Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Lake Success

One consolation of Fascist regimes is great art, and I'm not hesitant to call Gary Shtyngart's Lake Success one of the great novels to emerge in these dark times.  Taking place mostly in the months before the 2016 election, the characters and motifs reflect the attitudes and atmosphere in America that led us to elect a swindling, racist, misogynist who can't even read the word "anonymous" off a teleprompter.

Shtyngart's anti-hero is Barry, the owner of a hedge fund, lover of watches, with "two feminine wrists, a liability at any point in history, but never more so than during the year 2016, at the start of the First Summer of Trump."  Barry's life in contemporary Manhattan, ruled by finance bros like himself in fleece vests, earning 2% of assets under management (AUM) whether they make money or lose it for their clients, is ideal, with the exception of his son, an child with autism who has never spoken and Barry is truly struggling to love.  One night, after his wife tells him he's neither a good father nor a good man, he hugs the child too vigorously, frightening him and terrifying his wife - he flees the apartment with a roller-bag and six of his favorite watches and jumps on a Greyhound, running away from his problems in New York, ostensibly toward an old college girlfriend in the American South.

That Shtyngart's describes both the Greyhound and the designer watches in such loving tones and hilarious detail speaks to his fondness for both institutions, however separate on the financial spectrum.  Barry yearns to prove his wife wrong, but he's so out of touch with the world outside his own that he fantasizes about starting a foundation with a young crack dealer he meets in Baltimore, "One that would help urban youth buy their first mechanical watch and learn to care for it." Shtyngart's descriptions of both watches and the Greyhound were, in fact, so precise that I began to wonder how much research he must have done to achieve the high level of specificity found in the book.  At first I thought he was pulling the descriptions of these watches from his imagination, but I googled a few and they were all real, much to my surprise (ie. a $60K "Crash" watch by Cartier, designed to look like it had survived a disaster).  It turns out Shteyngart is a long-time watch enthusiast - but what about the Greyhound? Turns out he took a similar journey to Barry's in the months before the election. In June, the New Yorker published a portion of the novel called "The Luck of Kokura" along with an interview with Shteyngart that sheds some light on this. (There's also an enlightening article and some beautiful pics of his second house north of NYC in the Times.)

Like many people, I want to find a comparison between the author's personal life and the characters in their novels. So I couldn't help but perk my ears when I read that GS is married to a Korean-American lawyer and they have a small child, similar to another character in the book.  I've written about autofiction before, and how women have long been accused of blending their personal lives into their art.  I find it interesting that, as more men are writing in this style (ie Karl Ove KnausgÃ¥rd, who I refuse to read for purely obstinate reasons) it's gaining some literary cachet.

Mini-Spoilers Ahead

While Barry's trip "on the 'Hound" brings him into physical proximity with people in lower economic status than himself (he loves bragging that a one-eyed Mexican fell asleep on his shoulder), he remains emotionally aloof to the lifestyles and struggles of Middle-America for most of his journey.  Only when forcing his way into the home of his ex-girlfriend and her son does he begin to relate to the life of the "common" American, and finally, the reader is able to somewhat relate to Barry.  It becomes apparent that Barry himself is "on the spectrum" (the words more commonly used to describe his own son).  Barry's ex works at a community college in Texas where the working-class students are making real sacrifices to educate themselves, while she and Barry had the privilege of attending Princeton where their path and trajectory to success were practically etched in stone. She and her colleagues are also making sacrifices - money, any fame, even death-threats from #MAGA assholes on Twitter.

However Barry might slightly redeem himself, I had to wonder as I got nearer the end of the book how in the world Shteyngart could wrap it up?  What resolution or restitution could Barry possibly perform to find his way into the graces of his wife and son and the reading audience?  Without giving away the ending, which reminded me quite a lot of the end of Jennifer Egan's Visit from the Goon Squad, he finds a remarkable way of not only humanizing Barry but creating in him a (somewhat) sympathetic character.   I found the ending deeply, deeply moving.
"Things could be fixed.Barry could fix them."


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