I listened to this novel months ago—just about the time it came out. I haven’t been able to adequately put into words how I felt about it. This was the first time I’ve partaken of a Shteyngart novel, and it is more in every way than I was expecting. There is a shadow of Pynchon’s frank absurdity there, and some bungee-cord despair—the kind that bounces back, irrepressible.
Shteyngart’s novel is overstuffed with funny, sad, true, caustic, simplistic, derogatory observations about life in America that somehow capture us in all our glory. He is not dismissive; I think he likes us. The main character in this novel, Barry Cohen, is nothing if not representative of what we have taught ourselves to be: money-mad and self-pitying, educated enough to capture our own market but too stupid to see the big picture. What introspection we have is wasted on divining the motivations of others rather than our own triggers.
Barry is a man America loves to hate. He is a successful hedge fund manager who emerged from the economic crisis in fine shape—it was only his clients who suffered. And his clients suffered because the government finally caught on to some irregularities in Barry’s operations that allowed him to win so much. While the SEC investigated, Barry left Seema, his wife and an attorney, with his son Shiva to see if he could find an old flame. Last he’d heard she was living in the South.
Right there Barry made a big mistake. One doesn’t leave an attorney for another woman. I mean, how stupid do you have to be? Barry and Seema had been doing okay marriage-wise, though it turns out Shiva is autistic. Unable to speak and often looking as though he does not even comprehend what words and comments are directed to him, Shiva is unknowable.
Barry wants to love him, but maybe wants Shiva to love Barry himself more. Seema handles most of Shiva's care which means she cannot work. More and more absorbed with nurturing her son’s growth, she recognizes and relishes small victories in understanding Shiva's internal world while her husband languishes.
Barry Cohen’s odyssey from New York by bus to various destinations in the south features a man with a skill set that serves him surprisingly well when traveling by bus on limited cash, no credit, and a roller-board of fancy watches. He can’t be shamed because he’s a bigger crook than anyone. Dragging around his collection of fancy watches turns out not to be very lucrative—who recognizes their value? But they do get him food occasionally, and a little tradable currency.
Barry spends relatively little psychic energy pondering the sources of his Wall Street wealth, but somehow recognizes it’s probably not worth as much as he was getting paid to do it. His long-story-short gives us cameos of American ‘types’: street-wise salesmen, long-suffering nannies, practical mothers, and money managers who believe their work confers some kind of godliness on their financial outcomes. Because we win, we are meant to win. Yes, this all takes place in the first year of the Trump administration.
Barry Cohen is hard to take. “See, this is the thing about America,” he tells his former employee in Atlanta, a man named Park that Barry keeps referring to as Chinese, “You can never guess who’s going to turn out to be a nice person.”
Well. Barry is not a very nice person, really. He simply is not reflective enough. We can feel twinges at his angst, but ultimately we make our own beds, don’t we? Barry is tiresome, that’s the problem. His adventures are quite something, but we grow weary of his blind spots and slow recognition that he does, in fact, love his imperfect family. It’s all he’s got, the silly doofus, and they are worthy of his love. We’d rather spend time with them.
In an enlightening interview with The Guardian, Shteyngart acknowledges the story is about racism:
"I think racism undergirds all of this, no question. It’s a huge part of it. When we were immigrants and couldn’t speak the language, the one thing this country told us was: ‘You’re white, there’s always somebody lower than you.’"Shteyngart thought he might add a gender dimension to the story, and was going to make his main character a woman, but the few female hedge fund managers he found were rational and didn’t take such big crazy risks that they end up blowing up the world. Right, I think. Exactly right.