A Human Is Not a Remora: A Review of Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success

by Dave Hurlow

Dave Hurlow is the author of the short story collection Hate Letters From Buddhists. His writing has appeared previously in The Puritan, NOW and Scope Magazine. Dave also plays bass in a band called Andrew La Tona & The Nightshades and leads creativity workshops for kids and adults through Story Planet, a Toronto-based nonprofit. His first novel, Deep Sea Feline, is more or less finished and he hopes you can read it soon. Dave has never read a word of Proust outside of a hot bath and is more than halfway finished.

Lake Success
Gary Shteyngart
Random House
2018, 352 pp., $37.00

 

Hedge-fund managers are like remoras—those fish that attach themselves to whales and hitch a ride. They get to travel all over the ocean and mostly live off the excrement of their host. Hedge-fund managers are more accustomed to ingesting whale eggs than whale shit, but in the metaphor, the shit is the profit from a good bet on equity. In the finance world, hedge funders are celebrated as indispensable rain-makers—even when they fail spectacularly, they seem to pop up in a similar gig after an obligatory disgrace period. Picture it thus: if a remora’s host whale is doing great, the other fish think: Wow! What a smart remora, he sure picked a great whale! If the remora’s whale is attacked by sharks, or gets sick and dies, the fish think: Poor remora, how could he have known that whale was doomed? As long as there are whales around, you can be sure that remoras will glom onto them.

This scene of oceanic anthropomorphism popped into my head about a hundred pages into Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Lake Success. Barry Cohen, the novel’s protagonist, has abandoned his wife, Seema, and their autistic child, Shiva, in Manhattan, to reconnect with his college sweet-heart in New Mexico. Barry’s preferred method of transportation is a Greyhound bus, which he imagines will deliver an authentic encounter with America. His spontaneity feels forced, however, and rather than giving himself over to the moment he tries to figure out what Ginsberg or Cassady would do if this were On the Road.

Lake Success’ narrative is cleft in twain right from the start, shifting between the perspectives of its two main characters. Seema—an ambitious lawyer turned hedge-fund wife—takes care of Shiva and kindles an affair with her handsome, socialist neighbour. Barry—a charismatic hedge-fund manager and luxury watch savant—travels the country getting drunk, trying to convince people to like him and concocting methods of salvation for specific individuals (a Baltimore crack dealer, his college sweetheart’s nerdy son) and also for everyone (he wants to start a nonprofit that empowers at-risk kids by teaching them about expensive watches).

Shortly after Barry departs, Seema recalls their early courtship and her misgivings, which she assuaged by Googling his net worth and telling herself, “A man that rich couldn’t be stupid.” In the present, this is amended with, “Or… was that the grand fallacy of twenty-first century America?”

For most of the novel, we are stuck with Barry’s self-obsessed stream of consciousness, which fixates on material wealth and blunders hypnotically through taboos of class, gender and race. He resents his autistic son; he’s under investigation for insider trading; he shares a $33,000 bottle of Japanese whisky with his neighbour as an act of aggression. What emerges is a mostly despicable character whose depth and humanity are buried beneath a striving, sociopathic persona. In short, Barry is a character who perfectly parallels present-day America.

 

Gary Shteyngart’s spent most of his career writing satirical, ominous novels built around neurotic Russian-Americans (Shteyngart is Russian-American), like the critically-acclaimed Super Sad True Love Story (2010). He stumbled onto the subject matter of Lake Success as if by accident: Living in Manhattan, he slowly watched his friends from the creative middle-class trickle out of town, to be replaced by athletic, clean-shaven folks who worked in finance. Out of curiosity—and also, perhaps, because there was no one else to hang out with—he befriended these strangers and learned about their lives.

Despite Barry’s many faults, you could not call him boring; he is dynamic, unpredictable and sometimes likeable in the way that fictional scoundrels often are.

Firmly embedded in Wall Street social circles, Shteyngart decided he would write a novel about a finance guy. He told a finance guy’s wife his intention. “Why would you do that?” she asked him; “Bankers have no imagination.” The statement felt like a challenge and strengthened his resolve: “I would find hedge funders worth writing about or invent my own,” he wrote in The New Yorker.

