He’s not the main character of Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel Lake Success.
But in a way he is.
The figure of Donald Trump is one that looms large over the author’s brilliantly funny and sad, zeitgeisty road trip tale.
And how could he not?
The book is set in 2016 during the last presidential election and tapped into the disconnect of those who thought they knew what was to those who knew what was coming — perfect for a time when we’re all sifting through the wreckage and asking what’s next, as the cars keep piling into one another.
“There’s a cataclysmic event in American history and people are still trying to figure out what’s going on, and I think this is one of the first novels out of the gate about the subject,” says the Russia-born, New York-based, bestselling author behind such acclaimed works as Absurdistan, Super Sad True Love Story and his memoir Little Failure.
“It’s strange to write about something that’s almost happening in real time. But that was the idea behind the book.”
It’s one Shteyngart will bring to town for a Wordfest event Wednesday, Oct 3 at the DJD Dance Centre, and it’s one that’s worth consuming, as it’s a timely and remarkably entertaining work.
Lake Success tells the story of a Manhattan hedge-fund manager, Barry Cohen, who is rich, married, with an autistic child and an SEC investigation looming over his head — in that order of importance to him. He is, because of his whiteness, maleness, wealth and, goes without saying, deeply ingrained sense of entitlement (cough, Kavanaugh, cough, cough), isolated from and oblivious to the world outside and the reality of even those inhabiting the lower floors of the building in which he dwells.
Shteyngart says the character of Barry is one that he’s all-too familiar with, having spent a great deal of time with hedge-fund managers, figuring out what makes them tick.
“It’s a fictional character, but it’s based on a lot of people that I’ve met,” he admits.
When asked if any of them would have the self-awareness to recognize themselves in Barry, Shteyngart doesn’t hesitate.
“I’ll answer very quickly: No.” He laughs. “There’s a lot of sense that people are happy about it, they’re happy to be inspiration for the book, but it’s almost like they’re so full of themselves that the fact that it’s not exactly a positive portrayal doesn’t really matter to a lot of them.”
But rather than let his own particular hedge-fun manager stay in his self-imposed bubble, the author sought to remove him from it, and not only let others see him for what he was, but maybe give him the opportunity to see himself as something else.
Shteyngart says the basic plot he began with was: “What would it be like for one of them, Barry, to be separated from their wealth, and what would remain, what kind of person would remain, without all of the privileges and all of the other things …? My idea was to rip Barry out of that and see what remained.”
Which brings us to the road trip aspect of Lake Success. It’s one that takes Barry away from his comforts and his family — his wife, Seema, and three-year-old Shiva, are also incredibly well-written and fleshed-out characters, who undergo their own voyages — across the U.S, seeking the love and possibly life he long gave up.
He does so in a way that plunks him right in the reality he was once so sheltered from, via the most egalitarian of modes of transport there is: the Greyhound Bus.
Here, too, is Shteyngart uniquely familiar with of what he writes, with Barry’s journey echoing one he took. In order to imbue the book with a sense of timeliness and cross-country sociological temperature taking, the author spent four months on the “Hounds” in 2016 from the beginning of June until the end of September, taking the exact route that his protagonist travels.
It’s a journey that Shteyngart is somewhat romantic about, calling it “almost cinematic” due to the scenery, the people he met, the things he saw and the political discourse he engaged in.
“It was a real education,” he says. “I keep telling journalists, my friends who are journalists, do something like this. Because while it’s impossible to say that the people on the coast are real Americans, it’s important to also know what the rest of this country is like. And it was very eye-opening.
“When I got on the Hounds in June in New York, I thought, ‘Well, the election is just a sideshow. Trump’s not going to win.’ But by the time I got off, I was like, ‘Time to look at Canadian real estate because this is gonna happen.’
“And the people on the Hound kept telling me that it was going to happen. They had a different sense of the American electorate, I guess.”
As to where his character eventually winds up on his trip, we’ll allow you to discover that,
but the destination is not necessarily the most important one. As with any great road story, it’s all about the journey, and with Lake Success Shteyngart paints a beautiful and vivid picture, one that makes his own factual observations of the “wonderful people … and some scary people” as well as the “beautiful country” into infinitely engaging fiction.
As for the current reality that the rest of us are now dealing with, once again we return to the non-fictional antagonist that looms large in all of our lives — authors, journalists, hedge-fund managers, bus drivers, drug dealers, teachers etc. — and that is the now President Trump.
For Shteyngart, though, growing up in Queens, the Donald actually always has been a prominent figure — at first a heroic sort of figure and now the naked emperor on his throne.
“He was great growing up,” he says. “People in Queens always feel inferior, ‘How do I get out of this, how do I cross the river?’, so Trump was definitely the local boy who made good. But people in Manhattan never took him seriously, and once I moved to Manhattan I saw how ridiculous of a figure he cut.
“So it was a very strange thing because, for example, almost 87 per cent of people didn’t vote for Trump, but in the rest of the country it almost felt like he had hoodwinked all of these people into believing the myth of this New York City billionaire.
He continues, returning to the Barrys of the world. “And a lot of the hedge-fund people I met, they would say, ‘Well, we would never give money to him — if he came to us for money we would never give him money.’ So he was something of a joke for them …
“In some way these are smart people. They may be deluded, but they’re smart enough to know that this is a disaster of unmitigated proportions.”
Wordfest presents Gary Shteyngart Wednesday, Oct. 3 at DJD Dance Centre for an on-stage interview and audience Q&A, followed by a book signing. For tickets go to wordfest.com.