Back in Manhattan for the final part of the narrative, Barry and Seema attend a party on election night, the aftermath of which is described in quasi-apocalyptic terms. For Shteyngart, Trump’s presence overshadows everything: “He has invaded our consciousness to such a degree, elbowed into all our private lives, you can’t escape . . . . It is truly like living in an authoritarian dictatorship”. Though he may have wanted to find release in his fiction, he sees it as his duty as a writer to give the reader “a record of our times”.
Having started out portraying Cohen as a nebbish, a likeable klutz who gets lucky and enormously rich, Shteyngart subtly darkens our picture of him until, at the end of the novel, we loathe our hero. This repugnance is intensified by the parallel narrative of Seema, who not only copes after her husband’s desertion, but flourishes. It all makes for a book of compelling moral complexity whose bleakly powerful ending feels like just deserts for an industry that so far appears largely to have escaped literary censure for the crimes of the financial crisis.
Flinging himself on to a Greyhound bus, he sets off in pursuit of… what? An earlier version of himself, an authentic America, and his college girlfriend Layla, now living in El Paso, are some of the rabbits Barry chases down holes in the course of Gary Shteyngart’s hugely entertaining and acute look at the life of not just a muddled man, but a thoroughly confused country. For this road trip takes place at the very moment that America is gearing up to choose its 45th president, a prelapsarian time in which the sound of Trump’s voice puts Barry in mind of “a genuinely sad older man from the outer boroughs”.
Lake Success is spiky, timely and true, but also absolutely comfortless. That’s perhaps not surprising, given the times, but it’s also something to do with its choice of central character. The book contains many homages to The Great Gatsby, but it resembles a version of that novel where the lunkish proto-fascist Tom Buchanan is the hero. Gradually, it also becomes clear that Barry himself has some degree of autism. His most passionate attachment is to his watches. One is left wondering whether he can’t face his son’s diagnosis because it would mean acknowledging his own.
Lake Success skewers the whole idea and subculture of Wall Street bankers detail by damning detail, and every detail is so specific and rings so true as to read like a succession of bull’s eye darts. But what keeps the novel from being a glib and cynical satire is how much affection it holds for Barry and all the other poor suckers of Wall Street... That Shteyngart manages to balance sincere empathy with his subjects with a genuine satirical deconstruction of their culture is what makes Lake Success so compelling.
...chief among this novel’s pleasures is viewing the nation — its landscapes, its people, its curdled politics, its increasingly feudal inequalities — through the vibrant filters of Shteyngart’s Hipstamatic mind... In “Lake Success,” Gary Shteyngart holds his adopted country up to the light, turns it, squints, turns it some more, and finds himself grimacing and laughing in almost equal measure.