Despite Barry’s many faults, you could not call him boring; he is dynamic, unpredictable and sometimes likeable in the way that fictional scoundrels often are. His inexhaustible efforts to help people may stem from an unhealthy need for validation—a pathology so deep it could put an analyst’s kid through Princeton—but it still lends him a much-needed dollop of human warmth. The abrupt abandonment of his wife and disabled son is objectively ugly, but Barry partially dispatches the guilt by throwing in his lot with the zeitgeist of the nation, observing that “Starting over was what half of the country seemed to desperately want.”

Lake Success is set in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election and the thick, pugnacious mood of that period feels like a phantom character. Fellow Canadians will surely recall the cloud of despair that drifted over the border and hung stubbornly in the atmosphere around that time. Part of the problem seemed to lie in a perception that the American Dream was dead. Part of it was that people felt misunderstood. The failure of either political party to produce a relatable candidate further deflated morale and suggested that America’s collective imagination could not conceive of the 21st century; that America could not change.

As Barry encounters various passengers on the Greyhound, his fiercely intellectual ex-girlfriend, a clique of optimistic Republican boy-hipsters and an obese woman named Flores who serves him free breakfast and tells him “nothing your fault,” it feels like Barry is meeting shadow aspects of himself on a tour of his own subconscious. Incidentally—or likely by design—these interactions paint a vivid picture of the current American psyche, a frightening structure that could not be expanded or repaired in its current condition.

Along with most of his compatriots, Barry yearns for an elusive metamorphosis. But rather than genuinely opening himself up to experience, he instinctually seeks to commodify his journey in order to give the impression of having had a transformative experience. This aggressive maneuvering of the ego precludes the possibility of an authentic transformation. Upon arriving at his ex-girlfriend Layla’s house, he declares his desire to change, like a boy scout. She rebuffs him with a cynical nugget: “Nobody changes.” The statement’s a false platitude, but Layla comes through shortly after with an authentic zinger: “You go around and you do things and you don’t know why you do them… And that’s the story of your gender writ large.”

In most popular representations, the American Dream involves achieving material wealth by outperforming other people, ideally in a way that involves flamboyant self-expression. But Barry’s quest for success in the vapid universe of finance is not a finite task like climbing a mountain, and it’s impossible for him to know when to halt the ascent. As a result, he’s sacrificed self-expression (the only good part of The Dream) for a generic blend of striving and status. If he could just slow down and see the damage he’s inflicted on himself and others, he might be able to change course, but the ethos of America is that everyone should go faster and never slow down.

Barry’s spent most of his life trying to staunch childhood wounds with staggering financial success—his mom walked out; his dad called him mean names in Yiddish—but this method of hurling himself into the future to avoid the past is inevitably futile and self-destructive. For the hyper-competitive Barries of the world, who justify their lifestyles with aggressive, unrelenting work, there’s a danger that they’ll bury the hurt that fuels them and then act out in ways that are incomprehensible to themselves and others.

Students of life and fans of realism will appreciate Shteyngart’s depiction of the complexity and stubbornness of self-destructive tendencies.

For a reasonably smart guy like Barry, there’s a further danger rooted in the fact that, on some level, he must know that his livelihood has harmful, wide-reaching ramifications. The cognitive dissonance of telling yourself over and over that you’re a good person while fucking up the world big-time is inevitably going to produce a dark, chaotic vibe. In a tender moment of clarity, Barry reveals a longing to turn back the clock and defang the insecurity that’s dictated his life’s course: “If only someone had told his younger self that he would grow up okay, that his father was wrong, that he wasn’t a schnorrer or a shegetz or a gonif.” His vague desire to banish the chaotic vibe is no match for the strength of his old patterns of doing things and not knowing why he does them.

Students of life and fans of realism will appreciate Shteyngart’s depiction of the complexity and stubbornness of self-destructive tendencies. A shot at easy redemption is never really on the table for Barry, nor is the author toying with him like some pathetic Humbert Humbert. Rather, Barry can only deliver earnest goodwill unto himself and others to the extent that he is capable, which, for the gross majority of the novel is not very. The epilogue, which covers a large swathe of time in not so many pages, mercifully releases us from the thick 2016 mood and finally reveals Barry as a multidimensional character. Shteyngart’s finale reminds me of Dick Diver’s fate, recounted in the last few pages of Tender Is the Night—Barry finally manages to become a character from a book he adores, just not the one he wanted. He’s allowed to live out his post-finance days in comfort, presumably reading Hemingway novels on the Hudson.

