Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and the prescient Super Sad True Love Story, is one of America’s funniest novelists. In his new book, Lake Success, Shteyngart’s hilarity hitches the reader with zeitgeist-y introspection and brilliant pathos. It is 2016, and his complex protagonist is Barry Cohen, a super-rich Republican hedgie, on the run from legal and family dramas in Manhattan. Barry rides Greyhound buses across the “American berserk,” in search of his university sweetheart on the Tex-Mex border. Shteyngart, hair wet from swimming a mile in a pool outside his upstate New York dacha, spoke with Maclean’s about—among other things—his native Russia and the dark comedy of Trump’s America.
Q: F. Scott Fitzgerald is a potent leitmotif through Lake Success. “They were careless people,” he put it immortally in The Great Gatsby. “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Still resonates in the era of Republican leaders like Paul Ryan, doesn’t it?
A: Yeah, Republican leaders, but also everyone else. All our elites suck! From the bankers to the software people to the politicians, obviously. It’s the greediest, most selfish group of people, I think, in the history of this country, combined with the most moronic people. It’s the worst of all worlds. I’ve met a lot of these people throughout my journeys and in researching this novel, and they’re not happy either. It’s [The Simpsons’] Mr. Burns syndrome, thinking that stealing money from babies is going to make you happy. But in the end it doesn’t, it just makes you want to steal more. It’s kinda hopeless. No one’s happy. I think the only people I met who were really happy were people who are upper-middle-class working in the community, having real jobs that interplay with people. Everyone else, the very rich and the very poor, are not happy.
Q: Researching Lake Success, you got the sense of it being twilight if not sunset for the American middle class?
A: Yeah, and if the middle class goes, then the rest of the country goes. This is our claim to fame, a middle-class country, a non-kleptocracy if you will. When I got on that bus in June of 2016, I thought Hillary was going to win, though this is getting a bit ugly. So the trolls were after me and after all the other journalists, writers, Jews. But I thought, well, this’ll pass and Hillary will win. But by the time I got off the bus in September in California, I still thought Hillary might triumph, but I was already looking for real estate in Canada. I started going on Sotheby’s looking for Montreal real estate, which is really cheap and good. I recently got back from a long food journey through Montreal. It’s a four-hour drive from where I am in upstate New York. You get to leave the “American berserk,” as Philip Roth called it. Crossing that border, it’s a big sigh of relief. It’s like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale, when they’re all trying to flee to Canada. Just being in Quebec is such a load off. There’s really no part of Canada I haven’t liked so far. I love Montreal and Vancouver. Toronto is great. I actually like Winnipeg, I did a reading there. I’m gonna visit Calgary soon. My wife and I were married in Grise Fiord, the northernmost civilian settlement in Arctic Canada. My wife really likes Inuit culture, so we hung out with the Inuit up there. We ate whale and caribou. There’s a lot of delicious things to eat. So, just get rid of Doug Ford and I’d love to join you guys.
Q: The disquisitions on subjugation are stimulating reading in Lake Success.
A: So many of my previous books were about dealing with a dictatorship, an authoritarian system, tending to be Russia or the Soviet Union, as in Absurdistan. That’s what I grew up with, that was a known quantity. You knew that they were up to no good, but I never thought it would infect America the way it has. I always thought that in the end, Russia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, would become more and more like America, develop not just free markets, but a civil society. In the end, what happened was America became more and more like Russia. America decided to become a kleptocracy, with a news channel like Fox that pretty much mirrors what the government-controlled networks do in Russia today. Who knew that in so many ways, the authoritarianism of the former Soviet Union and today’s Russia would become so attractive to the Republican Party, which is now of course the dominant party in every single way? They dominate, of course, the Supreme Court at this point. They dominate the legislature, the presidency, and even more subversively they dominate the state legislatures. It’s not a one-party rule yet, but it could be. There was recently a poll that 40 per cent of Republicans have no problem with Russia interfering in elections. Eleven per cent say they should interfere. So, for me as an immigrant from the Soviet Union, this is all looking very familiar. So how do I not write about that at this point? I have to.
Q: “Russia’s like having a girlfriend or a boyfriend that you think will change if you just give them enough time, but that never happens,” was one of your sharp lines last time we spoke.
A: Yeah, that never happens. But now the girlfriend has become more cunning. The girlfriend has figured out how to get what she wants. You have to hand it to the Russians, they figured this out. They’ve done it using very limited resources. They’ve done a lot of damage to this country, to the fabric of this country and to other countries, too, like what happened with Brexit. You can almost gauge the resiliency of a democracy by how well they responded to Russian overtures. Italy has not passed the test. Germany has passed, but not with flying colours. France has passed. Russians are going to keep trying to doing this. Take my first quote and then it’s the girlfriend fights back, if you will. There has probably been a dossier on Trump since he first visited the Soviet Union in 1987. Trump is the perfect chump.
