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Gary Shteyngart’s Empathy Experiment

His new novel takes the reader on a boorish financier’s misguided journey of self-discovery.


In some ways, Barry Cohen, the central character of Gary Shteyngart’s new novel Lake Success, resembles the hapless, straight, male protagonists of the author’s earlier novels. In Super Sad True Love Story and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Shteyngart gave us strivers and hopeless romantics, who frequently faced forces much larger than themselves. Barry, “a man with 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management,” is a new variation: One part (Tom) Wolfean Master of the Universe, one part comic antihero, he blends a photogenic lifestyle with a haunting lack of interpersonal understanding. Barry is certainly hapless, but unlike his Shteyngartian predecessors, he starts his journey at the top and proceeds haltingly down. And as Barry travels across the country, he gives Shteyngart a way to address toxic masculinity, fatherhood, and the state of American politics.

LAKE SUCCESS: A NOVEL by Gary Shteyngart
Random House, 352 pp., $28.00

The 2016 election serves as backdrop to much of the action of Lake Success, as does the partisan divide that underscores some of Barry and his estranged wife Seema’s marital difficulties. “I was going to bundle for Hillary for you,” Barry tells her in the midst of a fight. His displeasure at this but willingness to do so—Barry is a middle-aged Marco Rubio donor with a distaste for Donald Trump–serves as a good shorthand for larger aspects of his character. The fact that he never goes full “deplorable” seems relatively spot-on for a character with his background—Barry seems solidly in the “Never Trump” camp. He is conservative enough to be out of step with most of the characters in the novel, several of whom upbraid him for his beliefs, but liberal enough to feel unmoored by the rise of Trumpism.

Over the course of Lake Success, Barry embarks on a Quixotic quest across the country in search of his long-lost college girlfriend, Layla, and to find an escape from a series of personal and professional catastrophes. It’s an ambitious task: a comic novel that also meditates on recent national events, with a measured dissection of ignorance and inspiration thrown in. Finding the right balance for such a narrative is no easy task; the same is true for creating a protagonist who’s both compelling and ridiculous. Shteyngart asks his readers to empathize with a frequently boorish conservative financier—the sort of person whose politics and position have created untold sadness for many.

When the novel opens, Barry has arrived, drunk and bleeding, at the Port Authority Bus Terminal after an argument with Seema, who is over a decade his junior, and the nanny they employ. He opts to venture out of New York City by bus, partly to go looking for Layla, and partly because traveling through America is what generations of stories have billed as the means by which one finds oneself. (There are more than a few nods to the influence of Jack Kerouac here—even though, to Kerouac’s credit, his characters were not disgruntled finance bros having midlife crises.) He discards his phone, as this is what one does when one abandons one’s life for a journey of self-discovery.

Barry’s clichéd quest takes on a new layer of self-involvement when, in a flashback Shteyngart reveals that when Barry was at Princeton he wrote a story about “a forty-something partner at Goldman Sachs who is driving around Vermont in his S500.” There, his protagonist encounters a pastoral scene, befriends a sheepdog, and eventually has a metaphysically-charged reunion with his college-era ex. Barry hasn’t simply bought into a cultural myth: He’s bought into his own particular strain of it, which is both egomaniacal and a little sad.

That’s but one manifestation of the ways in which Barry profoundly doesn’t get it: He enjoys the nominal proximity to art, but he hasn’t actually taken the time to think about what certain creative works might be questioning. Perhaps the most forceful demonstration of this comes when Barry wanders around Baltimore and is mistaken by several residents for a participant on a The Wire-themed tour. Barry, having never actually seen The Wire, remains oblivious. Here, too, Shteyngart adopts a take-no-prisoners approach to satire, mocking both Barry’s cluelessness and the way in which one person’s memorable narrative is another’s opportunity for commoditization. There’s more than a little of The Bonfire of the Vanities in Lake Success’s literary DNA—both its bleak view of the wealthy and its sprawling social criticism.

Barry’s abuses of art are even more pronounced in the way he reads the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. This isn’t particularly subtle: The name of Barry’s fund—This Side of Capital—riffs on This Side of Paradise, and the title of Shteyngart’s novel comes from the real-life Long Island town located just south of the models for The Great Gatsby’s East Egg and West Egg. There’s a sense that Barry sees Fitzgerald’s work (and a whole canon of American literature) largely as a status symbol—that, like the absurdly expensive whisky and watches he favors, he likes literary prestige and the perception of seriousness more than the work of analyzing and interpreting text. “I just really liked the name,” Barry tells Layla’s son Jonah late in the novel, when recalling his childhood fascination with Lake Success. “I wanted to be successful.”

