Gary Shteyngart was born Igor Semyonovich Shteyngart in Leningrad, in 1972. He has written four novels and a memoir. He teaches creative writing at Columbia University, New York, including a class called ‘The Hysterical Male’. His book trailers are legendary —featuring James Franco in a pink bathrobe, and more recently, Ben Stiller giving us the bro-down on hedge funds. In a tossup between idlis and masala dosas, Shteyngart would choose idlis. Between Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Fitzgerald, because he was more vulnerable. Between Madonna and Whitney, Whitney, because she believed in the children of the future. Among his many literary accolades, Shteyngart has also won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for his novel Super Sad True Love Story (2010). He was in close running for Britian’s Bad Sex Award with his novel Absurdistan (2006), but lost out to Norman Mailer, who won posthumously. Of sex writing, Shteyngart says, “I love writing about sex. People are so worried about themselves but I just charge right into it. I have no problem. You describe it as you describe anything else.” He lives between New York City and the Dutchess County in the Hudson River Valley. He loves Dachshunds and fancy watches.
GARY SHTEYNGART’S EARLIEST and scariest memory of America is choking on a pizza. His family moved from Leningrad to the US when he was seven. “Someone bought us a pizza here, and I didn’t realise how the cheese part works because it seemed there was endless amounts of it. It’s a bit of a cool metaphor, right? Choking on the abundance of America.”
Lake Success, Shteyngart’s fourth novel, has to do with abundance and the perils of over abundance. To write it, he had to become a hedge-fund whisperer, a role he found easy to slip into. “When these guys talk to each other,” he says, “everyone is out proving themselves to be a genius, but with me, I just sit back and say, ‘Tell me more.’ I’m assuming the tone of a psychologist.” Barry Cohen, Shteyngart’s protagonist, is a hedgie with a midlife crisis who walks out on his wife and autistic child and takes a Greyhound bus around America. It’s classic man-on-the-lam-to-find-himself literature, equal parts On the Road and Siddhartha. Shteyngart replaces Kerouac’s sex, drugs and jazz with fancy watches, Japanese whisky and Filipina nannies. Shteyngart chooses hyper-capitalism over Hesse’s Enlightenment.
His previous book, Little Failure (2014), was a memoir. So, from failure to success? I ask. Is there a preoccupation here? “I’m an immigrant, you know, so that’s how I’m wired. But yeah, when I was a messed-up Republican type kid in Queens, I loved Wall Street. I thought it was the way to go. I saw the movie Wall Street and thought, ‘Why did that poor guy get caught?’ All he did was insider trading! That was so minor. I wanted to make a fast buck to make up for many deficiencies, including being poor.”
Shteyngart’s dreams of finance were dashed when he went to Oberlin College, Ohio, which gets special mention in all of his books and which changed the course of his life. “They said ‘You can’t have a real job after Oberlin, you’re going to have to be a writer or something,’ and that’s what I did.” Barry doesn’t have quite the same luck. Despite graduating from Princeton with a minor in writing and naming his hedge fund This Side of Capital (after Fitzgerald), his wife Seema still accuses of him of lack of imagination and soul. (Barry is the kind of guy who has a checklist for marriage, which includes marrying a woman who is too ambitious to get fat.)
Like all Shteyngart’s previous books, Lake Success is hilarious, and like all great satires, it has the thrum of dystopic nightmare running through it. Unlike his previous books, though, the humour in Lake Success is slightly more ouch-funny than ha-ha funny, and part of this has to do with Trump not being dystopia but the present. When Shteyngart climbed aboard a Greyhound bus in June 2016, Trump was a presidential candidate, but few people thought he was in with a chance. By the end of his journey, the landscape was very different. “It’s almost a historical fiction,” he says, “because the Obama and Trump eras feel so different. I realise when I’m writing that ‘Oh my God, this is not going to make anyone feel better,’ but as a writer you have to document what it feels like to live in these times.”
The idea for the Greyhound trip came from the question: what is the most traumatic thing I could do to a rich person? “Transport is one of the big things in finance, an endless marker,” he says. “For them, it’s not even cars. It’s planes, and if you don’t have a plane, you have a membership in net jets. So, I thought, ‘What’s the opposite of that?’” The Hound, as Shteyngart affectionately calls it, also a classic vehicle for the journey novel. “America is the perfect size for a great journey. It’s not Russia, where you’ll never get to the end of it, but it’s not a European country where, you know…..”
Yes, I say, we haven’t heard much about the Great Liechtenstein Novel. “Maybe the great Monaco poem?” he counters. “It’s kind of a blessing and a curse. These countries are so unwieldy. America and India form a better comparison in some ways because they comprise nations within themselves. There’s this feeling that all these different groups and ethnicities are sandwiched into that, and can lead to incredible serendipity and strife. Although, you know, I don’t think it’s helpful to buy into the idea that you’re writing the great-anything- novel.”
