Gary Shteyngart Takes On The Trump Era (Again)
Gary Shteyngart was writing about Trump all along, and we didn’t know it. Consider the contents of his novels: Russian oligarchs undermining foreign governments for obscure reasons; the rotund failsons of the mega-rich, their gross bodies engorged on unimaginable luxury; the blurring borders between politics and multi-level marketing; and, despite ever-increasing inequality and the threat of fascism, the petty viciousness of elite culture. These world-historical facts and personages, which we encountered in his novels as farce, now appear a second time as tragedy, that is, as headlines in The New York Times.
So his new novel, “Lake Success,” which tackles Trump, sometimes feels oddly redundant. Weren’t “Absurdistan” and “Super Sad True Love Story” already his Trump novels? Unlike these others, “Lake Success” is explicitly a Trump novel. Against the background of the 2016 presidential election, it narrates the collapse and reconstruction of Barry Cohen, a fabulously rich New York financier. At the novel’s start, Barry’s hedge fund faces financial ruin and a federal investigation, both the result of failed insider-trading. Meanwhile, his marriage is crumbling under the stress of a severely autistic son. So Barry, ditching his cellphone, credit card, and cushy life, hops aboard a bus to see America.
In the first scene, Barry, bleeding from wife- and nanny-inflicted wounds, staggers into a decrepit Port Authority. He is not a sympathetic man, but he is symptomatic: of a certain benign, blundering misogyny (in a repeating gag, he cannot remember the name of any woman over forty), which has suddenly, unexpectedly become passé; of an unquestioned, numerological faith in markets (Barry loves the exact mechanisms and ticking precision of fabulously overpriced watches, the fetish-objects of financial capitalisms); of a political and psychological cocoon, constructed by incredible wealth, which, intended to cushion and swaddle Barry and his family, instead smothers them, disconnecting them from any reality. Can this man, and this pathology, be cured? Is there hope for America, or at least, for its investment bankers?
Probably not. As Barry proceeds on his picaresque journey, his delusive, goodhearted narcissism repeatedly and depressingly defeats the possibility that he might learn something. Some of the incidents are pretty funny. On a visit to Baltimore, for instance, Barry revels in being threatened by Javon, a black, teenage drug dealer (“So this was America” he thinks), before wandering across a bus full of blonde-haired, German tourists on a “Wire”-themed trip. Their absurd, ugly fetish for Black culture complements his; Barry wanders off fantasizing that he will offer Javon business consulting and mentoring.
He is constantly offering this misguided, patronizing care. Spending time with his college girlfriend, who has become a radical college professor and battles alt-right trolls on the internet, he wants to insulate her, to protect her, to wrap her in his male womb of money and privilege. Barry at once gushes feelings and seems insulated from emotion. He is overwhelmed by waves of false sympathy for the unfortunates he encounters and fleeting moments of ecstatic connection with his neighbors. After doing crack at a bus stop, he welcomes an “overweight handicapped man in his sixties” onto the bus and listens to a mother celebrating a child’s birthday on the Greyhound. Like other Shteyngart protagonists, Barry can feel and commune profusely, but that sentiment always remains insulated from reality, incapable of grounding an ethical life.
Meanwhile, back in New York, Barry’s Indian-America wife Seema is on her own journey of exploration. She starts sleeping with an ethnically ambiguous, sexually prodigious novelist; his wife, in a moment of great pathos, connects with Seema and Barry’s autistic son Shiva where a legion of doctors, therapists, and counselors have failed. Seema’s plot is awkward and forced. It occupies just enough space to distance Shteyngart plausibly from Barry’s blithe androcentrism (Barry names his hedge fund “This Side of Capital,” and he thinks fiction reached its peak in the manly modernism of Hemingway and Fitzgerald). Yet neither good jokes nor heightened prose appear in her sections, and the novel’s final sign-off almost writes her out of the plot.
That’s a shame: she is intrinsically more interesting than Barry. The trouble with financiers as protagonists is always that money is abstract. If your protagonist makes his fortune in clothing, you can show him monkeying with sewing machines, palpating samples of suede, and inspecting the stitching on the finished product; if he is in agriculture, tasting the soil for chalkiness or teaching his workers how to trellis vines. The banker, by contrast, trades not in material stuff, replete with the details realist fiction loves, but in numbers, symbols, scratches in a ledger-book or flashes on a computer screen. Moreover, the good investor, like a chameleon, temporarily absorbs the characteristics of his investment. As infinitely plastic and protean as a Zen monk, he is assiduously open to enlightenment (that is, “value”) where he finds it. A man without qualities, he ideally takes on the blandness and fungible liquidity of money itself. The secret of Warren Buffett is that he is the dullest man in America: how do you write a novel about that?
And indeed, there is something phoned-in about, for instance, Barry’s collection of luxury watches. You can see the gears working in Shteyngart’s mind, as he realizes the character is thin on detail and needs an idiosyncratic tic or passion. But the exorbitantly priced watches are literarily cheap. Moreover, Shteyngart is an honest satirist, and he will not let Barry achieve much real purchase on American politics or culture. Rather, Barry floats along, barely chastened and always brightly optimistic, the innocent capitalist. And yet, America’s poor and wretched seem to exist for him largely as unpaid tutors in remedial emotional intelligence.
As hot takes go, this seems about right. Despite all the histrionics, Trump’s America functions primarily as a melodramatic masque for America’s moneyed men and women. In one of the novel’s sharpest moments, Seema, who is piously liberal, admits to herself that she enjoys Trump’s antics, which offer her an escapist release from her difficult husband and son. The financial elite goes on bankrolling the Republican party, having insulated themselves from all dangers. Such people have nothing to offer in the battle against Trumpism, and a Trump novel about them is doomed to be fairly despairing. Hope, Orwell wrote, is with the proles. Well, maybe or maybe not, but it sure isn’t anywhere else.