Barry seems drawn to the depictions of wealth and glamor at which Fitzgerald excelled. Fitzgerald’s books also offer, however, plenty of cautionary tales about the effects of wealth, the way that a nominally thrilling marriage can stagnate into something toxic, and the impossibility of recapturing the past. For someone who ostensibly loves Fitzgerald enough to reference him constantly, Barry shows no signs of having comprehended any of this. He also tells Jonah that “The Great Gatsby is about a man who wanted to improve himself. And when I was your age I wanted to improve myself, too.” Barry knows all about aspiration, but what he struggles to grasp is the consequences of those aspirations.

In the hands of some authors, Barry’s road trip would be the stuff of mockery. His many attempts to make cultural inroads with the rest of America are poorly-timed and miscalculated, leaving him even more hopelessly out of touch. He has a cringe-inducing encounter with his college girlfriend’s aging parents; crashes with Jeff Park, a former subordinate in Atlanta, where he becomes obsessed with Outkast’s 2000 song “Ms. Jackson” (which, to him, is brand-new); and ponders starting a foundation “that would help urban youth buy their first mechanical watch and learn to care for it.” He also buys crack on his ill-fated trip to Baltimore, which takes on an almost Chekhovian significance as he travels across the country and it goes unsmoked for more and more of the book.

But Shteyngart humanizes Barry by showing his love for his son, and by endowing him with quirks, such as his penchant for rare watches. The latter, to be fair, is a manifestation of his absurd wealth, but his borderline-obsessive fascination with them emerges as a genuine passion, rather than something that he believes he must do. Watches are among the handful of possessions that he sets out with on his cross-country journey, and they bring him a feeling of security that nothing else does. There’s a running riff on the cost of absurdly expensive whiskies that serves a counterpoint to Barry’s watch obsession. Early in the novel, Barry notes, “I got a batch of the forty-eight-year-old Karuizawa single cask whiskey,” which, he goes on to declare, sells for $33,000 a bottle. (The prices are, incidentally, not inflated for satirical effect; if anything, Shteyngart has slightly undervalued the whiskey in question.)

Seema’s life in New York after her husband’s departure provides a counterpoint to his increasingly aimless journey across the country. Seema is a far less toxic character to follow through life than Barry with more relatable problems (her intrusive parents undermine her methods of raising her son; she has an awkward affair with her novelist neighbor). Hers and Barry’s perspectives on the world sharply differ: Barry’s describes the event at which they first met, for instance, as “a cultural art thing.” In Seema’s recollection, the same event takes on a slightly less idealistic tone: It was, in fact, a celebration of the 120th anniversary of Vogue.

The event that sets Barry and Seema on diverging paths is a dinner with their neighbors, Luis and Juliana Goodman. Luis is a writer who describes his books as being about “American colonialism, crimes against the indigenous, yada yada yada.” (Among his novels is one called The Sympathetic Butcher.) Luis mentions that he’s presently working on a novel set in the world of hedge funds. “I, for one, think a hedge-fund manager would make the perfect hero,” Barry tells Luis. “And I volunteer to be your muse!” Part of the joke of the novel that follows is Barry’s shamelessness here; part of the joke is that Shteyngart has written a variation on that very book, albeit in a way that would likely satisfy neither Luis nor Barry.

When Barry reaches Layla in El Paso, the novel’s twin motifs of misunderstanding art and the 2016 election converge. In the course of discussing the Holocaust with a college class she teaches, with Barry in attendance, Layla endeavors to make a connection between its history and the rise of online hate groups. (Pepe the Frog and a host of other examples of social media toxicity make an appearance.) Barry recalls being aware of “these new pro-Trump fascist memes” even before he embarked on his journey, but doesn’t understand why “the ugliness was right in front of him and these kids.”

Barry’s next thought will likely resonate with anyone who didn’t take Trump’s campaign seriously: “Surely this stuff would pass once Hillary was elected and everything went back to normal.” Several students in Layla’s class are equally unable to grapple with this information: one in particular chimes in with a Forrest Gump metaphor, followed by a misattributed quote from Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s biography of Voltaire. They share Barry’s inability to think critically or deeply about the things he cares about—and here, Shteyngart isn’t coy or subtle about where this leads. Deluding oneself is a powerful thing, but it won’t hold back election results or a rising neo-fascist movement.

In a flashback to a college writing workshop, Barry recalls his professor telling the class that “the best fiction is the fiction of self-delusion.” This may be true, but in the slapstick Shteyngart has written, he illustrates the darker side of self-delusion as well—and the unsettling places that it can lead.