On November 12, 2018, Gary Shteyngart appeared as part of a duo (alongside Jonathan Lethem) as part of the Houston Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series. During a post-reading interview conducted by Robert Cremins, Shteyngart was asked “what is it like to write fiction in 2018?” Shteyngart’s response was, “not sure.”
It was a fitting response. Shteyngart’s new novel Lake Success stands as testament to the disastrous, uneasy landscape of Trump-apocalyptic America. Shteyngart’s novel is the first I’ve read that uses the fantastical plot twists of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election as background for people’s lives – trying to make sense of a vertiginous landscape.
Artists, writers, musicians, poets, philosophers, and cadres of public intellectuals work in times of great societal upheaval to help make sense of unanticipated realities. Shteyngart’s novel is, essentially, a failed attempt at sense-making. The book leaves one feeling dreadful. Some words and phrases I wrote on the inside cover as I read include: unconvincing; lackluster; predictable; nondescript; lacking character development; misogynist; reads like a trashy romance novel.
The book’s main character is Barry Cohen, a purposeless billionaire hedge fund manager encountering a mid-life crisis. I’ve not read a more unseemly or unlikable character in literature for some time. Cohen is under investigation for insider-trading, his marriage is in tatters, and he has an autistic child whom he is unable to understand or connect with. He abandons his life, embarking on a Greyhound Bus to reconnect with an old college girlfriend, now living in El Paso. En route he encounters the so-called “real America.” Drug dealers in Baltimore; a fit and well-adjusted former hedge fund associate in Atlanta; the white racists of the deep South; an African American woman with whom he has a one-night stand; a Mexican immigrant; another drug addict. There is an afternoon of drinking in Mexico with his ex-girlfriend, the promise of a new life following his minor slap on the wrist by the U.S. Justice Department, and Barry’s supposed resurrected relationship with his teenage Autistic son by novel’s end. Barry becomes “Bird Daddy,” in a closing chapter too unbearable to stomach.
Seema Cohen is the similarly purposeless and supposed counterbalance to Barry’s ineptitude, though she is also lacking desirability or likability from readers. Like her husband, she leaves the care of her autistic child to a stay-at-home nanny, a well-paid cadre of therapists and doctors, and her parents, who move to New York following Barry’s erratic departure. Seema carries on an adulterous relationship with a lackluster Guatemelan immigrant author named Luis, and is supposedly redeemed in the plot by tipping off the Feds to Barry’s insider trading. By novel’s end she has met and married a Columbia University professor, of similar Indian descent as herself.
So, what is the Point?
Despite my general disdain for the book, there are some overarching questions with which Shteyngart is wrestling that are worth considering. Here are just a few of the potential takeaway dialogues from the text.
Sex and Assault in Contemporary American Society
The book uses the backdrop of Donald Trump’s multiple sexual assaults on women, as well as his adulterous lifestyle, to raise questions about the role of sex and assault in contemporary American life. This is not a #metoo novel, in my estimation. However, Shteyngart’s treatment of sex and sexual assault is written into the plot so nonchalantly. Shteyngart is asking us to reflect on having elected a President who clearly assaults women (and, now, elevating another Justice to the Supreme Court who does the same).
When I say the treatment of sex and assault is nonchalant, I mean it passes so quickly in the plot line as to be an afterthought. The sex is gratuitous. It lacks passion. It comes and goes in a paragraph. Sex involves fellatio, fingers, and only the occasional orgasm. This is not a moralist move on Shteyngart’s part, but seems to comment on sex as a form of emotionally-detached survival. Sex operates like the trading of hedge funds.
The same is true of sexual assault. At one point in the novel, Barry is accused of sexual assault by his former chief of staff. The line comes and goes, the plot line never complete. As I read, I kept thinking – well, this seems fairly accurate. The President of the United States can openly assault people, and nobody pays mind. Assault does not hurt one with their political base, nor does it hurt Barry in his career. One of the only redeeming lines in the text comes on page 307, when Seema recognizes that “We lived in a country that rewarded its worst people. We lived in a society where the villains were favored to win.”
Multiracial, Multiethnic Society
Barry – a white Jewish man, marries Seema – a 1.5 generation immigrant from the subcontinent of India. There are many books attempting to figure out what the changing racial and ethnic demographics of the United States might mean. By book’s end, Shteyngart suggests we stay with our own, a thoroughly depressing albeit predictable conclusion. Seema marries another Indian man. Barry ends up solo, having had failed sexual encounters with an African American woman, a drug-using man, and an Israeli-Russian immigrant. This is a thoroughly underdeveloped plot line and sub context of the book, but still perhaps one with which Shteyngart was grappling.
Set against the backdrop of hedge funds, financial exploitation, and capitalist criminals who pay fines rather than spend time in prison, the book clearly explores the ruins of our advanced capitalist systems in the United States. The “real America” Barry experiences actually is, in many ways, the most real part of the book. Poverty and barely making it are real in Donald Trump’s America.
But so is the sense of (comm)unity that comes from being a member of that story in the United States. If you really dig into the book, those passing and undeveloped characters in the book – the students in a UTEP classroom, the Greyhound bus drivers, the trans bus passengers, the hotel attendants – these are the people who really understand how to navigate this non-sensical reality we find ourselves inhabiting. These characters watch out for one another, rather than simply being narcissistic, ego-driven maniacs like hedge fund managers and the President of the United States.
We need to Imagine Something Different
This last paragraph is little solace, of course. In one of the only other lines worth noting in the book, Barry has a revelation that “It wasn’t America that needed to be made great again, it was her listless citizens” (p. 46). As we embark on a new year, we can catapult ourselves out of the doldrums of a 2018 that made America not better, but worse. We can imagine something different and find a different soul moving forward.
Perhaps Shteyngart did take us to Lake Success? By making one feel the depravity, desolation, and depression of this America, he might spark our imagination for something different.
Join us at the Inprint Book Club as we discuss Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success.
Sunday, January 13
Inprint House – 1520 W. Main Street, Houston, Texas