Lake Suc­cess

by Gary Shteyn­gart

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Cath­leen Schine

Lake Suc­cess by Gary Shteyn­gart.

Ran­dom House, 338 pp., $28.00

The ram­bunc­tious satires of Gary Shteyn­gart have pre­vi­ously had one foot root­ing around the real-life New York City, the other foot dug into the rub­ble and riches of post-Soviet republics or the oddly sim­i­lar rub­ble and riches of an imag­i­nary dystopian New York. In The Rus­sian Debu­tante’s Hand­book, his first novel, he de­scribes Vladimir Gir­shkin on his twenty-fifth birth­day as di­vided al­most evenly be­tween there and here: “He had lived in Rus­sia for twelve years, and then there were the thir­teen years spent here. That was his life—it added up.” Over the course of the novel, Vladimir seeks love and suc­cess in both worlds, from the smooth, pi­ous lib­er­al­ity of his girl­friend’s Up­per East Side par­ents to the cheer­ful greed and bru­tal­ity of a track­suited bunch of Rus­sian mob­sters in an Eastern Euro­pean city based on Prague.

In Ab­sur­dis­tan, Shteyn­gart’s next book, the hero is, like Vlad, born in the Soviet Union and ed­u­cated in the US. Misha, a “but­tery” 325 pounds and the son of the 1,238th-rich­est man in Rus­sia, loves rap and a girl who de­scribes her­self as “half Puerto Ri­can. And half Ger­man. And half Mex­i­can and Ir­ish. But I was raised mostly Do­mini­can.” Like Vladimir, Misha is a man of the old world and the new.

The hero of Shteyn­gart’s third novel, Su­per Sad True Love Story, was born in a New York City that turns him into an im­mi­grant in his own home. The textmes­sage epis­to­lary novel takes place in a fu­ture New York that has im­ploded into an au­thor­i­tar­ian regime, the au­thor­ity in ques­tion be­ing money. In Lake Suc­cess, his new novel, Shteyn­gart has shifted to rec­og­niz­ably Amer­i­can soil, specif­i­cally the United States that rolls be­neath the wheels of a Grey­hound bus. Barry Co­hen is a hedge-fund man­ager who es­capes his ob­scenely wealthy New York life by run­ning off on a red-state road trip. It is just be­fore the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. And be­cause of the tim­ing, the ge­og­ra­phy of the South and the West, the po­lit­i­cal ref­er­ences, and the poor and mid­dle-class peo­ple Barry meets on his trav­els, Lake Suc­cess presents it­self as a book about Amer­ica. But Barry is just a tourist in Amer­ica. Lake Suc­cess is re­ally a New York story, and a good one.

New York tow­ers avari­ciously above the other places Barry vis­its, the moral squalor of its Wall Street elite metic­u­lously ren­dered. Barry gauges his place in the world with the pre­ci­sion of the rare watches he col­lects, and mea­sures his rise quite lit­er­ally floor by floor of the build­ing where he lives, in a condo just one floor be­low Ru­pert Mur­doch’s. Dur­ing din­ner with neigh­bors—on the lowly third floor—Barry looks up their two-bed­room apart­ment on Zil­low to see how much they paid for it: a mere $3,800,000, less than a fifth the price he paid for his floor-through place high above.

Barry is not a nice guy, and like most of Shteyn­gart’s he­roes his ob­nox­ious qual­i­ties are so com­plete and so over­whelm­ing as to cre­ate an al­most sym­pa­thetic in­no­cence and naiveté. His self-cen­tered in­hu­man­ity is part of what hu­man­izes him for the reader. He has had to work not only at get­ting rich but also at cul­ti­vat­ing an ac­cept­able per­son­al­ity: as a kid he prac­ticed his “friend moves” in front of the mir­ror so suc­cess­fully that he is known now as “the friendli­est dude on the Street.” His wife, Seema, trained as a lawyer but, in the way of the new-age tro­phy wife, leav­ing her ca­reer be­hind, de­scribes him as “that boy­ish, goofy, pre­pro­grammed, back­slap­ping, Tiger Inn, let’s-be-friends, one-of-the-guys bull­shit Barry.” But she also sees “the des­per­ately strug­gling, scared-of-get­ting-it-wrong, al­ways-on­the-look­out-for-hurt Barry. Or maybe they were one and the same.”

