“I don’t write historical fiction,” Gary Shteyngart says. But his funny and touching new novel, Lake Success, ending up dealing with history in a way he didn’t anticipate.
Lake Success recounts the collapse of the marriage of millionaire hedge fund manager Barry Cohen and his lawyer wife, Seema, after their toddler son is diagnosed with autism. Barry abandons his family and boards a Greyhound bus for an odyssey that will take him from his posh home in Manhattan to California, with many weird stops along the way. Set amid the 2016 presidential campaign, the novel is a sharply satirical take on American culture.
Shteyngart was born in “the other St. Petersburg,” then Leningrad in the Soviet Union. His parents brought the family to live in Queens, N.Y., when he was 7 years old. He has published three earlier satiric novels, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story, and a hilarious memoir, Little Failure. He also writes nonfiction for the New Yorker and other publications.
A lot of the comedy of Lake Success is built on the contrast between Barry Cohen’s world of great wealth and the very different people he meets riding buses cross-country. What were you aiming for with that contrast? And how much did you ride Greyhounds yourself for research?
Hedge fund managers and Greyhound buses — I know, it’s the strangest combination. I wanted to get Barry out of New York, to separate him from his wealth, so I chose the most traumatic form of transportation in America. I rode buses from June through September of 2016. Almost everything came from the experiences I had on the bus.
Barry happens upon a tour in Baltimore based on the TV series The Wire. Did you take that tour?
I didn’t, but so many people come for that, especially German tourists. You get German tourists, you get comedy.
The 2016 presidential campaign becomes a main thread in the novel. Was that its inspiration?
I started out with the idea of writing about this hedge fund couple. I began the actual writing while the campaign was happening. I had the idea of Barry and Seema before, and I thought it would just be a backdrop, like when you’re watching an ’80s movie and there’s a Rubik’s cube to let you know where you are. I just thought I’d have the election campaign with this clown running who’s obviously not going to win. And then it took a very different direction. So I had to make up for that.
In a way this book is a sequel to (2006 novel) Absurdistan. It’s about the levels of corruption, the lack of a rule of law. Ten years ago, 12 years ago I was writing about the Soviet Union to show how things fall apart in an authoritarian society. Now I don't even have to get on a plane. I can just turn on the TV and there’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Although Barry is in many ways a pretty dreadful human being, you consistently show us his human side, so that he’s never just a one-dimensional jerk. How did you go about keeping him at least somewhat sympathetic?
In my other books the protagonists were not part of the power structure. They were the opposite, the victims of the system. But when I was researching this hedge fund world I found this recurring theme of the guys having childhoods that were not good. It was like, oh, Jim, his mom never loved him, or his kids don’t really love him. Also many who were a bit like Barry, who are probably somewhere on the (autism) spectrum. So I wanted something other than complete satire. I had to figure out the emotional touch point.
Does Barry ever see himself as a bad guy, as someone who fails at his greater responsibilities beyond himself and his family?
He always calls himself a fiscal conservative but a social liberal. So many times I’ve heard that mantra, but there’s this lack of understanding by those people about how their actions influence the world. Everything that happens in that industry increases the level of inequality. Barry might be good at finance, but he can't put two and two together.
They have this very insular existence — the apartment in Manhattan, the club in Manhattan, the house in the Hamptons, and no communication with the rest of the world. The poor are segregated because they have no choice. The rich do, but they segregate themselves.
So I took Barry and I loosed him upon a country he no longer understands. He had a (working-class) childhood that should have helped him understand, but it’s almost like one year of wealthy wipes out 10 years of not wealthy.
Were there particular people who inspired Barry and Seema?
He’s a bouillabaisse of many people. As for Seema, I went to Stuyvesant High School (a top-rated New York school). It was mostly children of immigrants, so I saw that kind of ambition. I also saw in the hedge fund world a lot of women who are smarter than their husbands, very well credentialed, but they live these very feudal lives, just taking care of their families and curating their lives. It’s all going on in the middle of Manhattan.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.