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: “they’ve got this fucking democracy here, it’s hard to do business.”
SR: In the novel Barry is always wondering how rich other people are.
GS: Manhattan I guess has always been money obsessed but never to this extent. It’s how you can imagine the 1920s—you think of Fitzgerald. This incredible feast for a small group of people. You know the markets loved Trump in the beginning. I asked a friend of mine who works in private equity—a Pakistani-American guy—“what’s going on?” And he said “the market’s basically just a middle-aged white man.” And the middle-aged white man voted for Trump.
SR: Barry’s not quite a Trump supporter. He’s a middle-of-the-road Republican.
GS: The book in part is about how culpable we are. So Barry thinks he’s socially liberal, that’s his big thing –“I’m socially liberal!”—but fiscally conservative. And the reality is that what Barry does, whether he knows it or not, contributes to the huge inequality that at least in part drives the kind of political realities that later come about.
SR: You’ve profiled hedge-fund manager Michael Novogratz in the New Yorker as well. You seem to be attracted to these outsider, over-the-top personalities.
GS: I wrote that story without passing judgment one way or another. [Novogratz] is a storyteller, you know, and that’s the one connection he has with Barry—Barry at one point says “screw the metrics,” I’m here to tell you a story and you’re going to invest in me because the story is going to make us look smart together. And that’s something that one fund manager actually did tell me. He said: “It’s a story. I’m a storyteller—you’re buying into this for the story.” So at your next party you’ll say “Oh I know Barry Cohen—this guy, he’s the friendliest guy on the street, you gotta meet him! Really smart, went to Princeton.”
SR: I was thinking this was going to be a more satirical book than perhaps it turned out to be in the end?
GS: I can’t do another satire with Russian immigrants. And it’s hard to be a satirist in these times: the satire is provided for you every time you turn on the television—there’s a man with no education, no morals, no understanding of himself, a deep sense of hatred for almost everyone around him, including family members—how do you write that? And so turning to social realism, I think, is what these times call for.
SR: You went on a road trip somewhat similar to Barry. Did you do that because you thought you were going to write a novel?
GS: I just started writing as I was doing each segment of the trip. I holed up in some really awful hotels, after each bus trip, and I would just type everything up. I would take notes on my phone of conversations—so then it became in many ways a journalistic endeavour as well.
SR: And what did you find out about America?
GS: It’s a whole different world out there that we on the coast don’t know anything about—we sort of know about it but we think of it in these stereotypical ways. They think that we don’t really exist either, to them we’re like, we’re a type. Boy the racism was quite perceptible.
SR: And this was before Trump was elected?
GS: It was the first summer of Trump. When the nominee of the Republican Party starts his campaign by saying Mexicans are rapists, why can’t you say whatever you want, that you’ve been dying to say for so long?
SR: And when Barry goes to Baltimore you see characters who are doing The Wire tourism: poverty becomes a safari for the liberals.
GS: Barry meets a drug dealer and they start to discuss business. “Oh, so you’re running a family office?” I had some fun with that. I still hope it’s funny in parts, right?
SR: Barry makes a lot of faux pas. He mistakes a Korean person for a Chinese person, and his interactions with a younger woman called Brooklyn are all a bit weird. But you’re quite forgiving of him.
GS: He’s not the worst, but his obtuseness adds up to problems down the line. The Barrys of the world are a huge part of the problem, in some ways they contribute as much as the real villains.
SR: There’s also an interesting theme of parents and children running through the book. Barry wants to live up to his father, and is worried when it seems like his own son might be autistic, and not be able to be successful in worldly terms. Your own memoir was called Little Failure…
GS: That was my mother’s nickname for me.
SR: We all have to live up to these expectations that our parents have for us.
GS: I went to a high school which was predominantly immigrants, and recently I went to a reunion and found out many of them were in finance. I was talking to one very sweet woman, and she said: “I still have this thing from my parents where if I don’t make money I feel like I haven’t done well, I haven’t done enough.”
SR: Someone like Trump obviously had his own daddy issues.
GS: He’s the ultimate. I wouldn’t be surprised if he hated all his children because no one could never live up to him—just the way he could never live up to Fred [Trump’s father]. It’s a tragic family, but he’s not enough of a human being to write about. In fact my editor was like “let’s keep the T-words to a minimum,” and I agreed with that. The way that great Russian writers (not that I’m saying I’m a great Russian writer) would use the background of war, famine, revolution, calamity and in the middle of this the family [at the centre of the story] journeys through.
SR: When you were growing up in the 1980s Russia was regarded as “an evil empire,” as Ronald Reagan said. Now the president is best friends with Putin.
GS: The Russians are called the Cold War “losers,” but they’ve somehow figured out a way to win in this clever, insidious way. The one thing they always had was great intelligence services. Kudos to them, but the country’s still complete crap. Life expectancy’s a joke, nothing is working. I think in the same way Trump supporters want to feel good even as their futures are not secure, so Russians want to feel like they’re part of something great. I tweeted recently this photo of these two elderly white dudes at some Trump rally. They were wearing t-shirts that said: “I’d rather be Russian than a Democrat.” And I think that captured it so beautifully, because I’m like “if you were Russian you’d be dead, because you’re three years over the life expectancy.”
SR: What do your parents, who are strong Republicans, make of Trump?
GS: It’s the first time that they didn’t vote Republican, and they know that he’s in Putin’s pocket. They hated Hillary as well but that’s no surprise.
SR: Do you feel you can’t go to Russia and write about things?
GS: I wouldn’t go to Russia, no.
SR: You wouldn’t go to Russia?
GS: Why go to Russia? I’m living in my own Russia in New York. The Republican elites have embraced a plutocratic, kleptocratic programme. I spent a week watching Russian TV for an article for the New York Times, and that was 2014 I believe. But if you turn on Fox today you’re looking at pretty much the same level of state control and propaganda—and the same lack of facts.
SR: It’s very moving in Little Failure when you go with your parents to Russia and see it through their eyes though.
GS: It was a very—in some ways—sad trip. Russians in general are pretty depressive and then it was like “in this quarter this terrible thing happened and here somebody was arrested.” My father was born during the Second World War, and he had to hide under trains that were strafed by the Luftwaffe. So you begin to understand how their generation came to be.
SR: Turning to something quite different, there’s a lot about watches in the book. When I was reading the book I thought, okay, time’s passing, I get the theme. And then I found out that you’re actually just really interested in watches. What are you wearing there?
GS: This is a Rolex from the 1960s. It belonged to a gentlemen who was NASA’s liaison to the Nixon White House. It tells you the time in different time zones, so I know that it’s 10:20am in New York right now.
SR: How did you get into watches?
GS: During the election my friend spent hours just looking at the election website FiveThirtyEight. I would spend a lot of time there too but then I would mix it in with specialist watch websites. I can rattle off references: Tudor and Rolex are still great—Rolex just have one watch I love which I just bought, a very simple watch called the Oyster Perpetual and Nomos is a great brand out of Germany, and Grand Seiko is amazing. There’s watch societies, including ones in London, where you come to a secret place, and everyone takes off their watch and passes it around.
SR: And everyone gets very envious? Or admiring?
GS: I found it to be a way for men who are shy, like myself, to talk to other men about the minutiae that no one else gives a shit about.
SR: So you’re a watch investor now.
GS: I have to say my portfolio’s gone up tremendously. Recently prices have been going through the roof so, of course, this could also be a huge bubble.
Lake Success is published by Hamish Hamilton