The third-floor apart­ment Barry is so cu­ri­ous about and con­temp­tu­ous of be­longs to Ju­lianna, a doc­tor who has made friends with Seema in the lobby, and her hus­band, Luis, a writer (“I’m what they call a ‘writer’s writer’”) whose sales rank­ings (1,123,340) Barry has al­ready checked out on Ama­zon. Luis af­fects a cer­tain cyn­i­cism, but Shteyn­gart does not ex­cuse him from the city’s lu­di­crous so­cial climb­ing. Luis com­pla­cently ex­plains the dis­crep­ancy be­tween his low book sales and his condo as the re­sult of lec­tur­ing for $20,000 a pop: “You do fifty of those a year, and, well, a mil­lion bucks ain’t a lot in New York these days, but you’re at least wel­comed into the anthills of the one per­cent.”

Barry no­tices there is no art in the apart­ment ex­cept a vin­tage Span­ish­language James Bond poster: It didn’t have the unique­ness or value of Seema’s Miró or the ne­glected Calder in their li­brary, but it was a found ob­ject that sig­naled that the writer had an iden­tity. It didn’t mat­ter if it was in­vented. He had in­vented it. He was the fuck­ing writer! That’s what he did.

Writer, hedge-fund man­ager—they are both ass­holes.

Shteyn­gart un­der­stands both Barry and Luis with that Shteyn­gar­tian eye for weak­ness, for pos­ing, for fraud. “Luis was still on some kind of metar­iff about both can­di­dates be­ing sleaze,” he writes de­light­edly, “even though he said it was cost­ing him Twit­ter fol­low­ers.”

Seema ends up hav­ing an af­fair with Luis, but by then Barry is long gone. He has run away from home (where he ter­ri­fied his wife and young child with a vi­o­lent out­burst) and is on the lam (he’s un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion for in­sider trad­ing). He throws away his phone and his credit cards and, like a hobo on a freight train, rides through the South with noth­ing but $200 and a suit­case filled with price­less watches. In Atlanta, he looks up a for­mer em­ployee, a young man named Jeff Park who was fired a few years ago (he had ac­ci­den­tally omit­ted a mi­nus sign in an Ex­cel spread­sheet, cost­ing the firm $150 mil­lion). Jeff is do­ing fine now, to Barry’s con­fused sur­prise. A big fi­nan­cial fish in the rel­a­tively small pond of Atlanta, Jeff lives close to his par­ents in a floorthrough apart­ment that would cost ten times as much in New York. When he isn’t mak­ing money at his com­puter he works out and drives fab­u­lous cars. The Wall Street dream life. And he’s happy enough to be able to un­der­stand that he’s been lucky. Barry’s been lucky, too, he says:

“You found your­self work­ing in the right in­dus­try at the right time. No reg­u­la­tion. All the lever­age you could eat from the banks. I’m not even go­ing to men­tion the in­sider trad­ing that’s just part of be­ing in the old boys’ club .... Hey, I’m not knock­ing what we do,” Jeff said. “It takes smarts. But so much of it is luck. You ex­e­cute one good trade, and peo­ple will lis­ten to ev­ery­thing you say for the next five years.”

But Barry dis­agrees. “All I know is I never had any ad­van­tages,” he tells the Korean-Amer­i­can he still thinks is Chi­nese. “I wasn’t even lucky enough to be born to im­mi­grant par­ents.”

