‘We lived in a country that rewarded its worst people. We lived in a society where the villains were favoured to win.’ So says Seema, the 29-year-old wife of hedge-fund manager Barry Cohen in Gary Shteyngart’s fourth novel, Lake Success. The relationship between fiction and the world of high finance has a complicated history. Having largely ignored Wall Street — Tom Wolfe, Bret Easton Ellis and F. Scott Fitzgerald aside — novelists found in the crash of 2008 a galvanic moment. Suddenly bankers were everywhere, from Sebastian Faulks to John Lanchester to Anne Enright, while younger writers such as Adam Haslett and Zia Haider Rahman wrote memorable novels that made (flawed) heroes of the money-men.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this belated encounter between fiction and finance is the relatively easy ride that bankers have been given in recent novels. Faulks’s villainous John Veals in A Week in December aside, authors have sought to present their financiers as imperfect but essentially decent human beings whose mistakes were comprehensible, even forgivable. Partly this is a matter of form: the novel is a sympathy machine. The bond that is forged between reader and protagonist allows us to overlook any number of sins and omissions. It is this tension — between the natural sympathy that builds between the reader and Barry Cohen, ‘a man with 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management’, and the reader’s mounting horror at the crimes that he commits — that animates Shteyngart’s novel.
The narrative is shared chapter by chapter between Cohen and his wife, and opens with the 43-year-old hedge-fund manager in the full throes of a mid-life crisis. After a dinner party in which his wife has accused him of lacking imagination and soul, and reeling from a series of bad investments, Cohen sets off to ride a Greyhound bus southwards armed only with his black Amex and a suitcase full of absurdly expensive watches. Part of the reason for his flight from Wall Street is the dream of reconnecting with his university girlfriend, Layla, but there also seems to be a deeper motivation: the wish to see real Americans in the age of Trump, a nostalgie de la boue that Benjamin Markovits wrote about so brilliantly in another novel about hedge-funders, You Don’t Have to Live Like This. Cohen has a further reason to escape — his son, Shiva, has been diagnosed with autism and he can’t cope with either the practicalities of dealing with ‘the vacant boy-king’ or the social stigma attached to having a non-neurotypical child.
As Cohen’s journey unspools, taking in a postmodern Baltimore in thrall to the version of itself presented in The Wire; a visit to a previous employee, now a creepy incel in Atlanta; a meeting with Layla’s parents and then, finally, Layla herself; we are led deeper into Cohen’s warped, self-pitying vision of himself. We read of his obsessive and ludicrous collecting of watches, his sense of himself as a novelist manqué — his hedge fund is called This Side of Capital, a nod to Fitzgerald’s first book — and his political position as a ‘moderate fiscal Republican’ who nonetheless quite likes Trump’s tax plan.
Having started out portraying Cohen as a nebbish, a likeable klutz who gets lucky and enormously rich, Shteyngart subtly darkens our picture of him until, at the end of the novel, we loathe our hero. This repugnance is intensified by the parallel narrative of Seema, who not only copes after her husband’s desertion, but flourishes. It all makes for a book of compelling moral complexity whose bleakly powerful ending feels like just deserts for an industry that so far appears largely to have escaped literary censure for the crimes of the financial crisis.