Early in Gary Shteyngart’s funny, frightening new novel, Seema — wife of Barry Cohen, a morally handicapped and wildly successful hedge fund manager — recalls her earliest impressions of him. “A man that rich couldn’t be stupid,” she’d thought. Now, as their life together verges on collapse, she wonders: “Was that the grand fallacy of twenty-first-century America?”
So starts a tale told in the run-up to the 2016 election of Donald Trump, as Cohen takes flight from real and perceived demons, on an Kerouac-ian/Odyssean cross-country Greyhound journey. As Lake Success maps his downward spiral, it surveys the landscape of pre-Trump America – smugly condescending faux-liberals, working-class hustlers, privileged amnesiac children of immigrants. There’s an entrepreneurial crack dealer trying to update his game, an Info Wars-reading meth-head-turned-preacher, a stock trader who selects dates by spreadsheet computations, and an academic single mom at war with far-right internet trolls. Then there are the kids, with special and not-so-special needs, waiting in the wings.
Though it sprawls south to Atlanta, west through Texas, and up into California, the narrative is grounded, like most of Shteyngart’s work, in New York City, and as a comedy of masters-of-the-universe manners in this particular political moment, has strong echoes of Tom Wolfe’s 1980s satire Bonfire Of The Vanities (a novel that debuted in serial form in this magazine). In every location, however, Shteyngart’s eyes and ears are sharp, and however enlightened his characters may appear, there’s plenty of guilt to go around – whoever you are, it’s unlikely you won’t feel at least a twinge of mea culpa at some point in the story.
Shteyngart wrote Lake Success in more-or-less real time, in the months before and just after the election, and research included a coast-to-coast bus trip. Answering some questions recently, the writer described his experiences hanging out with “hedgies,” his admiration for Temple Grandin, his high-end wristwatch addiction, his favorite New York City bar, and his post-election self-care strategy (Xanax helped).
Tell me about your cross-country Greyhound trip in 2016, which mirrored Barry’s. What inspired it? How did you choose your itinerary?
First of all, writers need to suffer. And nothing says suffering like a cross-country Greyhound trip. I wanted to get as far as possible from the coasts and was also wondering about the upsurge of white supremacy bubbling up through my Twitter feed. Hence the Deep South was my itinerary, and I sure got an earful of pre-Trumpian anger.
Tell me about how you spent election night. Were you were still traveling in November?
No, in fact I spent it the same way Barry does (this book is basically journalism masquerading as fiction most of the time). I was at a party thrown by a friend who is a hedge fund manager. Many people got depressed like me/Barry and fled. I popped a bunch of Xanax before the final results and woke up to an email from a friend of mine who was a former German parliamentarian offering me asylum in Germany. That’s when I knew we were screwed for sure.
This book is in part about the fractional 1-percent. Assuming you don’t normally move in those circles, how did you research it? In the acknowledgements you note that some sources didn’t want to be named.
I actually hung out with hedgies for several years to get a better handle of this world. Not having my own plane was embarrassing, but there were more than a few people who were quite sympathetic, smart and offered amazing (and often quite critical) perspectives on their world.
It seems Barry Cohen bears some resemblance to Martin Shkreli. And unless I’m projecting, you describe his progressive debasement with some relish. Was it cathartic? How did you go about finding the character’s humanity?
No, Martin Shkreli is a far, far bigger douche. But yeah, Barry’s highly imperfect and dredging out his humanity was the toughest project of my writing life. I wasn’t out to offer him redemption, just a chance at it.
At one point Seema, Barry’s wife, says “I like to watch Trump, because he just takes my mind off stuff.” I imagine many people might feel a shock of recognition in that.
Yeah, before the fascism truly kicked in, there was a combination of horror and bemusement. Can somebody actually be that ridiculous and unaware of their own ignorance? Yes, someone can.
You wrote the book in 2016, but I imagine you did revisions last year, with Trump in the White House. How did that affect your editing/re-writing process?
Not much. I finished the first draft in December of 2016, and the book mostly follows that time frame. I wanted the book to follow our journey into hell from a kind of “as it’s happening” journalistic perspective.
I’m a New Yorker who grew up in Eastern Queens, and you really nail the details. I assume some of the New York things and places you describe have a lot of personal meaning for you. Can you point some out? I’ve never had a hot dog at Old Town Bar on West 18th Street, but I really want one now.
Ha! Well, the Old Town Bar is a huge local favorite, it really feels like its clientele comes from all walks of life, not this sanitized silly Manhattan. And the hot dog and cheeseburgers are really beyond reproach. Oh, and Clandestino on Canal, the bar where I pretty much live my life.
I understand Barry’s wristwatch obsession is one you share. Do tell. I’ve always looked at those high-end watch ads in the New York Times Magazine with a mixture of bling-lust and bafflement.
I have to stop. Lord, give me the strength to stop. I don’t know. It’s not even the watches, it’s learning about their technical and design aspects that kind of takes my mind off the dystopia around me. It could have been anything. But I like ticking objects.
One of the book’s sub-themes is neurodiversity — Barry’s son Shiva is on the spectrum, and he probably is, too. What inspired you to explore that?
I know many people with autistic kids and I feel great respect for them and a kind of kinship. The highlight of my life thus far was having lunch with Temple Grandin, who in addition to being one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, was easily the funniest in a very bad-ass way.
Barry’s college girlfriend, Layla, engages with extremist nutjob trolls on social media, and it’s easy to understand her compulsion. What’s your relationship with Facebook and Twitter? Do you agree with their largely hands-off policy towards content?
Social media has failed us in a major way. So of course, I’m still on it.
There’s a bus scene near the end where passengers launch into a sort of group therapy session. I imagine some of your Lake Success appearances may turn into that. Would you welcome it, or does it worry you?
I wish I had a social work degree! I love talking to my readers. They bought the damn book, they deserve my love.
Congrats on becoming a dad! How did that experience shape the book? I assume it did.
Quite a bit. Now I’m even more scared of the future because there’s a little person that has to live through it. My work will always stay funny, I hope, but the anxiety and sadness are deeper now that there’s even more at stake.