His wife, how­ever, was. Seema’s mother is that most won­der­ful thing, a Gary Shteyn­gart mother, a for­mi­da­ble first-gen­er­a­tion mother seething with love, unerring in her cru­elty. In The Rus­sian Debu­tante’s Hand­book, the mother is a Rus­sian Jew. In Ab­sur­dis­tan, she is Korean. In Lake Suc­cess, she is Tamil. In ev­ery case, she is a won­der, a mon­ster of cold, smoth­er­ing love. When Seema calls her mother for com­fort in the midst of her sad­ness and aban­don­ment, she says, “Oh Mommy...I wish you would say a nice thing right now.”

“Try to be a bet­ter daugh­ter,” her mother said.

“That’s not a nice thing.”

“Nice is not my spe­cialty. Call your fa­ther if you want to hear some­thing nice.”

“Can you tell me you love me?” “That you should know al­ready.” “What if I don’t? What if I got bonked on the head and had am­ne­sia or some­thing? Like in that Ta­mil­ian movie. What­ever. Some­thing.”

Seema could hear her mother start up her car again. “Is that what hap­pened to you, Seema-konde? Be­cause that would ex­plain a lot.” “That’s what hap­pened to me.” “Then fine,” she said. “Then I love you.”

When Seema first told her mother she was go­ing to marry Barry, her mother treated it as her due, “like it was one of two ac­cept­able choices, a white-shoe law firm part­ner­ship be­ing the other one.” And Seema re­mem­bers how, when she was younger, her mother

would hover over her bed at all hours of the day and night (good luck find­ing the word “pri­vacy” in Tamil), im­part­ing all those lu­di­crous and painful life lessons. Fresh­man year in high school she had drawn Seema a chart of the so­cial ac­cept­abil­ity of her friends. Jews and WASPs fared at the very top, one had “money (in­creas­ing),” the other “so­cial power (de­creas-

ing).” The Asians were sep­a­rated into sev­eral tranches, with the Ja­panese—who had bought up so much of our coun­try just the pre­vi­ous decade—lead­ing the pack. Tamils hov­ered sev­eral blank spa­ces above His­pan­ics, who them­selves rested on the shoul­ders of blacks.

The pre­car­i­ous foot­ing of the im­mi­grant and the ugly parochial­ism it en­gen­ders are never far from Shteyn­gart’s work, and among his great gifts are his in­ti­mate de­scrip­tions of how vi­o­lently they dis­tort moth­erly love. Here is a pas­sage from The Rus­sian Debu­tante’s Hand­book:

“Vladimir, how can I say this? Please don’t be cross with me. I know you’ll be cross with me, you’re such a soft young man. But if I don’t tell you the truth, will I be ful­fill­ing my moth­erly du­ties? No, I will not. The truth then...” She sighed deeply, an alarm­ing sigh, the sigh of ex­hal­ing the last doubt, the sigh of pre­par­ing for bat­tle. “Vladimir,” she said, “you walk like a Jew.”

“What?”

“What? The anger in his voice. What? he says. What? Walk back to the win­dow now. Just walk back to the win­dow. Look at your feet. Look care­fully. Look at how your feet are spread apart. Look at how you walk from side to side. Like an old Jew from the shtetl. Lit­tle Rebbe Gir­shkin.”

Seema is a dif­fer­ent kind of mother, and her child, Shiva, is dif­fer­ent too. Three years old and re­cently di­ag­nosed with autism, Shiva is part of the rea­son Barry ran away. Seema and Barry have kept “the di­ag­no­sis” se­cret from ev­ery­one, but when Ju­lianna, the doc­tor from the third floor, in­sists on bring­ing Ar­turo, her own os­ten­ta­tiously cute three-year-old, to play, Seema’s new friend fig­ures it out. One of the few un­ques­tion­ably de­cent char­ac­ters in the novel (she is a doc­tor who is do­ing re­search on the Zika virus), Ju­lianna is not only un­fazed by the scream­ing child bang­ing his head against the wall, she is able to calm him, to touch him, to teach her own lit­tle boy to ap­pre­ci­ate Shiva. The big bouncy ball and the horse­hair brush, tell­tale signs of ther­apy, are nov­el­ties, in­ter­est­ing new toys for Ar­turo. And Seema watches with re­lief, and a new con­fu­sion:

Seema breathed in and out, in and out, with great force, the way she had been taught by a med­i­ta­tion app she had aban­doned a few months ago, be­cause it had only made her more anx­ious. So now what? She had made a new friend and was sleep­ing with that new friend’s hus­band. Her dis­abled child had made friends with the woman’s son, also her lover’s son . . . . Where would it all end? And where the fuck was Barry?

