Before he became a wealthy hedge fund manager, a luxury watch collector, or a man in crisis, Barry Cohen was a bookworm from blue-collar beginnings, an aficionado of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. At Princeton, he took creative writing classes, including a fiction class with his girlfriend, Layla, senior year.
His final assignment for the class, a short story labored over with self-satisfied tears, tells the story of a middle-aged Goldman Sachs partner and writer who is driving through Vermont in his sports car and lamenting his lost college love when he sees a beautiful shepherdess wandering the countryside with her flocks. It’s the ex, who now lives a “simple and beautiful life.” She greets him and washes his hands and feet.
“I wish none of my life had ever happened. But it’s too late,” he tells her.
“Yes,” she replies. “It is too late.”
Barry expects his story to awe Layla, the professor and his classmates. Instead, when he reads it aloud, there’s no reaction. The other three men in the class, it turns out, had written essentially the same story. Barry is just another privileged striver, a man prepared to take his Ivy League education and make bank while still straining to lay claim to an artistic soul, if only through his melancholic regret.
It’s a meta moment; Gary Shteyngart’s new novel Lake Success is, in broad strokes, the same narrative as Barry’s short story. It’s a novel about a middle-aged banker who has plenty of shiny toys but no real love in his life, a wealthy man who goes on a journey through America to rediscover his college ex, his youthful passion and himself.
The book explores the Trump era in a literal sense ― it’s set amid the post-2016 election tumult ― but the most pointed commentary it offers on today’s political mess goes beyond Trump: that we are a nation bewitched by the stories we tell about ourselves. It’s a novel about self-mythologizing and narrative-making, and about how, in succeeding, it fails us.
When the novel opens, Barry is in his 40s. The last vestige of his literary dreams is the name of his hedge fund, This Side of Capital. Professionally, Barry’s on high but sandy ground. He has $2.4 billion dollars under management at his fund, but he’s also under investigation for insider trading ― and while he makes plenty of money in fees, his funds consistently seem to underperform the market. But then, he’s hardly a financial genius. He’s a Princeton good old boy, his banking fortune derived from his well-practiced back-slapping and networking.
He’s married to Seema, a gorgeous, intellectual 29-year-old lawyer who now stays at home with their 3-year-old son Shiva, who has recently been diagnosed with autism. Their marriage has buckled under the strain of infertility struggles, their son’s developmental delays, and political differences (he’s a Republican, she’s a Democrat still reeling from Trump’s election). Barry struggles to love his family, but instead he feels disconnected, cheated of the aspirational marriage and enviable kids he planned to have.
After a dinner party with their neighbors ― a doctor from Hong Kong and her husband, an acclaimed Guatemalan novelist ― goes horribly awry, leading to a physical scuffle with Seema and their nanny, Barry flees his home with little but a suitcase of his most cherished watches and the clothes on his back. He heads to the Port Authority, gets on a Greyhound bus, and heads south and west.
Like a wide-eyed Beltway journalist tracking down Trump voters in Midwestern diners, Barry has barely set off on his journey through Real America before he’s begun to wax romantically self-congratulatory about his quest. Sitting next to a slumbering, one-eyed Mexican man, he compares himself flatteringly to the characters of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. He thinks that “the fact that he could ride on this stinking bus with this Mexican guy was appealing and broadening. It required imagination. It required a soul.”
“Shteyngart is the latest in a series of prominent novelists ― Salman Rushdie, Meg Wolitzer ― who have explicitly taken on the Trump era in their fiction, and the latest to run into the challenges of creating literature out of such obsessively trodden ground.”
An engorged parasite on the financial system and a joke of a father, Barry wants desperately to do his life over again. He makes wild bids at redemption during his road trip ― by offering to mentor a skeptical young black kid he finds dealing drugs in Baltimore, by offering to mentor a beautiful young woman who works in hotel management (he sleeps with her instead), by trying to be a father figure to his ex’s socially withdrawn young son ― but the shepherdess in paradise, with her “simple and beautiful life,” does not appear to witness and assuage his melancholy. When his efforts fail to garner him romantic bliss or personal fulfillment, he always moves on.
Back in New York, Seema falls into an affair with the Guatemalan novelist. In their marriages, they are the literary ones, the ones who prize cultural capital, who benefit from but vociferously despise the wealth-hoarding of the one percent. During that first dinner party, the novelist, who writes about economic and social injustices in his home country, prodded Barry about his profession, asking whether his money wouldn’t be better allocated to the poor rather than splurged on bottles of whiskey worth tens of thousands of dollars. He’s an idealist. Then again, when Seema asks whether he’d be okay leaving his wife for her, fathering another man’s children, he responds with the glib assurance of financial and male privilege, “I’m fine with kids ... Someone always takes care of them.”
Barry lacks the novelist’s artful touch; he can’t seem to write over his selfish deeds with a pretty narrative. His story is one of false starts, crumpled drafts, abandoned outlines. In Shteyngartian style, his protagonist’s hapless series of pratfalls across America is wincingly funny; through Barry, he pokes fun, if rather gently, at feckless banking malfeasance, the smug mediocrity of the elite educated class, and the self-pitying narcissism of white male conservatives.
Shteyngart is the latest in a series of prominent novelists ― Salman Rushdie, Meg Wolitzer ― who have explicitly taken on the Trump era in their fiction, and the latest to run into the challenges of creating literature out of such obsessively trodden ground. It’s satisfying to see Lake Success’ buffoonish banker skewered, but it also feels a bit rote. Sometimes it feels as if we’ve done nothing but think about, talk about, imagine, curse, and mythologize the ruling 1 percent for the past decade. Their every quirk and crime is familiar; passages of Lake Success read like snippets from lefty opinion pieces and reporting on conservative voters, but make it fiction.
After the four young men in Barry’s Princeton creative writing class read their near-identical stories about middle-aged bankers grappling with their own lost youth and passion, another student asks the professor if the stories are good. “In a sense,” he replies. “The best fiction is the fiction of self-delusion. It contrasts the banality of our self-made fictions against the hopelessness of the world as it really is.”
But merely portraying self-delusion does not necessarily contrast it, effectively, with the hopelessness of the world as it really is. By inscribing his self-mythology into his fiction, Barry only romanticized his own narcissism. The more he succeeds at crafting his story, the more damage he does in reality, leaving a trail of people alternately hurt and baffled by his inconstancy as he swans off to craft his next comeback arc.
If the best fiction “contrasts the banality of our self-made fictions against the hopelessness of the world as it really is,” Lake Success, at times, seems to blur that line. As the novel wears on, the acuteness with which Shteyngart punctures Barry’s grandiose self-regard comes to coexist with an unearned tenderness, as if the book has begun to buy into Barry’s delusion, to feel pity for his wasted life, to coddle him and even rehabilitate him.
Wherever there are male writers, as Shteyngart himself shrewdly lays bare in that writing class scene, there are abundant stories lavishing sympathy on selfish men who leave damage in their wake. Plenty of those stories have literary value, but there comes a time when it’s hard to get excited about any of them.
It’s not as though they’re doing us any good.