, every sentence, indeed every word advances the story in a seemingly effortless flow of prose the way every agent or editor tells you it should, the way every writer wishes they could. His emotionally-void characters’ thoughts and actions give them a depth even they didn’t know they had. The absurdist plot is both tragic and uplifting. Despite Barry’s offensive nature, you root for him to get back with his wife and become a father to his son. His story resonates because it is a new take on the great American novel. Barry becomes a fallible new American hero for whom you both care and loathe.