As Amazon sets upon its tax-sponsored path of evicting every last New Yorker, turn-of-the-millennium Seattle looms as the inexorable cautionary tale, the gold rush prototype of full-throttle technocratic gentrification. To apply a gauzy retrospective lens, the specter of early-2000s Seattle evokes not only a simpler, more innocent age, but one which augured the crises which would kneecap the soaring economy. In a cynical light, the murderer’s row of 21st century doomsdays—dot-com boom, housing bubble, Silicon Valley oligopoly, Facebook’s unfurling the carpet for Trump’s 2016 sweep—were beta-tested in a Seattle incubator.
In his debut novel Lake City, Thomas Kohnstamm casts 2001 Seattle as late capitalism in miniature, capturing the Pacific Northwest’s gaping income inequality and reliance upon the caprices of a few ethically questionable internet behemoths. The highrises grow taller and shinier as the outskirts become slummier and seedier; a coterie of privilege-diverse actors intersect under improbable circumstances. If it’s the responsibility of the social novel—a fickle beast which inevitably comes down to matters of race and opportunity—to be reflective and prescriptive of society, it’s worth considering who generally gets to tell these stories. Thirty years later, The Bonfire of the Vanities remains both the gold standard and the creatively suffocating forebear.
Kohnstamm’s chief concern is the concept of free will, usually at the expense of complicating factors such as race and governance—although welfare, public education, food deserts, 9/11, and even opioids get cursory glances. The affectless characters’ defining qualities are those which can be leveraged on the free market. Lane Bueche, the ne’er-do-well protagonist, hopes academic achievement and a neoliberal facade will be his ticket out of Lake City’s strip clubs and strip malls. Nina, a real estate tycoon battling for custody of her adopted infant son, is ruthlessly manipulative, the driving force behind her business empire. Those with lower achievement ceilings—Jesus-happy service workers, bumbling drug dealers, unwed teenage mothers—slot into the labor market’s more ignominious tiers.
Lake City’s characters are, to a man, miserably unsympathetic, and cutthroat capitalism is to blame. Kohnstamm posits a system in which fortune is fixed and finite such that one actor’s advantage necessarily poses another’s proportional detriment. The metaphor he deploys is that of a drowning swimmer:
But he did remember the rule not to swim too close to people who are drowning or they will drown you too. Take you down with them. You have to be defensive at all times. If you get close to someone who is drowning, you might have to punch them or even put them into a sort of half nelson before you can attempt a rescue. If they climb atop you, you should swim down underwater and not provide them a platform. What good is it if you both drown?
As such, Lane and his unlikely peers are made to claw, beg, and steal against one another for footholds, wielding access, illicit money, criminal setups, and ill-begotten real estate as preemptive weapons.
In order to present the ravages of unchecked capitalism, Kohnstamm paints scenes of domestic poverty which border on pornographic. A climactic episode finds a hapless young mother conducting a disastrous diaper change. Teenagers pass afternoons furiously masturbating, small children wail through a squalid Christmas, and a trailer park dumpster overflows with carcasses of dead animals. Lane suffers the residual effects of selling his own bone marrow, and regales strangers with a tale of surviving 9/11 in New York for pity points.
The physical horror makes for grotesque, lazy signifiers all the more inappropriate given the lack of dignity Kohnstamm ascribes his characters. The unemployed and underemployed sprawled across Seattle’s houses of sin are uncultured swine lampooned beyond any possibility of redemption. They keep dirty homes and indulge in such self-destructive behavior that even Lane—who as a remorseless white man has a slight leg up, relatively—condemns their shabby clothes and poor manners. Kohnstamm’s patronizing portraits lack nuance, and accordingly, resonance; Lake City is neither funny enough to warrant its irreverance nor serious enough for its societal criticism and custody drama.
Kohnstamm’s habit of opening scenes in media res results in expository passages and conversations better read backwards. The pacing is clunky and the dialogue veers all over the place, at best distracting from the overwhelmingly implausible plot elements. Conscripted by Nina to blackmail her adopted son’s birth mother, Lane is unable or unwilling to analyze his motivations, which leaves the reader at a total loss. He wavers between scheming ex-husband and anxious prude in the process of wooing the birth mother in an extortion plot. Barroom drunks rapturously metamorphose into mouthpieces for philosophical position papers. The custody arc is contingent upon a dubious tryst between Lane and the equally sordid birth mother, and the framework of his return to Seattle from New York is paper-thin.
The vehicle for Kohnstamm’s treatise on free will is the custody battle, a question of what—if anything—a child deserves. But by the time Lake City poses its weighty questions about fate and absolution the novel has spun wildly out of control, leaning on hollow references to iPods, Vin Baker, and Matchbox Twenty as window dressing in place of substantive cultural commentary. It’s clear that Kohnstamm loves Seattle, its hardscrabble history, and all that was lost in its rapid gentrification. But it’s tough to furnish sympathy for his city when he has so little sympathy for his people.
by Thomas Kohnstamm
Counterpoint; 320 p.