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Bonfire of the Bathroom Vanities

Joanna Neborsky
Gary Shteyngart

The rambunctious satires of Gary Shteyngart have previously had one foot rooting around the real-life New York City, the other foot dug into the rubble and riches of post-Soviet republics or the oddly similar rubble and riches of an imaginary dystopian New York. In The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, his first novel, he describes Vladimir Girshkin on his twenty-fifth birthday as divided almost evenly between there and here: “He had lived in Russia for twelve years, and then there were the thirteen years spent here. That was his life—it added up.” Over the course of the novel, Vladimir seeks love and success in both worlds, from the smooth, pious liberality of his girlfriend’s Upper East Side parents to the cheerful greed and brutality of a tracksuited bunch of Russian mobsters in an Eastern European city based on Prague.

In Absurdistan, Shteyngart’s next book, the hero is, like Vlad, born in the Soviet Union and educated in the US. Misha, a “buttery” 325 pounds and the son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, loves rap and a girl who describes herself as “half Puerto Rican. And half German. And half Mexican and Irish. But I was raised mostly Dominican.” Like Vladimir, Misha is a man of the old world and the new.

The hero of Shteyngart’s third novel, Super Sad True Love Story, was born in a New York City that turns him into an immigrant in his own home. The text-message epistolary novel takes place in a future New York that has imploded into an authoritarian regime, the authority in question being money.

In Lake Success, his new novel, Shteyngart has shifted to recognizably American soil, specifically the United States that rolls beneath the wheels of a Greyhound bus. Barry Cohen is a hedge-fund manager who escapes his obscenely wealthy New York life by running off on a red-state road trip. It is just before the 2016 presidential election. And because of the timing, the geography of the South and the West, the political references, and the poor and middle-class people Barry meets on his travels, Lake Success presents itself as a book about America. But Barry is just a tourist in America. Lake Success is really a New York story, and a good one.

New York towers avariciously above the other places Barry visits, the moral squalor of its Wall Street elite meticulously rendered. Barry gauges his place in the world with the precision of the rare watches he collects, and measures his rise quite literally floor by floor of the building where he lives, in a condo just one floor below Rupert Murdoch’s. During dinner with neighbors—on the lowly third floor—Barry looks up their two-bedroom apartment on Zillow to see how much they paid for it: a mere $3,800,000, less than a fifth the price he paid for his floor-through place high above.

Barry is not a nice guy, and like most of Shteyngart’s heroes his obnoxious qualities are so complete and so overwhelming as to create an almost sympathetic innocence and naiveté. His self-centered inhumanity is part of what humanizes him for the reader. He has had to work not only at getting rich but also at cultivating an acceptable personality: as a kid he practiced his “friend moves” in front of the mirror so successfully that he is known now as “the friendliest dude on the Street.” His wife, Seema, trained as a lawyer but, in the way of the new-age trophy wife, leaving her career behind, describes him as “that boyish, goofy, preprogrammed, backslapping, Tiger Inn, let’s-be-friends, one-of-the-guys bullshit Barry.” But she also sees “the desperately struggling, scared-of-getting-it-wrong, always-on-the-lookout-for-hurt Barry. Or maybe they were one and the same.”

The third-floor apartment Barry is so curious about and contemptuous of belongs to Julianna, a doctor who has made friends with Seema in the lobby, and her husband, Luis, a writer (“I’m what they call a ‘writer’s writer’”) whose sales rankings (1,123,340) Barry has already checked out on Amazon. Luis affects a certain cynicism, but Shteyngart does not excuse him from the city’s ludicrous social climbing. Luis complacently explains the discrepancy between his low book sales and his condo as the result of lecturing for $20,000 a pop: “You do fifty of those a year, and, well, a million bucks ain’t a lot in New York these days, but you’re at least welcomed into the anthills of the one percent.”

Barry notices there is no art in the apartment except a vintage Spanish-language James Bond poster:

It didn’t have the uniqueness or value of Seema’s Miró or the neglected Calder in their library, but it was a found object that signaled that the writer had an identity. It didn’t matter if it was invented. He had invented it. He was the fucking writer! That’s what he did.

Writer, hedge-fund manager—they are both assholes.

Shteyngart understands both Barry and Luis with that Shteyngartian eye for weakness, for posing, for fraud. “Luis was still on some kind of meta-riff about both candidates being sleaze,” he writes delightedly, “even though he said it was costing him Twitter followers.”