“In some ways, in all my work there’s this idea that you leave Russia and everything gets better. The difference is that for the first time, Russia is kind of everywhere”
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“In some ways,” Shteyngart says, “in all my work there’s this idea that you leave Russia and everything gets better. The difference is that for the first time, Russia is kind of everywhere. America has become like Russia; they have a president who admires Putin and wishes he could be as good a master criminal as Putin. And that creates a really scary feeling, that a creature is catching up with you and you can’t move fast enough. That’s what the last couple of years have felt like in America. If I didn’t have a kid, I’d be living on a beach in Tamil Nadu. I would just say, ‘To hell with it, I’ll move to another problematic dictatorship but with better beaches.’ But because I have a kid who’s American, I have to stick around.”
Shteyngart and his wife Esther had a son in 2013. I ask him a question women writers routinely get asked, which is how parenthood has changed his writing life. “Everyone should be asked this question,” he exclaims. “It’s a whole different world, you’re now fully committed to the human race in a different way because there’s somebody left after you to pick up the pieces. I don’t think it’s great for my mental health in that I’m an anxious person, but as a writer it gets you out of yourself… I realised, as well, reading biographies about writers, how many writers are terrible parents. Especially fathers, who often see the child as an adjunct to their own brilliance. My kid is actually a lot smarter than I am. He’s always teaching me stuff. Currently he’s obsessed with tsunamis.”
AS I WAS reading Lake Success, I was watching the third season of Billions, and I found the experience of being taken into the lives of the uber rich with their quants and helicopters, who say things like ‘You’re negative arbing yourself’ slightly disorienting. Shteyngart says that while Billions is a great show, he actually wanted to get away from the hedge fund world. He wanted to get Barry away from the workplace and all that money to try and figure out what was going on inside him. To use a financial term, he was looking for value add. “Many of the people I met were in a state of constant stress. They didn’t have a relationship with their families, everything around them was going badly, so that was fun because if they were doing well it would have been a bit stale. I love characters in decline. I think all writers do.”
One of the most alluring characters in the book is Seema, who’s a graduate from Yale, has an affair with the Guatemalan writer neighbour and makes a mean sambar. Her struggle with raising their autistic child is much more empathetic than Barry’s—whose impulse is to run away. Feisty women are a Shteyngartian trademark. In fact, he wanted to make his central character a woman, but says all the women hedgies he met were so good at their jobs, they wouldn’t take the kind of risks men did. He prefers his protagonists to be slightly falling apart.
Shteyngart is convinced that many of the women who married these hedgies are smarter and have better credentials, but inexplicably end up living in Manhattan, taking on 19th century roles. They don’t work. They spend all their time curating their family’s lives. “People think of Manhattan as avant garde, but it’s just disappointing that this sort of arrangement happens because if these women were doing what their husbands were doing, we probably wouldn’t have the financial crisis that we do, we wouldn’t have these cycles of boom and bust; it would be a lot more sane.”
When I ask about MeToo and all the explosions it is creating, Shteyngart says, “Living in this hedge-fund world was sort of not fun. It was very stressful and you’re left feeling very disappointed in the human race, especially in the male. I think all this stuff, everything concerning race and gender, has to happen. I’m so glad it’s happening. I’m so glad people like Bill Cosby are going to jail. But in this country, and in India, there’s pushback from the powerful that’s generating as much ugliness as the progress. In fact, probably more ugliness than progress. And this cycle is going to continue for a while, I think.”
Still, Lake Success ends on an upbeat multicultural tone with a glitzy Bar Mitzvah in New York where Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Catholics and all manner of people on the spectrum unite. Shteyngart is far too accomplished a writer to be overly earnest, but with Lake Success, he does question the validity of the American dream. Make no mistake, the pizza-choking immigrant kid who now writes novels from his dacha in the Hudson and collects fancy watches is not saying that money is evil, only that, if you’re into hyper-capitalism and hyper-consumerism, happiness is probably not coming your way. As even our much maligned hero Barry Cohen realises in the end, to lift the great shadow, you must find a way to restore balance.
“I think my next novel will focus on the countryside,” Shteyngart says before signing off. “You know, when you’re young and single, the city is fun, the world is full of joy. When you’re not single, you just want to slow down. You want to see things pass before your eyes like watching a mountain lion walk by, or be home for your kid. If you read Chekhov, it’s all about people going to each other’s houses, showing up, taking a bath. That’s how I want to live too.”
From Lake Success
You could go anywhere within our country. The open road! Barry had taken an Acela to Boston once on a dare with Joey Goldblatt of Icarus Capital Management, the train was faster and nicer, but this was the open road, and once you got on the open road the whole country would rush out to say hello and refill your ice tea. You would become a traveler and no one would tell you you had no imagination or no soul or whatever his wife had said to insult him in front of the Guatemalan writer and his Hong Kong doctor wife whose apartment he had left in ignominy just a few hours ago in the whiskey-heat of the night. To be demeaned in front of others, to be cut down in front of one’s lessers, he had seen this before with his hedgie friends’ wives, and it had always been the first step to divorce. In his field, pride was nonnegotiable.