The novelist on why if he wants to write about a plutocratic kleptocracy, he doesn't need to leave Americaby Sameer Rahim / October 8, 2018 / Leave a comment
The novelist Gary Shteyngart was in born in Leningrad in 1972. His family moved to the United States in 1979 as part of a deal between Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev that saw Russian Jews swapped for US grain. (“I was worth about 300 loaves or something,” Shteyngart has quipped.) He published his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, in 2002, and followed it up with Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story. He has also written a memoir called Little Failure. Having drawn comedy from the perils of failing in his previous books, in his new novel, Lake Success, Shteyngart examines someone troubled by high achievement. In the febrile election summer of 2016, a watch-obsessed hedge fund manager called Barry Cohen takes a bus trip round America, meeting the kinds of people he only ever sees on television—Baltimore drug dealers, Trump supporters—and working through a personal crisis. Shteyngart was recently in London where he talked to Prospect’s Sameer Rahim. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sameer Rahim: Barry, your main character, is a rich man going through a midlife crisis. What is it about the inner life of the 0.1 per cent that interests you?
Gary Shteyngart: First I was connected only to Russians writing about Russia, and now I’m like the hedge-fund whisperer… I’m interested in what happens when you’ve lived your life at such an extreme that you’ve entered this very select group. What do you have to do to get there, and what remains of who you once were? America used to be much more democratic: there were real communities. Now it’s more like a collection of Singapores, a collection of moated city states. Manhattan feels like a gated community in some ways. When I grew up Manhattan was the most exciting place on Earth, and now it’s really not.
SR: It’s a bit like that in parts of London.
GS: London is the one city that even surpasses New York in this way. The price of admission is high.
SR: Lots of Russians too.
GS: I tweeted the other day a conversation I overheard [in Russian] as I had breakfast in the hotel. A guy was calling his partner back home and he said:…