Gary Steyngart on His Latest Novel, <i>Lake Success</i>

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On the Bus: Gary Steyngart on His Latest Novel, Lake Success

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Satire, in some ways, is the confluence of evil and stupidity. This is where we are. I think it's very hard for me to outdo what's on CNN. For me, writing more naturalistically is a different approach to understanding where we are right now, because the book is set in 2016. It's not historical fiction, but it almost feels like historical fiction, because so much of it takes place before Trump.

BKM: Sure. There are loads of historical markers that are very contemporaneous. Then let's talk a bit about Barry Cohen. You've always had lovable misfits as protagonists in your previous books. But Barry, boy is he tough to like.

GS: He's tough to like. Whenever I would tell people I'm writing about a hedge fund guy, they'd be like, "Oh my god, how am I going to get into this book?" I've written likable characters, but I want to write a book about a hedge fund guy, and I wanted him not to be redeemed, but I wanted the reader to ask, "Is redemption possible?" It's a huge challenge for me. I don't know if I pulled it off or not, but I really wanted to present a chance for myself, so that the created character would be very difficult to redeem by the end of the book, then see how far I can get with it.

BKM: One of the central conceits of the story is that Barry leaves his comfortable life and gets on a Greyhound bus. In the acknowledgements of the book, you thank Greyhound from ferrying you from one coast to the other. You actually road coast-to-coast on a bus?

GS: Yeah, I did it. I did it. I started out in June, and ended about September in 2016. I went home at a number of points during the trip.

BKM: What was that like for you?

GS: It's less horrifying than you would imagine, although I grew up in the Soviet Union, so my horror level is pretty high. It's interesting that the whole premise now of Greyhound is we have power outlets. The whole idea is you plug in your phone and you zone out of the Greyhound experience. It's all about the power outlet. You get on the Greyhound and the first thing the driver will say is, "Everybody needs to check their power outlet." Everyone plugs in their phone and see if the phone works. He's like, "If it doesn't work, you have to change your seat," or something like that. It's a funny kind of conceit, is that you plug into the electronic world so much, you don't notice you're in a bus where the bathroom really stinks.

BKM: Can electronics overcome Greyhound bathrooms, that's the question.

GS: Yeah. You learned really quickly to sit as far away from the bathroom as possible, so you sit up front. I have to say, that in terms of understanding America, in terms of getting a good idea of what the center's like, nothing beats the Greyhound. You leave the coast behind, if you take a cross-country trip you do. You see what things are. During this trip, I kept meeting people. The bus trip was primarily through the South.

Throughout the trip, people would tell me, "Hilary's not going to win." It was the first time I'd ever heard anything like that. People would say, "Well, she's not going to win. She's going to lose Ohio and Pennsylvania," which I thought was ridiculous. I thought Ohio perhaps, but Pennsylvania, come on. That was crazy. These people seemed to know more than I did about the state of the country.

It was a real shock. So much of what happens in Lake Success is journalistic in nature. The white supremacists that Barry meets in Louisiana, that really happened. That was pretty much the dialogue that I heard. All this stuff is out there. Again, I knew there were white supremacists in the country, but what was different I think was that, during the first summer of Trump, they were able to talk so loudly about how they felt on a bus comprised mostly of African American passengers.

Speaking of Gary Shteyngart, lake Success

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