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Discontent of the one percent – ‘Lake Success’

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What if you looked around one day and saw all the success in the world … only it wasn’t what you wanted?

That’s the central question being asked by Barry Cohen, the protagonist of Gary Shteyngart’s new novel “Lake Success” (Random House, $28). It’s a story of discontent among the one percent, a look-in on the lives of people whose problems are both wildly different and oddly similar to our own. It’s also a sharp and whip-smart deconstruction of the American Dream – one in which the dreamer discovers that maybe they didn’t want it to come true after all.

The year is 2016. Barry Cohen is the manager of a hedge fund called This Side of Capital. He’s a money hustler from way back – a lower-middle-class kid made good - and has achieved a great degree of success in the financial arena; he takes pride in making sure you know that he oversees $2.4 billion in assets. However, he’s also under investigation by the SEC for some particularly shady financial doings. He’s also dealing with the recent autism diagnosis of his three-year-old son Shiva and the unfortunate impact that has had on his relationship with his wife Seema.

Rather than deal with the reality of his present situation, Barry decides to try and backtrack into the past. His thoughts keep returning a former girlfriend from his Princeton days, a time before the world got so complicated. He decides to go to her. Further romanticizing the notion, he decides that he’s going to see America – the REAL America - along the way: he’s going to travel by bus. And so he boards a Greyhound at Port Authority with nothing more than the cash in his wallet and a case containing the finest examples from his beloved wristwatch collection, abandoning his phone and credit cards so his movements can’t be tracked. He hits the road.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Seema is left to deal with the fallout of Barry’s departure. She’s a highly-educated and sophisticated woman (and first-generation American) who abandoned a promising law career when she took up with Barry. She’s handling Shiva on her own (well, with considerable help from the nanny and various therapists) and struggling to decide what she should do about her husband. Oh, and there’s a charismatic novelist in the picture who she may or may not be falling for, a situation that presents a whole new set of problems.

“Lake Success” unrolls as a remarkable back-and-forth, with our perspective shifting between Barry and Seema from chapter to chapter. We watch as bottled-up tension and resentment boils over, resulting in both of them doing things that they otherwise wouldn’t. Barry obsesses over a past that perhaps wasn’t as perfect as he remembers, while Seema dreads a future whose direction she can’t comfortably predict. And casting a shadow over the entire thing is a looming vision of what America is becoming at this particularly pivotal moment in time.

It’s relatively rare for literary fiction to be genuinely funny, but Shteyngart’s satirical edge is so well-honed that you’re surprised into laughter – even when the blade cuts deep. And there’s no shortage of targets; the narcissistic kleptocrats of the hedge fund world bear the brunt of Shteyngart’s humor, but there are plenty of other graveyards to whistle our way past. The corruption of masculinity, the misunderstanding of white privilege and racial divides, the smug self-satisfaction and slow downfall of the intelligentsia, the current state of political affairs – this book swings frequently and ferociously.

One might be tempted to file “Lake Success” in with the standard pretentious “rich guy protagonist on a journey to self-discovery” subgenre of literary fiction. Lord knows there are enough of those books out there. But here’s the thing – Shteyngart’s self-awareness and sense of humor help him subvert that formula even as he embraces it. It skates up to the edge of parody in spots – well-chosen spots, in my opinion – but it manages to maintain a level of seriousness without ever taking itself too seriously.

It’s a hell of a read, is what I’m saying.

Gary Shteyngart is one of the most gifted writers of his generation, possessed of a cortex-grabbing prose style and unparalleled satiric wit. This book is a perfect illustration of why those things are true. It is thought-provoking and relentless while also being narratively engaging; characters and ideas are treated with equal value, which is not always the case in literary fiction.

In short, “Lake Success” is, well … a success.

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