Seema ends up having an affair with Luis, but by then Barry is long gone. He has run away from home (where he terrified his wife and young child with a violent outburst) and is on the lam (he’s under investigation for insider trading). He throws away his phone and his credit cards and, like a hobo on a freight train, rides through the South with nothing but $200 and a suitcase filled with priceless watches. In Atlanta, he looks up a former employee, a young man named Jeff Park who was fired a few years ago (he had accidentally omitted a minus sign in an Excel spreadsheet, costing the firm $150 million). Jeff is doing fine now, to Barry’s confused surprise. A big financial fish in the relatively small pond of Atlanta, Jeff lives close to his parents in a floor-through apartment that would cost ten times as much in New York. When he isn’t making money at his computer he works out and drives fabulous cars. The Wall Street dream life. And he’s happy enough to be able to understand that he’s been lucky. Barry’s been lucky, too, he says:

“You found yourself working in the right industry at the right time. No regulation. All the leverage you could eat from the banks. I’m not even going to mention the insider trading that’s just part of being in the old boys’ club…. Hey, I’m not knocking what we do,” Jeff said. “It takes smarts. But so much of it is luck. You execute one good trade, and people will listen to everything you say for the next five years.”

But Barry disagrees. “All I know is I never had any advantages,” he tells the Korean-American he still thinks is Chinese. “I wasn’t even lucky enough to be born to immigrant parents.”

His wife, however, was. Seema’s mother is that most wonderful thing, a Gary Shteyngart mother, a formidable first-generation mother seething with love, unerring in her cruelty. In The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, the mother is a Russian Jew. In Absurdistan, she is Korean. In Lake Success, she is Tamil. In every case, she is a wonder, a monster of cold, smothering love. When Seema calls her mother for comfort in the midst of her sadness and abandonment, she says, “Oh Mommy…I wish you would say a nice thing right now.”

“Try to be a better daughter,” her mother said.

“That’s not a nice thing.”

“Nice is not my specialty. Call your father if you want to hear something nice.”

“Can you tell me you love me?”

“That you should know already.”

“What if I don’t? What if I got bonked on the head and had amnesia or something? Like in that Tamilian movie. Whatever. Something.”

Seema could hear her mother start up her car again. “Is that what happened to you, Seema-konde? Because that would explain a lot.”

“That’s what happened to me.”

“Then fine,” she said. “Then I love you.”

When Seema first told her mother she was going to marry Barry, her mother treated it as her due, “like it was one of two acceptable choices, a white-shoe law firm partnership being the other one.” And Seema remembers how, when she was younger, her mother

would hover over her bed at all hours of the day and night (good luck finding the word “privacy” in Tamil), imparting all those ludicrous and painful life lessons. Freshman year in high school she had drawn Seema a chart of the social acceptability of her friends. Jews and WASPs fared at the very top, one had “money (increasing),” the other “social power (decreasing).” The Asians were separated into several tranches, with the Japanese—who had bought up so much of our country just the previous decade—leading the pack. Tamils hovered several blank spaces above Hispanics, who themselves rested on the shoulders of blacks.

The precarious footing of the immigrant and the ugly parochialism it engenders are never far from Shteyngart’s work, and among his great gifts are his intimate descriptions of how violently they distort motherly love. Here is a passage from The Russian Debutante’s Handbook:

“Vladimir, how can I say this? Please don’t be cross with me. I know you’ll be cross with me, you’re such a soft young man. But if I don’t tell you the truth, will I be fulfilling my motherly duties? No, I will not. The truth then…” She sighed deeply, an alarming sigh, the sigh of exhaling the last doubt, the sigh of preparing for battle. “Vladimir,” she said, “you walk like a Jew.”

“What?”

What? The anger in his voice. What? he says. What? Walk back to the window now. Just walk back to the window. Look at your feet. Look carefully. Look at how your feet are spread apart. Look at how you walk from side to side. Like an old Jew from the shtetl. Little Rebbe Girshkin.”

Seema is a different kind of mother, and her child, Shiva, is different too. Three years old and recently diagnosed with autism, Shiva is part of the reason Barry ran away. Seema and Barry have kept “the diagnosis” secret from everyone, but when Julianna, the doctor from the third floor, insists on bringing Arturo, her own ostentatiously cute three-year-old, to play, Seema’s new friend figures it out. One of the few unquestionably decent characters in the novel (she is a doctor who is doing research on the Zika virus), Julianna is not only unfazed by the screaming child banging his head against the wall, she is able to calm him, to touch him, to teach her own little boy to appreciate Shiva. The big bouncy ball and the horsehair brush, telltale signs of therapy, are novelties, interesting new toys for Arturo. And Seema watches with relief, and a new confusion:

Seema breathed in and out, in and out, with great force, the way she had been taught by a meditation app she had abandoned a few months ago, because it had only made her more anxious. So now what? She had made a new friend and was sleeping with that new friend’s husband. Her disabled child had made friends with the woman’s son, also her lover’s son…. Where would it all end? And where the fuck was Barry?

Barry is in San Antonio trying to rekindle a college love affair; he is trying to connect with his college girlfriend’s son, to teach the withdrawn boy to swim and to come up with his own “friend moves,” just as Barry did as a lonely child. “I don’t like friends,” Jonah tells him, something Barry understands all too well. He is trying to carve out a life that will work better than the one he left behind, but his fantasies for a more authentic life are just that, fantasies, standing in for real hopes and real dreams, the way his “friend moves” stood in for friendliness. His dream of a happy family, after all, involves three children brushing their teeth at a long, custom-built vanity with three sinks. Not three children, but three children at three sinks. The material expression of love and family has swallowed both love and family for Barry.

