It’s been eight long years since we’ve reviewed a Gary Shteyngart novel (though we had his superb memoir, Little Failure, to keep us going in the interim), and so to call Lake Success ‘highly anticipated’ would be a dramatic (and very clichéd) understatement. We love Shteyngart. He’s a master satirist, a brilliant chronicler of both late capitalism and immigrant life in the US, and as empathetic a writer as they come – he’s sharp, he’s funny, he’s a heartbreaker. We rave about his writing. We’ve heard him read, and we rave about that. His book trailers are the only good ones we’ve ever seen. You can’t go wrong with Shteyngart, we say. The critics are all over this new one. And yet.
Lake Success follows the misadventures of Manhattan hedge fund manager, Barry Cohen, whose happy trajectory from the lower middle-classes (the pool guy’s son) to the skyscraping peak of the 0.1% (wringing billions from the proles in some very dodgy transactions) is knocked off-kilter when his three year-old son is diagnosed as severely autistic. Neither Barry, nor his wife, Seema (non-practicing law graduate), are coping very well, and here the narrative splits in two, alternately showing us Barry planning to start over by going on the run, via a cross-country Greyhound bus, to hunt down and re-seduce his college girlfriend, and, in parallel, Seema both negotiating little Shiva’s team of therapists and starting an affair with the insufferable male novelist who lives several floors (and several financial rungs) below her. While Seema juggles the pieces of their ruined domestic life, Barry, on his search for ‘authenticity’, gets pally with the drug dealers and impoverished Mexicans he meets en route to El Paso. More fundamental, though, is the political context: the book is set mostly in the months before the 2016 presidential election. Seema’s a Democrat and Barry’s a ‘moderate fiscal Republican’, but Trump terrifies them both; they might be financially secure (to put it mildly) but Shiva’s diagnosis and their various ethnic backgrounds (Seema’s Tamil family; Barry’s Jewish heritage) puts them (sort of) on the wrong side of the incoming regime. As well as a satire on the trading floor, then, it’s also a blow-by-blow account of a country collapsing into hate and bigotry, and the story of two people learning both fear and compassion. If there’s an overall message to the novel, then it’s about social cohesion: we all need to love one another, wither despite or because of our vast differences, because otherwise we’re all screwed. Or: even the mega-rich have shit to deal with, and we’ve more in common with them than we think.
But. However Barry’s satirised (and Shteyngart does a great job, as ever: Barry’s blatantly awful in almost every way, and yet he’s still human – we like him whilst we loathe him), and however much the Cohens’ world is skewered by the novelist’s gaze (a college professor is agape when she learns that Barry’s Filipina nanny earns triple her salary), this book doesn’t hit the mark set by Shteyngart’s earlier works, because he’s telling us things that are, well, obvious. The world of high finance is awful, sure – but we already know that. Bankers are people too, though – well, yes. It’s not uncharted territory: Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void (albeit set a few years earlier) did the same, but with more panache. If satire is supposed to shine a scathing light on the world, in this case it’s lighting up a sector already blindingly floodlit. Whereas – say – the worlds of Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story were exaggerated for comic effect (as is Murray’s banking/politico community), the world in Lake Success, with its exclusive apartments and crazy expensive booze, is pretty straightforward. Barry’s hobby – he’s a watch connoisseur – is brilliantly arcane, but the rest, like his wacky social improvement schemes, aren’t a patch on anything Elon Musk might dream up. Shteyngart’s a great storyteller, but this is more like (depressing) comic realism than his usual fare. And maybe that’s okay, but if we’re to follow the line of the narrative – because it is, after all, a tale of redemption and lessons learned – we’ve then got to be kind of okay with, for instance, Seema’s fulfillment through sex and marriage, and, more gallingly, the assortment of kind and intelligent women who happily welcome Barry into their beds. There’s a touch of wish fulfillment here that would be considerably less problematic if the story-world was less concrete and recognisable.
Any Cop?: If we hadn’t been so enthralled by his earlier novels – if our expectations had been more measured – we’d probably have liked it more. But all the same, it’s a very likeable, very readable book; it’s funny and brilliantly detailed; its characterisation of Shiva, in particular, is delicately nuanced and tender. It’s a gentler read than his other books, and while that didn’t suit us, it’ll find a vast readership nonetheless.