Saturday, September 1, 2018

Lake Success

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart
Penguin Random House: 9/4/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780812997415

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart is a highly recommended thought-provoking tale of a mid-life crisis.

Hedge-fund manager Barry Cohen has packed his suitcase full of expensive watches (and no change of clothes) and is running away from home via Greyhound. There are several reasons for Barry's exit: he is drunk; he had a fight with his wife, Seema; he is distressed over his son's diagnosis of autism; and he is facing a SEC investigation. His decision to run away  has turned into a goal of finding his old college sweetheart and creating a good story for his future biography. Barry is in parts self-deluded and self-important, but with an inferiority complex. He is out of touch with how regular Americans live, but he taught himself how to make friends when he was in junior high and these techniques that have served him well while making his millions should work when relating to regular people too. He even throws away his cell phone and credit cards. Barry's odyssey on Greyhound buses takes him across America, from New York City to Baltimore, Richmond, Raleigh, Atlanta, El Paso, Phoenix, and San Diego.

Seema is seething. She's angry at Barry's departure and is overwhelmed with their three-year-old son Shiva's diagnosis. She is a very intelligent younger woman and first generation Indian American who left her law career for Barry. Now she is trying to keep track of all the therapists who work with Shiva. She begins an affair with their downstairs neighbor, a writer named Luis Goodman. Barry and Seema were having dinner with Luis and his wife, Julianna, the evening of the fight with Seema that marked Barry's decision to leave.

The narrative follows both Barry and Seema's lives in alternating chapters. While writing about what they are experiencing, it is also clear that Shteyngart is capturing the basic inability it is for various people/groups to understand what others are enduring based on abilities, income, sex, race, age, profiling, success, etc. The bulk of Lake Success is set in the summer of 2016 just before Trump is elected President, so it also depicts the differences voiced by supporters on both sides of the political divide, with the main focus being pro- and anti-Trump discussions. It should also be noted that it appears that Barry himself is likely on the spectrum, undiagnosed and highly functioning, but still.

While well-written, I vacillated back and forth on how I actually felt about the story - after all I read books for entertainment, not just for the literary merit. Parts of the novel are very entertaining, heart-breaking, and revealing. There are funny and insightful moments. Other parts, much like the endless miles spent riding the bus, were a bit-too-drawn-out. Barry doesn't really experience growth on his Kerouac-like bus trip or come to any life-changing self-awareness.

We also have two imperfect characters and they are both struggling, although with very different questions.  It is difficult to see Barry leave his son with Seema for his own selfish misguided trip. He is, ultimately, a rather lost man who has too much wealth observing those around him. But on the other hand, Seema also does some selfish actions. I did love Seema's father and his connection to Shiva.  There is so much to this novel and I think I need some more thinking time before I settle on a final rating - one of the best of the year or just a very good novel. Hmmmm. I'm going with 4 stars for now just based on the general disagreeableness of the characters.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

No comments: