It begins with a pair of sentences that reel the reader in immediately. “Barry Cohen, a man with 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management, staggered into the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He was visibly drunk and bleeding.” Barry is part of the 0.1 per cent and, having insulted his Tamil wife Seema’s new friend and her Guatemalan novelist husband (whose Amazon ranking he has been obsessively checking, as well as the price of their apartment), he flees; not least from the fact that their three-year-old son Shiva has been diagnosed with severe autism.
One wonders as much about what he is running to – ostensibly to find his college sweetheart and make things right – as what he is running from. In earlier days Barry took a Creative Writing class, and was obsessed with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Kerouac, and on the road, he hopes to find whether or not, as his wife has accused him, he has no imagination and no soul.
Barry is another iteration of the Shteyngart protagonist. He is a second-generation immigrant to America ashamed of his roots. He is self-loathing and self-deluded and self-serving in equal measures. Just like Vladimir in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, or Misha the “Snack Daddy” in Absurdistan, or Lenny Abramov in Super Sad True Love Story, he is ostentatiously given to crying. He, like them, is pitiable and despicable at the same time. All of Shteyngart’s novels have had a narrative flow that mirrors another flow: that of money. If the love – note the love – of money is the root of all evil, Shteyngart has constantly brought the characters back to love, not money. But do not expect the Hollywood “Come here, ya big schmuck” kind of ending. His writing laces a genuine and affecting sentimentality with an acidic wit. Think of it like borscht. The beetroot is sweet and the vinegar sour.
Barry’s tragi-comic crossing of America, from New York to California by bus, via Detroit, the Carolinas, Texas and Mexico and stops in-between, is Dante-esque. Each point involves a shedding of himself. His iPhone goes. His Black Amex goes. His mind goes. His fragile dignity goes. He is reduced from one of the “Masters of the Universe” to a begging bum. Along the way he meets people he would never otherwise meet, and learns the difference between value and worth. At the same time, his put-upon wife is experimenting with adultery and contemplating divorce, while the whole time dealing with a child that cannot speak and parents that cannot shut up.
What does stay with him is his love of watches. It’s a clever conceit that the man who gambles, risks and chances his stupendously wealthy lifestyle is so besotted with instruments of precision. It also rhymes thematically with his son’s autism. A world of perfect regulation faces an unregulated and deranged reality.
Barry’s perpetual elegy is actually a kind of to-and-fro between his ghastly displays of ostentation and his need to be a good man and, more importantly, to be seen to be and acknowledged as a good man. True virtue is not in proclaiming how good you are. The hedge fund manager will have to learn, as Voltaire said in Candide, to cultivate his garden.
Stylistically, Shteyngart makes a quip a minute that would make a writer for The Simpsons tremble. Often they are on the tar and pitch side of black humour. During a period where he wonders if his ex ever took him seriously, he “wanted to punch someone, preferably a Nazi, but really anyone would do”. His nanny at home thinks about a perfect, blue, “9/11” sky. Madison Park is “an unwelcome reflection of her own mind” for one character, and another stays in an apartment with a “frigate-sized couch”, designed to let its owner judge the length of his latest potential conquest’s legs.
In some ways this is a book which poses a question. Is it possible to write satire when, any moment, it might be possible to wake up and find that the president had tweeted that he intends to paint the White House orange? It can be; but it only can be because of the undertow of sorrow in this kind of book. Although it is a kind of picaresque, where the exclusive meet the downtrodden, with a terrible humour around it, it is also a novel which tries to analyse why a certain person now governs a formerly respected country.
Perhaps the most provocative and horrific moment (emotionally) comes when one female character texts a lover with the word “grab my pussy”.
Lake Success builds on the work Shteyngart has already done, forensically unpicking the immigrant experience and the political hypocrisy of our age. It is laugh-out-loud funny, and deeply, deeply sad.
Book review: Lake Success, by Gary Shteyngart, Hamish Hamilton, £16.99