A deeply narcissistic anti-hero and his doomed hedge fund, a cross-country bus trip through middle America, 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management, and a Yale-educated lawyer turned affluent wife and mother: Lake Success is like a car accident—you can’t help but watch as everything bursts into flames.
Opening the novel is a very drunk Barry Cohen fleeing his life with nothing but face scratches from his wife and his son’s nanny, six rare watches in his suitcase, and a nostalgic memory of his college girlfriend, Layla. Before the Feds were investigating him for insider trading, before his 3-year-old son was pronounced “on the spectrum,” and before his wife, Seema, began to describe him as soulless and without imagination at dinner parties, Layla and Barry thrived at Princeton University. Hoping to get back in touch with himself and away from his life, Barry boards a Greyhound bus to Richmond, VA.
This book was both awesome and awful. Shteyngart takes us through Trump’s America as a passenger to Barry, whether we like it or not. (And trust me, we do not. If you’re wary of unlikable characters, you are going to hate this book.) Barry introduces us to a drug dealer named Javon, who gifts Barry a crack rock, a beautiful black girl named Brooklyn who idolizes the city she’s named after but has never visited, a sweet nine-year-old, who takes on the role of Barry’s idealized “normal” son, and many, many more characters. Along for the ride is Barry’s inability to remember women’s names, his grand plan to mentor and introduce poor boys to the world of watches, and his indescribable narcissism and superiority complex. The chapters flip back to Seema from time to time, who is alternating between running their autistic child Shiva’s life and trying to hide his diagnosis from her lover, who lives in the same building and writes niche books about immigrating to the United States.
Underneath the surface of this novel is a raw and fascinating portrayal of America. The author shows off the countries great contradictions: a sweet, generous girl who locks up Barry’s expensive prized possessions (his watches) and a stranger who will eventually steal them. The detached 1% in Barry and the Cohen’s social circle and a man who was fired from their world and can hold a mirror up to the egregious moral missteps of Barry’s career. Seema, who is realizing her role in the behavior leading up to Trump’s election, and the many “moderate Republicans” in her life. These contradictions make our country what it is, for better or for worse, and I think this book helps explain the political situation we have found ourselves in since the 2016 election.
Overall? There is so much to digest from this book. I’d love to go into a deep-dive on Barry’s obsession with watches and his friend practice, especially in comparison to his son Shiva’s obsession with the letter W and the way hands on a clock tick. Seema herself, who teeters on the edge of the affluent world, on the edge of the realities of living in America as an immigrant, and who teeters on the edge of being a mom, and in almost every way doesn’t fit in. I’d also like to think more about how 1% create their own detachment from the world, yet still run it. This would be an awesome book club book and I’ll be thinking about it long after I put it down.
If anyone has read anything else by this author, I’d love recommendations!
PUBLICATION DETAIILS: Random House, 352 pp., September 4, 2018, 978-0812997415. Literary Fiction -> Satire
Thank you for the free review copy of this book, Random House!