Most stories about relationships in literature, TV, and film end one of two ways: The couple breaks up, or else they live happily ever after. But in a conversation for this series, Gary Shteyngart, the author of Lake Success, discussed a third possibility. He described how Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Dog” ends not with a breakup or a wedding, but with a cliff-hanger, a brilliant, muscular last sentence that assures us the characters will stay together, even though their troubles will only deepen. We talked about the story’s stunning final moment, why Shteyngart feels it’s one of the wisest sentences in literature, and what it has to do with the creative process—where the most difficult part is always just beginning.
Lake Success’s protagonist is a hedge-fund manager named Barry Cohen, a clownish and hypocritical one-percenter who drowns his sorrows one $33,000 bottle of whiskey at a time. Dimly aware that his wealth may be ruining his life, Barry takes a quixotic trip across America by Greyhound—minus his credit cards, though he insists on toting along his collection of luxury timepieces. But this search for self-discovery is itself rooted in denial: He’s also left behind his wife and his nonverbal 3-year-old son, whose autism diagnosis Barry cannot bring himself to face. The novel is a darkly comic journey to the heart of Donald Trump–era America, one that explores the wages of narcissism, skewers the excesses of the ultrarich, and ultimately probes the hope that we may find ways to get beyond our starkly defined differences and be better to one another.