Lake Success (1)

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Compensating For Everything

It's been about 30 years since Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho satirically demonstrated the excesses promoted by wealth in the financial industry of New York City. Both books followed hot on the heels of the real Ivan Boesky's 'Greed is Good' commencement address at UC Berkeley (and, of course Gordon Gekko's equivalent speech in the film Wall Street). Barry Cohen in Lake Success is a resurrection of the type: insanely arrogant, relationally challenged, acutely brand-conscious, with more class-sensitivity than the most rabid Marxist. So we can be confident of a literary continuity at least in the culture of the American über-rich who are to be found (at the right time of year) in their densest concentration on the island of Manhattan.

But Gary Shteyngart has spotted, I believe, a profound if subtle change in that culture. Three decades ago the protagonists were socially distasteful and morally aberrant but confident. They were, despite their bad behaviour, at ease with the authority of their position in the pecking order of American civilization. Their educational superiority, unfailing dedication to business over family, political acumen, and sheer hours put in to 'work' provided a feeling of entitlement which left no psychic space at all for self-doubt. They may have lacked the manners and taste of the Great Gatsby but they did share his personal views-about-self with the conviction of religion. Undoubtedly many still do.

But Barry Cohen is another matter. He is a social and economic ideal of the masses rather than an aberration; and he lacks a stable identity much less one he can be confident about. He has failed, in his own judgment, by succeeding. He is neurotic, unhappy, and a professional as well as human failure. and he knows it. He sits at the top (or more accurately just below the top: Rupert Murdoch owns the three floors above his). But he has a running fantasy about the roads not taken - the college girl friend, the writing career, the comforts of casual, non-predatory friendships. The severe handicap of his autistic infant son is not something that immense wealth can touch. This is not the cause of his regrets but it is their catalyst. Through the intransigence of his son's condition, Barry is confronted with his fundamental lack of control over existence.

And, an even more significant literary difference over three decades, Shteyngart provides a female perspective. It isn't just Barry having a knock-out fight with buyer's remorse about his life-choices. Seema, Barry's shiksa, non-white, trophy wife is also more than a bit disappointed in the results of her assiduous social climbing and the lack of things that money can't buy. Her feelings too are catalyzed by her son's severe autism but for reasons different than Barry's. She loves the child intensely. She suffers with the child, not because of him. Their wealth for her is mainly just a series of domestic administrative duties that distract her from caring for the boy, as well as stopping her from understanding her own motivations.

References to Trump, mostly perjorative, are frequent throughout Lake Success. I don't think these are there merely to provide local colour. Trump is significant because he is the authentic face of the contemporary wealth-culture of New York City - gauche, petty, ill-read, and tasteless. There of course have been any number of such wealthy New Yorkers. But it was Trump in his presumption to political office and his constant public exposure of the banality of his thoughts which allowed, required in fact, that the rich see themselves in him. If Trump is the apex of American society and culture, does any of their effort, reputation, and status have any meaning whatsoever It's a bit like discovering... oh, I don't know... that God is an out of work carpenter being supported by a gang of ladies of questionable repute. It takes more faith than most people have to maintain the conviction.

In other words, Shteyngart seems to be suggesting that the cultural scorecard is changing. Barry and Seema haven't lost their identities so much as discovered that the ones they have aren't worth having. If I'm reading this right, Shteyngart's subject is not so much the disaffected rich but the entire culture of compensation of which they are emblematic. According to the mores of this culture personal wealth is appropriate compensation not primarily for one's talents and efforts but rather as a reward for giving up the other uses to which those talents and uses could have been put - the opportunities for the good life that have been forgone.*

This suggestion about the implicit compensatory theory of personal wealth is made fairly obvious in the case of Barry who recognizes it in his historical self. This is reinforced by his failed attempt to justify his career in finance as having anything at all to do with 'adding value,' a standard ideological criterion for 'wealth creators.' Barry knows he takes 2 percent from his clients' assets every year for losing them six percent. His only real skill is the projection of a faux friendliness, a skill he employs over and over with the same unsatisfying result every time. Paradoxically, it is then this additional feeling of professional uselessness that also must be compensated for. He can't even describe his work as prostitution because no one but him gets any satisfaction.

So the Trump trope (I know, I know; blame Shteyngart) is, I think, central to the book. Does wealth, fabulous wealth far beyond what is useful for reasonable comfort and security, compensate for having to be a Trump (not to mention a Melania!) He is important because he (and she) makes the costs of a particular kind of success obvious. As Barry says, "You have to train yourself to be wealthy." That means gradually accepting a life which is not life-promoting. And, conversely, unlearning a great deal to return to an intrinsically rewarding life. Those at the other end of the economic spectrum from Barry or Trump might not understand that simply because they do not approach even minimal standards of comfort and security. But the relatively well-off are at least in a position to 'get it.' I can only hope that Shteyngart is as prophetic as I perceive him to be. Perhaps greed is no longer what is was cracked up to be, not even for the .01%.

*Barry takes great care to dismiss inherited wealth as at best irrelevant and at worst, paradoxically, 'socialist.' This is a cultural inversion which occurred starting in the 1950's in New York City and is chronicled in the novels of Louis Auchincloss. See for example: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show.... This is a more academic analysis of the same phenomenon: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list...


A biographical footnote: I was raised from infancy in the same New York suburb and in a similar family background to Barry's (There is a real if minute Lake Success close by). I consequently can recognize many of the same drives and aversions which Shteyngart ascribes to Barry in my own personality. And, more important, I also identify with the way youthful ideals can become distorted into their opposites through the desire to 'achieve'. I too ended up on Wall Street and the international finance gig. This phenomenon of corrupted idealism is, I suspect, particularly common in the finance industry in which thought itself is the only real commodity. Even more so than in academia, in order to succeed, thought must be sold, not merely presented. The effects are often devastating, not only for the quality of the thought but also for the character of the thinker.


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