 

In exchange for suffering through Barry’s incorrigible, gonif-like behaviour, Shteyngart offers the reader Seema’s tale, which details a course correction of a life gone astray. Seema’s parents are Tamil immigrants who came to America as teenagers and settled in the mid-west. Rather than material wealth, Seema is conditioned from a young age to seek social capital as a means of transcending her perceived ethnic shortcoming. In her freshman year of high school, her mother draws a chart depicting the social acceptability of her friends: “Tamils hovered several blank spaces above Hispanics, who themselves rested on the shoulders of the blacks.” Despite Seema’s dismissive response to these lessons, it’s implied that they’ve insidiously sculpted her desire to become one with the cosmopolitan elites—a desire that led to marrying Barry, which led to the birth of a son with autism, Shiva.

Without Shiva, there is no conflict and no story. The emergence of a problem that cannot be solved with money drives a wedge between the couple and leads directly to Barry’s meltdown. It also poses an interesting question that would never occur to Barry: is an unconventional experience of the world less valid, or simply different? For Barry, the idea that his son won’t go to Princeton and become a square-jawed, back slapping swim champ is an injustice of the highest order—an injustice that warrants hitting the reset button. Rather than rising to the occasion and entertaining the possibility that his son may still have a meaningful life, Barry wilts and leaves the responsibility to Seema.

Seema and Shiva clearly don’t need Barry. Society doesn’t need guys like Barry. And yet—barring a Soylent Green scenario—it’s tough to know what to do with these guys. There’s an apocryphal tale related to the harrowing of hell in which Jesus, having just zapped a gaggle of souls up to Paradise, reassures a despondent personification of the Inferno that “mighty ones, rulers, great judges and rich men will come to you from all parts, and you will be as full as ever unto ages of ages.”

Setting aside the fact that storybook hell doesn’t exist, I’d posit that corrupt, emotionally stunted people are already locked up in a living hell. To win at a trivial game of one-upmanship that goes against common sense and safeguards the suffering of others can only feel good in the most limited and superficial sense. The “free society” humans have haphazardly developed may reward the deeds of villains, but it also punishes them by freezing their public images and inducing existential paralysis. You’ve seen Trumps and Kavanaughs and Murdochs on TV; do they look like they know how to chill out and enjoy life? Barry Cohen is no Donald Trump, granted, but the sociopathic tendencies perpetually reinforced by his “winning” more or less ruin his life, leaving a trail of collateral damage in his wake.

It’s worth pointing out that a human is not a remora. We are not entirely slaves to our nature, and our fates are not decided by the migration patterns of whales. In humanizing a hedge-fund manager and giving him just enough self-determination to get out of the whale game before it destroys his soul, Shteyngart artfully shows us how the neurosis of solipsistic greed might ruin the life of a guy who’s not entirely awful.

In the end, Barry changes, but it’s not so much a heroic triumph as a weary surrender: he has a phantom stroke at JFK while staring at the departures screen and decides to change his life. He considers becoming a writer, bails, becomes a full-time watch geek—which proves to be as unfulfilling as it sounds—and finally ends up as a tired old blob of well-meaning confusion. In the novel’s final pages, he does a nice, selfless thing for his son—now a young man—and cracks wide open with compassion and relief. For such a wretched Shteyngart protagonist, it’s a generous gift: a really nice moment of untainted happiness.

 


Dave Hurlow is the author of the short story collection Hate Letters From Buddhists. His writing has appeared previously in The Puritan, NOW and Scope Magazine. Dave also plays bass in a band called Andrew La Tona & The Nightshades and leads creativity workshops for kids and adults through Story Planet, a Toronto-based nonprofit. His first novel, Deep Sea Feline, is more or less finished and he hopes you can read it soon. Dave has never read a word of Proust outside of a hot bath and is more than halfway finished.

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