Q:Judd Apatow says, “There’s an enormous amount of dark comedy in all of this.”
A: These are the perfect times for dark comedy. The problem really is, as a satirist, where do you go? Everything is satire, as when Sarah Huckabee is on that podium. If this was happening on another planet, I’d be cracking up and saying, “God, these poor suckers, how could something so ridiculous be happening?” But because it’s happening to the country I’m living in, a country that influences everything that happens around the world, it’s very dire…Only we could elect someone so stupid. I can’t think of any other country in the world where this would be possible. What does that say about us? Although, what does it say about Ontario, which just elected Doug Ford? I wish Canadians could explain that to me. The fear right now is that Trump will give way to someone who’s like him in terms of his beliefs: racism, misogyny, etc. But who is actually more competent, who can get things done? There’s a case to be made that Mike Pence would be a more harmful president than Trump. So I get that… If you instituted the regime in The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead, Pence would be absolutely happy with that…Anything that’s ordained by the Old Testament is Pencey’s world. It’s scary.
Q: In Lake Success, you pen that evocative encounter with the menacing Info Wars addict on Barry’s Greyhound bus: “Mike Pence is a good man. He knows that big things are coming. That’s why they nailed the Jews to the cross.”
A: A lot of what you see in Lake Success is reportage, not really fiction. There was a guy who talked about all this stuff. I was in a bus stop in Shreveport, La., looking to buy a New Testament colouring book. All the stuff was really happening. I knew from Twitter already that there was this burbling of far-right and neo-Nazi stuff. I knew there were trolls, and the whole concept was already evident to me by the time I got to Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, that part of the trip. But seeing it in the flesh was interesting and very unexpected to me. Seeing white people talk about white supremacy on a bus that was mostly African Americans [passengers], many of whom pretended that they were asleep. Everything [Trump] was such a surprise to us journalists in New York and L.A. Every foreign journalist who wants to cover America, I think the first thing they should do is get on a Greyhound, go across the country, maybe go back and forth. Because what you learn, what you see, is not what you see on the Upper West Side.
Q: Speaking of Greyhound sightings, does South Carolina really still have adult video emporiums?
A: Yes. Again, if you’re reading something in the book, chances are, if Barry’s seeing something, I saw it. There’s almost no imagination taking place in the writing of this book. A giant adult emporium makes no sense anymore. Everyone has the Internet and downloads their porn that way. But here in the middle of rural South Carolina was the gigantic adult video emporium, the size of a Walmart, and you’re like, “What the hell?” I wish the bus had stopped. I guess the local residents don’t have broadband Internet but instead have VHS or DVD or whatever it is that they have and then all congregate there. Does that mean that they all kind of see each other at the emporium? “Hey Sally, what are you getting? Buttmunchers’ Three? That was a good one, right?” Maybe they swing at the emporium? I’m completely enthralled by the idea that this exists. There’s also a string of evangelical or Baptist churches. You can’t make this up.
Q: Then there is Barry’s erotic experience with the woman named Brooklyn, with the memorable line, “Nobody really had actual sex anymore since the Internet, but it was fine.”
A: I read about a lot about this, how in parts of Asia, sex is really no longer done. People have decided to skip it, or even skip social relationships in general. It’s a whole new world. Super Sad True Love Story was about how technology was going to screw us all, and I feel somewhat vindicated about my prognosticating powers, in that technology has screwed us all, Facebook has destroyed democracy in a way. After Super Sad it only took eight years for most of that shit to happen. It’s only going to get worse unless we figure a way to hack this system, a way to get out of the system. But I think the genie’s out of the bottle in the way that all this nonsense is personally tailored and delivered to you. I don’t know how we’re going to save democracy at this point.
Q: Across social media’s political spectrum, politics seems like angry masturbation.
A: Yeah, such angry masturbation… If you look at the Trump phenomenon, what do you see? The primary emotion is anger. Just endless anger! Which stems from pain, from fear, from stupidity, from all the other things, but the primary focus is anger. I think that’s what social media and the Internet and all this stuff is good at. These platforms are anger-delivering systems, and of course they’re not going to work to create something good in the end. I remember when people were talking about Twitter, that it was gonna be a million Tahrir Squares, that everything was gonna change around the world. But quite the opposite happened. Even in Egypt, even in the Tahrir Square, a couple of years later there was an authoritarian system. So all these great hopes were very misbegotten. Somehow I knew when I was writing Super Sad that all of this was going to be a disaster.