5 Questions: Writing Professor Gary Shteyngart Discusses His New Book

October 22, 2018
a black and white portrait shot of Gary Shteyngart

Who else but satirist Gary Shteyngart, a professor in the writing program at the School of the Arts, would describe passengers on a Greyhound bus who snore “like they had entire planets up their nose”?

Or a dog who “died from the melancholy of being a working-class Jewish pet”? And, write: “Like your first ankle-monitor bracelet or your fourth divorce, the occasional break with reality was an important part of any hedge-fund titan’s biography.”

The titan in question is Barry Cohen, the protagonist of Lake Success, Shteyngart’s first novel since the 2010 Super Sad True Love Story (he published a memoir, Little Failure, in 2014). Cohen oversees $2.4 billion in assets and is deeply stressed by an impending SEC investigation, his three-year-old son Shiva’s diagnosis of severe autism and his imploding marriage to Seema, a Yale Law School graduate whose parents immigrated from India. Rather than remaining in his massive Manhattan apartment and drowning his sorrows in the $33,000 bottles of Karuizawa single-cask whiskey that he prefers, Cohen escapes from New York on a Greyhound bus in search of a simpler life with a sweetheart from his days at Princeton.

“In Lake Success, Gary Shteyngart hears America perfectly; its fatuity, its poignant lament, its boisterous self-loathing. Its heartbeat,” noted his fellow Columbia writing professor Richard Ford. “Reading him sometimes makes me want to scream—with recognition and pure hilarity.”

In his New York Times review of the book, Dwight Garner said of Shteyngart’s prose, “The wit and immigrant’s sense of heartbreak—Shteyngart was born in Russia—just seem to pour from him. Shteyngart, perhaps more than any American writer of his generation (he’s 46), is a natural.”

Shteyngart will discuss Lake Success with Bruce Robbins, a professor in the department of English and Comparative Literature, at the School of the Arts’ Lenfest Center on October 25. Here he discusses his new novel with Columbia News:

Q. This is your first book that doesn’t feature a prominent character who is Russian or a Russian immigrant to the United States. Why?

A.  I know, right! What happened to my usual Soviet-Jewish losers? Well, Barry Cohen is still Jewish, so I’m taking baby steps away from my usual subject matter. I like writing about societies falling apart. Previously it was the former Soviet Union, now it’s America. I don’t have to look far to see dystopia. It’s happening outside my window.

Q. Why did you choose to look at America in the age of Trump through Barry Cohen? How does his Greyhound trip across America represent the country’s and the character’s journey?

A. My mission is simple—to get young people to stay the hell away from finance, as tempting as it is. If one Columbia student reads my book and says, “You know what, this isn’t the life for me,” then I’ve done my duty and then some. As for the Greyhound trip, there’s nothing like it. Everyone who lives on either coast should get on some form of transport and see the rest of the country. You think you know it, but you don’t. I sure didn’t.

Q. You wrote Lake Success between June 6 and December 21, 2016. What was it like starting the novel when Donald Trump’s election seemed unlikely and finishing it after he had won?

A. It was crazy. When I got on the [Grey] Hound in June, I thought Trump was just a sideshow and Hillary would win. When I got off the Hound in September, I was pricing Toronto real estate. People throughout my journey told me Trump was going to win and that I was blind to certain realities. They went as far as to tell me he was going to win Pennsylvania. I thought they were nuts. But here we are.

Q. Can you comment on the literary journey that Barry also takes in the novel—the way in which his Greyhound trip reflects Kerouac’s On the Road; his naming his hedge fund “This Side of Capital” after Fitzgerald; his love for Hemingway; and his escaping his wife and son like Harry Angstrom in Updike’s Rabbit, Run?

A. Barry has some pretty questionable taste in literature. I’m kidding. I did three to four years of research for this book, hanging out with hedge fund managers, and many of them missed the days before they got into finance, the good days when their minds still worked and they were interested in things other than the basis points on their Bloombergs. That’s Barry’s journey. Into a past that may never have existed.

Q. Does Barry mature emotionally throughout the book? Does he ever reach a point where he can relate to another person with the level of intimacy that he lavishes on his watches?

A. Well, I’d be giving away the book if I told you, right? My characters never really fully mature, because no one does. They have ideas about themselves that get disrupted by cold realities, but then they choose to believe in their own horseshit yet again. That doesn’t make them bad, it merely makes them human.

—By Eve Glasberg