By Gary Shteyngart
Good Reads Rating: 3.68 out of 5
GL Rating: 6 out of 11
I picked up Lake Success with modest expectations, based on my recollections of Absurdistan, which I either put down without finishing or finished with ambivalence. I wanted to have a crack at Shteyngart’s latest to see how it fared relative to his earlier work.
Lake Success traces travails of a hedge-fund owner, Barry Cohen, and his family as they struggle with Barry’s legal problems and their son’s medical issues.
TLDR: Better than “OK,” but somewhat short of “good.” Lake Success has an aggressively middle-brow sensibility. it’s not a daring or inventive work. To its credit, it is competent, occasionally moving, and consistently entertaining; a picaresque page-turner guilty pleasure that I inhaled in four days.
Part of the allure stems from the book’s gossipy, voyeuristic qualities. The behind-the-scenes glimpses of high-end lives in New York’s high-end apartments are fluent, credible, and titillating.
LS also should be commended for sifting through the complexities of race and identity without stepping in the proverbial dog crap. The cast of characters reflects the city’s and the country’s diversity, and Shteyngart clearly did the homework writers need to do if they are writing across cultures.
I can also reveal that Success makes very good use of a group of German tourists and has a pretty inspired sex scene.
Success repeatedly points to other novels, particularly Gatsby, On The Road, and The Sun Also Rises. Other than attempting to situate his tale in a broader context, I’m not entirely sure what the objective was, but it felt belabored. LS perhaps makes more subtle references to The Odyssey, via frequent mentions of a one-eyed Mexican passenger on a bus and a well-stocked cave (an ex-employee’s dope crib in Atlanta). Although who knows, maybe sometimes a one-eyed Mexican passenger is just a one-eyed Mexican passenger.
Lake Success suffers from several deficiencies. First, Shteyngart is not a first-rate noticer of details, nor is he a visual writer. Descriptions of places and physical settings are functional, not inspired. The narrative itself, as mentioned above, is very conventional, which is fine if you don’t mind a story that doesn’t take chances with the form. Regarding character development, as with acting, good characters in literature are believable; great characters are both believable and full of surprises. The characters in Success fall into the former category.
There is also a vaguely superficial and disposable quality to the book; the protagonist’s emotional and spatial journeys feel like a bit of a lark. He’s a teflon, Peter Pan-esque figure.
The book was written shortly after a number of the 2016 campaign events it depicts. Success draws liberally on the particulars of the 2016 presidential race: 538.com, Pepe the Frog, Marco Rubio, etc. The political component, however, feels a bit like window-dressing.
The challenge with that kind of proximity to the events at hand is that you write without much perspective on them, and you run the risk of producing a book that feels dated 10 years later. Trump’s victory does play into the story, but maybe it’s nibbling at the edges too much when it should have been more central.