Barry is in San An­to­nio try­ing to rekin­dle a col­lege love af­fair; he is try­ing to con­nect with his col­lege girl­friend’s son, to teach the with­drawn boy to swim and to come up with his own “friend moves,” just as Barry did as a lonely child. “I don’t like friends,” Jonah tells him, some­thing Barry un­der­stands all too well. He is try­ing to carve out a life that will work bet­ter than the one he left be­hind, but his fan­tasies for a more au­then­tic life are just that, fan­tasies, stand­ing in for real hopes and real dreams, the way his “friend moves” stood in for friend­li­ness. His dream of a happy fam­ily, af­ter all, in­volves three chil­dren brush­ing their teeth at a long, cus­tom-built van­ity with three sinks. Not three chil­dren, but three chil­dren at three sinks. The ma­te­rial ex­pres­sion of love and fam­ily has swal­lowed both love and fam­ily for Barry.

Shteyn­gart of­fers Barry’s shal­low ma­te­ri­al­ism as an il­lus­tra­tion of Amer­ica’s malaise, not news to any­one since Toc­queville, or Trol­lope’s mother. But he al­ways res­cues him­self with de­tail, and the three sinks, one af­ter the other, is an im­age so pre­pos­ter­ously empty of the beauty of fam­ily that it is touch­ing.

When Barry does fi­nally come back to New York, Seema ex­plains,

in essence, that she didn’t like what Barry was. Not who, but what. We lived in a coun­try that re­warded its worst peo­ple. We lived in a so­ci­ety where the vil­lains were fa­vored to win .... How could peo­ple who didn’t live in a Cen­tral Park West pen­t­house be­lieve in any­thing any­more?. . .

“Oh, honey,” she said, “can’t you see what’s around you? You’re not Shiva. You don’t have ex­cuses. You’re a man who makes tons of money while the world goes to shit around you. You make money be­cause the world goes to shit around you. In the end, that’s who you are.”

That’s a heavy load for any one char­ac­ter to carry, and it is some­thing of a mir­a­cle that we feel any sym­pa­thy for Barry at all. But we do. That is the magic of melan­choly.

Fes­ter­ing cor­rup­tion is a given in a Shteyn­gart novel, but more im­por­tant are the fes­ter­ing emo­tions of the peo­ple forced to live, and even pros­per, in his flam­boy­antly tainted land­scapes. Lake Suc­cess fol­lows some­one try­ing to find an an­swer, a sim­pler and purer life. But the novel is not about sim­plic­ity or pu­rity at all. It is about com­pli­ca­tions, tan­gles and knots, mud­died ex­pec­ta­tions and out­comes. Emo­tions rip­ple any sur­face, shud­der against con­flict­ing emo­tions, leav­ing waves of ques­tions and doubt. Seema’s re­sponse to her child is as nu­anced, as alive, as Barry’s watches are not. Barry “couldn’t live with­out their in­sis­tent tick­ing and the pre­dictable spin of their bal­ance wheels, that golden whir of mo­tion and light in­side the watch that gave it the ap­pear­ance of hav­ing a soul.” That bal­anced move­ment, tiny and del­i­cate but tied so intimately to the grand move­ments of the earth it­self, has cracked. There is no pre­dictabil­ity or or­der in the real world of real wives and real chil­dren on the spec­trum.

