Donald Trump ruins everything. This is as true in late 2018, our time of unending insomniac anxieties, as it was years ago when the puffed-up carnival barker was making even the excesses of our last gilded age seem like no fun. After all, if Trump could get into Studio 54 without any trouble, what was the point?
But now the presidential pretender’s shadow looms over literature, to the detriment of us all. That isn’t because literature should be some refuge from the outside world. Certainly, too many novels referred to as “timely” will disappear from our literary memories as soon as they drop off the New York Times bestseller list, and we’re all the better for it. Timeliness has the same rule as the rest of fiction—if you’re going to do it, do it right—but only more so. When a novel tries to reflect the moment or a particular sociocultural frisson, because that material tends to stand apart from the story’s main thrust, if the novel is poorly realized, the fault is all the more obvious. An awkward love scene or clunky dialogue exchange can be lost in the narrative noise. A poorly conceived subplot with meaning can be fatal. Just look at Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which tried to interrogate modern feminism and the libertarian hacker ethos of Julian Assange. The result brazenly insulted the former and turned the latter into a caricature of a James Bond villain.
One gets the sense from the start of Gary Shteyngart‘s Lake Success that this is going to be something of a status report on the nation. And it’s not just because of Trump. (More on that later.) Barry Cohen, the doofus we’re stuck with throughout, stumbles into Port Authority bleeding from his head and trying to get a ticket out of town. A fund manager with $2.4 billion in assets wearing a Citi-branded Patagonia vest over his Vineyard Vines shirt, he’s not a bus station type but nevertheless is feeling like he needs to go off the grid. No NetJet from Teterboro or Acela train for Barry. Nothing is quite working out:
There was a Greyhound counter, but its gate was shuttered and there was no note about when it would reopen. “Socialism,” Barry said aloud, even though he knew that Greyhound Lines was a Dallas-based subsidiary of the Scottish company FirstGroup, and not a service offered by our government. He had drunk twenty thousand dollars’ worth of Karuizawa whiskey that night. He could make mistakes.
Barry is on a voyage. It’s a kind of Moron’s Progress across America that he imagines in a few of his many flights of fancy to be a kind of Kerouac-ian (or Hemingway-esque, he gets confused) journey into the “real America”. That’s what he tells people, at least. The reality is that he’s running away. From everything. Barry has managed to tank his fund by going too long in a pharmaceutical scam that reads like Martin Shkreli write large. Investors are calling. The SEC is on the hunt. He also, just hours before charging into Port Authority, alienated his wife Sheema, the one responsible for the bleeding, by acting the .01 percent boor at a dinner party and scaring their deeply autistic son Shiva. Things aren’t going well.
A gormless putz who used ambition and a potentially sociopathic attention to gaining the approval of others, Barry worked his way from a blue-collar upbringing in Long Island through Princeton and now to the top ranks of Masters of the Universe. Like the Wall Street titans who strode with arrogant insecurity through Tom Wolfe‘s Bonfire of the Vanities (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1987), he’s forever anxious about his wealth and status. Unlike that novel’s WASP-y trader Sherman McCoy, Barry could fall and nobody might notice. Having achieved his wealth by being one of those “wide-shouldered, charming Princetonians” who can charm startup capital out of the right wallets and marshal a platoon of quants to put those funds to work in the Rube Goldberg machinery of modern interconnected finance, Barry doesn’t necessarily love finance. It’s just what he does. What he truly loves, like many a man with more money than sense, is collecting watches.
Having disposed of his credit cards and phone, Barry navigates with increasing dependence on others around the country. He calls on people from his past, like Jeff, the trader he once fired who now lives as a cool and collected millionaire in Atlanta (Barry can’t stop himself from cataloging just how much nicer his possessions and dwellings are than Jeff’s even while crashing on his couch), or his college girlfriend, Layla, now a professor out in El Paso. Back in the cosseted land of New York hedge world, Sheema is working through her grief and rage by having a quasi-chaste affair with a writer she both despises and is fascinated with. Although she’s a more pleasant character to be around, and Shteyngart puts the work in limning the agony of her helplessness with Shiva’s condition, the novel falls flat during these sections. Even the flashbacks to her relationship with Barry, which should be explicative, feel lifeless when they’re not stagey. At one point, Sheema yells at Barry, “It’s your insides that are fraudulent,” a resoundingly fake bit of dialogue.
While bouncing around the country in an increasingly frazzled and discombobulated state, Barry has the occasional flash of what he imagines is insight (“He had been granted refuge in America”) but is more often just self-pity. Lake Success doesn’t fail because Barry is such an unappealing character. It doesn’t help that far too much of the novel is taken over by accounts of him flinging himself with increasingly sweaty desperation at one person or another, looking for succor or absolution. The stink of rank embarrassment, humiliation, and forced comedy wafts pungently off the pages but without much sting, like a Smell-o-Vision Ben Stiller movie or dinner-theater A Confederacy of Dunces.
It’s difficult to tell what Shteyngart is going for here. It’s possible he wasn’t quite sure himself. He’s a gifted mimic for behavior, at least as long as the subject resides in the Triborough area. But that cultural radar, which worked to such great satiric effect inSuper Sad True Love Story, is more effective as dystopic exaggeration. Rendered here in the flat light of day, what good does it do to cloyingly catalog stores and clothing items like a latter-day Patrick Bateman or note that a dying Long Island mall has one lively establishment, a Shake Shack? The associations running through Barry’s head are mostly born of half-remembered television. Taking the bus into Baltimore, he first thinks of HBO’s The Wire and later describes a bus driver as “handsome like the star of a good TV show on a minor cable channel.”
Shteyngart knows at least to make Barry a Trump supporter, but in that mild and monied Wall Street manner, the world of “watch collecting and moderate Republican politics.” For his class, it’s all about the tax cuts. The men, at least. Their wives are all Hillary Clinton supporters. That tension, along with Barry’s whipsawing changes of heart as he encounters the awkwardly presented rainbow coalition of lower-class Americana, should make for a picaresque portrait of a nation in extremis, the ongoing heart attack that is the modern condition. But the nods to Trump are ultimately just grafted-on details that tell us as little about the nation and ourselves as the book tells us about its empty-headed antihero bumbling along on his long journey into the Greyhound night, dreaming of expensive watches.