Shteyngart offers Barry’s shallow materialism as an illustration of America’s malaise, not news to anyone since Tocqueville, or Trollope’s mother. But he always rescues himself with detail, and the three sinks, one after the other, is an image so preposterously empty of the beauty of family that it is touching.

When Barry does finally come back to New York, Seema explains,

in essence, that she didn’t like what Barry was. Not who, but what. We lived in a country that rewarded its worst people. We lived in a society where the villains were favored to win…. How could people who didn’t live in a Central Park West penthouse believe in anything anymore?…

“Oh, honey,” she said, “can’t you see what’s around you? You’re not Shiva. You don’t have excuses. You’re a man who makes tons of money while the world goes to shit around you. You make money because the world goes to shit around you. In the end, that’s who you are.”

That’s a heavy load for any one character to carry, and it is something of a miracle that we feel any sympathy for Barry at all. But we do. That is the magic of melancholy.

Festering corruption is a given in a Shteyngart novel, but more important are the festering emotions of the people forced to live, and even prosper, in his flamboyantly tainted landscapes. Lake Success follows someone trying to find an answer, a simpler and purer life. But the novel is not about simplicity or purity at all. It is about complications, tangles and knots, muddied expectations and outcomes. Emotions ripple any surface, shudder against conflicting emotions, leaving waves of questions and doubt. Seema’s response to her child is as nuanced, as alive, as Barry’s watches are not. Barry “couldn’t live without their insistent ticking and the predictable spin of their balance wheels, that golden whir of motion and light inside the watch that gave it the appearance of having a soul.” That balanced movement, tiny and delicate but tied so intimately to the grand movements of the earth itself, has cracked. There is no predictability or order in the real world of real wives and real children on the spectrum.

Unlike Barry, Seema is ultimately able to make her peace with the wayward nature of reality. She tells her parents about the diagnosis, and they come to live with her, her mother loudly blaming Barry for everything and her father stubbornly working with Shiva’s obsessive behavior rather than against it. The big gold W of the W Hotel, which Shiva stares at? His grandfather makes a W with his fingers and touches Shiva’s hand:

Now…they would chart their way through Manhattan by following an endless series of signs with Ws, Walgreens being the ultimate beacon by which Shiva could navigate, although McDonald’s arches also appeared to be an upside-down W as far as the young speller was concerned…. It used to be she would ask herself: Who is my son? What’s in his head? Well, now she knew. W was in his head…. If she had to see the world as being either in service to her son or not, then that’s how she would see the world. She should put up the Internet ad right away: “Not-yet-divorced wife of missing husband seeks man to be peripheral to her disabled son. Must be at least five foot ten.”

Barry, meanwhile, is in a bus station in Phoenix, his suitcase with all his watches stolen, holding a cardboard sign:

THEY STOLE ALL MY MONEY.

I HAVE AN AUTISTIC SON.

PRAYING FOR A MIRACLE.

ANY LITTLE BIT HELPS!

☺GOD BLESS YOU☺

Shteyngart writes about the details of failure: economic, romantic, filial, and, perhaps most strikingly, physical. He describes urban landscapes as if they are alive, like the “contorted insect of a building, its chimney pumping effluent into the night” in Absurdistan; or breathing sorry music like “the ugly gigantism…of a collection of buildings that, with their rows of balconies on both ends, resembled soot-covered accordions” in Super Sad True Love Story. If his cities are pictured in all their dark, pulpy corporeality, the bodies of his characters are equally sordid, and treated similarly as landscapes swollen or shrunken with meaning.

It’s interesting that Barry, unlike his predecessors, exhibits physical charm. He is tall and broad-shouldered with a swimmer’s physique. He smiles. There is the merest mention of an incipient bald spot. Shteyngart’s other men, fat and oily and, for good measure, buttery like Misha in Absurdistan, or sweaty with hideous feet like Lenny in Super Sad True Love Story, or waddling shamefully on Jew feet like Vlad in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, are the satirical, fleshly manifestations of failure, matched by the politically and socially satirical decrepitude of buildings crumbling and sinking into politically, ethically polluted mud.

Failure has a stink, and Shteyngart’s prose sniffs out the physically grotesque with an almost unseemly joy. His satire shakes as resplendently as Misha’s belly. His plots are clammy, fantastical, a snarl of personal and political absurdity. If he is often overwrought, and he is, he is also sharp and refined in his understanding of self-consciousness. Lake Success is moodier, less showy than his earlier novels, closer in tone to Little Failure, his brilliant, funny, heartbreaking memoir. Barry may be a man with many millions, he may live high above the rest of us, looking out of floor-to-ceiling windows we will never press our noses against, but everyone can recognize his view: the vantage of despair. And, gently, incrementally, of hope.