Un­like Barry, Seema is ul­ti­mately able to make her peace with the way­ward na­ture of re­al­ity. She tells her par­ents about the di­ag­no­sis, and they come to live with her, her mother loudly blam­ing Barry for ev­ery­thing and her fa­ther stub­bornly work­ing with Shiva’s ob­ses­sive be­hav­ior rather than against it. The big gold W of the W Ho­tel, which Shiva stares at? His grand­fa­ther makes a W with his fin­gers and touches Shiva’s hand:

Now...they would chart their way through Man­hat­tan by fol­low­ing an end­less se­ries of signs with Ws, Wal­greens be­ing the ul­ti­mate bea­con by which Shiva could nav­i­gate, although McDon­ald’s arches also ap­peared to be an up­side-down W as far as the young speller was con­cerned . . . . It used to be she would ask her­self: Who is my son? What’s in his head? Well, now she knew. W was in his head .... If she had to see the world as be­ing ei­ther in ser­vice to her son or not, then that’s how she would see the world. She should put up the In­ter­net ad right away: “Not-yet-di­vorced wife of miss­ing hus­band seeks man to be pe­riph­eral to her dis­abled son. Must be at least five foot ten.”

Barry, mean­while, is in a bus sta­tion in Phoenix, his suit­case with all his watches stolen, hold­ing a card­board sign:

THEY STOLE ALL MY MONEY. I HAVE AN AUTIS­TIC SON. PRAY­ING FOR A MIR­A­CLE. ANY LIT­TLE BIT HELPS!

GOD BLESS YOU

Shteyn­gart writes about the de­tails of fail­ure: eco­nomic, ro­man­tic, fil­ial, and, per­haps most strik­ingly, phys­i­cal. He de­scribes ur­ban land­scapes as if they are alive, like the “con­torted in­sect of a build­ing, its chim­ney pump­ing ef­flu­ent into the night” in Ab­sur­dis­tan; or breath­ing sorry mu­sic like “the ugly gi­gan­tism . . . of a col­lec­tion of build­ings that, with their rows of bal­conies on both ends, re­sem­bled soot-cov­ered ac­cor­dions” in Su­per Sad True Love Story. If his cities are pic­tured in all their dark, pulpy cor­po­re­al­ity, the bod­ies of his char­ac­ters are equally sor­did, and treated sim­i­larly as land­scapes swollen or shrunken with mean­ing.

It’s in­ter­est­ing that Barry, un­like his pre­de­ces­sors, exhibits phys­i­cal charm. He is tall and broad-shoul­dered with a swim­mer’s physique. He smiles. There is the mer­est men­tion of an in­cip­i­ent bald spot. Shteyn­gart’s other men, fat and oily and, for good mea­sure, but­tery like Misha in Ab­sur­dis­tan, or sweaty with hideous feet like Lenny in Su­per Sad True Love Story, or wad­dling shame­fully on Jew feet like Vlad in The Rus­sian Debu­tante’s Hand­book, are the satir­i­cal, fleshly man­i­fes­ta­tions of fail­ure, matched by the po­lit­i­cally and so­cially satir­i­cal de­crepi­tude of build­ings crum­bling and sink­ing into po­lit­i­cally, eth­i­cally pol­luted mud.

Fail­ure has a stink, and Shteyn­gart’s prose sniffs out the phys­i­cally grotesque with an al­most un­seemly joy. His satire shakes as re­splen­dently as Misha’s belly. His plots are clammy, fan­tas­ti­cal, a snarl of per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal ab­sur­dity. If he is of­ten over­wrought, and he is, he is also sharp and re­fined in his un­der­stand­ing of self-con­scious­ness. Lake Suc­cess is mood­ier, less showy than his ear­lier nov­els, closer in tone to Lit­tle Fail­ure, his bril­liant, funny, heart­break­ing mem­oir. Barry may be a man with many mil­lions, he may live high above the rest of us, look­ing out of floor-to­ceil­ing win­dows we will never press our noses against, but ev­ery­one can rec­og­nize his view: the van­tage of de­spair. And, gently, in­cre­men­tally, of hope.

Gary Shteyn­gart

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