Lake Success: Fiction in an Age Beyond Belief

Lake SuccessHow do you write fiction in an age that is beyond belief?

Gary Shteyngart demonstrates how in his funny new novel, Lake Success.

Shteyngart is a novelist of decline, previously aiming his lens at the former Soviet Union in Absurdistan. He writes of societies in collapse, his characters powerless to stop the farcical sweep of history.

The rot that began overseas has now come here, personified by Donald Trump, who loiters on the periphery of this book set in the summer of 2016. He’s the disaster that won’t happen, the New Yorkers in the book assure themselves. We, of course, know better.

Shteyngart doesn’t typically write about winners. But he does so in Lake Success, the book centered on a pair of the 1%, a hedge fund manager and his wife. Despite their astronomical wealth, and all the luxuries it can buy, they are desperately unhappy. Their son is autistic, a diagnosis that they refuse to admit to themselves or their families. All the money in the world can’t fix him, a situation that sends both of them spiraling out of control.

Barry breaks first, making a run for it, with his $2.4 billion hedge fund collapsing and the SEC on his trail. Throwing away his iPhone and going off the grid, he takes a nostalgic journey – on Greyhound – in search of an ex-girlfriend and the path not taken.

Shteyngart is a New York novelist. No one writes better of the delights and terrors of the city. There’s a great passage at the beginning of the book where Barry stumbles into the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 4 AM, drunk, bleeding and incoherent. To the cops stationed there, “he looked just like another New Yorker.”

The bulk of the novel is Barry traveling by bus across the country, meeting a very different world from his hedge fund manager associates. These chapters are not as strong as the New York sections, lacking the detail and emotional connection of his Gotham work. While there are funny vignettes of dead downtowns (Germans on a tour of “The Wire” locations in Baltimore), they seem rushed and superficial.

While Barry goes in search of his past, his wife Seema is left to clean up the mess. After engaging in an affair with poseur novelist, she’s forced to be truthful with her striving Indian family about her son’s condition. She also must confront the truth of her own life. Is she more than a rich man’s wife?

In Lake Success, Shteyngart writes about Trump without writing about Trump. Barry has benefited enormously from our leveraged economy, memorably described as a man who goes like a thief in the night, stealing a little bit from every house he visits. And, like Trump, he makes and loses immense sums, with little consequence to himself, but enormous consequences to the country as a whole.

Despite the topical theme, it’s not his best book about our times.

Super Sad True Love Story is a better novel. Without the burden of the present, Shteyngart creates a New York and a country gone mad, teetering on the edge of financial collapse, and the deluded, dream-like worlds of Americans who don’t realize that their world is about to end. Brilliant, hilarious and heart-breaking, it’s a love letter to a country that’s about to disappear.

Everything by Shteyngart is worth reading but if I was new to the author, I’d start with Super Sad True Love Story, his masterpiece.

Walking Away from Democracy

crazy stupid sign

The rain, sadly, ended in time for the Walk Away pro-Trump rally in Washington, DC.

Supposedly a group of ex-Democrats who had “walked away” from the party, they gathered, a couple hundred of them, on the concrete expanse of Freedom Plaza.

The Florida bomber wasn’t mentioned. Nor the Pittsburgh shooter. Instead, they complained that they were the victims, renounced by friends and family for “walking away” from liberalism.

Over and over, speakers claimed that they weren’t racist, to a very white and old crowd. I have never seen so much vaping in DC. One woman said that she couldn’t be racist because she had a black husband and a black baby.

“You won’t see this picture on the mainstream media!” she shouted in front of a collage of portraits of people in the movement, steps away from the Press tent, where the media could check in. Trumpkins desperately want coverage from the media that they scorn.

Political group demonstrates in DC isn’t news, especially if there’s only a couple hundred of them. This is a city which has seen anti-Trump demonstrators by the millions.

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Another speaker bragged of his ignorance. He only got the news from Twitter, as a couple circulated through the crowd holding a “Q” in red, white and blue. It’s the right’s favorite conspiracy theory, too complex and stupid to summarize. Basically, the government that Republicans have cursed as incompetent is secretly so competent that they can organize a deep state conspiracy against Trump.

The dangerous part is that these conspiracy theorists believe that Trump will strike back soon, with a military coup, that they cheer and encourage, as they work to make Trump a dictator.

It’s important to know your enemy. I went to see and record their anti-democratic beliefs and oddball notions. There is a temptation to ignore the madness of our fellow citizens.

But it’s better to know what they believe, for they are Trump’s base and provide cover for acts of violence like the Florida bomber. They are the sea in which terrorists swim.

For the Trump movement is a fascist movement. If the leader of another country called the media “enemies of the people” and winked at acts of violence against them, that’s how the American media would cover it. They’d call it fascism and refer to Trumpkins as right-wing militias or violent supporters of the regime.

But, since it’s here, we deny what occurs before our very eyes. We can’t be 1970s Argentina. Or Franco’s Spain. Yet, we have much in common with these fascist states, including a vast military, economic inequality and a leader’s cult of personality.

We should take seriously the words of Trump supporters. Calls for dictatorship and violent suppression of enemies (“lock her up”) are preparation for the real thing.

A couple hundred people rally in DC, walking away from reality and into the comfort of authoritarianism. It’s easy to mock them as old and stupid and sick. But we do so at our peril.

America Needs Diplomats

War on Peace

Ronan Farrow has done the impossible in War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, creating a story about bureaucracy that’s compelling and relevant to our troubled times. In this account of recent American diplomatic history, he reveals how the State Department has been hollowed out by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, to the detriment of our national interests.

Standing in for a robust, bipartisan American approach to international relations is the towering figure of Richard Holbrooke, who Farrow worked for at the State Department. He brought peace to the Balkans by literally locking squabbling leaders in a room. His mix of personal charisma, backed with American power, was indispensable in the Clinton era.

But not for Barack Obama, who disdained this figure tied to his political opponents. While he was eventually called to serve, and given the hopeless task for bringing peace to Afghanistan, he was undercut by an administration under the sway of its generals. Foreign policy problems, like coming to some sort of accommodation with the Taliban, became military problems and handled with the same kind of counter-insurgency tactics that failed in the Vietnam War.

Holbrooke lived long enough to see America escape one nation-building exercise, Vietnam, only to become embroiled in another one in Afghanistan.

Farrow makes the case that America needs its diplomats in War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence. Sadly, the decline that began under Bush and Obama has only accelerated under the nationalist Trump. We don’t even have ambassadors in hotspots like Saudi Arabia, anymore. Instead, our country is represented by double-dealing members of the Trump/Kushner crime family, who are focused on personal profits rather than our long-term national interests. This would be an anathema to Richard Holbrooke and any of the giants that built the peaceful post-war world that we enjoy.

City Paper Fiction Issue Needs Submissions!

You can’t escape the news. It’s everywhere in 2018, blaring from TV sets and buzzing across iPhones. Every day, a new outrage, as America stumbles through the year, like a drunk on the edge of a subway platform.

Sure, you see the headlines emanating from Washington, DC, but what’s it like to live here?

For that, you need fiction, which can not only tell you what’s going on but make you feel it as well. Short stories allow you to inhabit the mind of another person, seeing the world through their eyes, and uncovering their terrors and anxieties, which may be different than yours.

Or they may be the same. The last City Paper Fiction Issue in 2017 featured three stories of electoral disaster, with my piece, Victory Party, the winner. Three fictional works that took you into the id of a city, uncovering its existential terror and disbelief.

That’s another thing about writing fiction: it’s therapy. Victory Party was my attempt to define our disordered reality in neat words and paragraphs.

And it was an amazing experience to see my winning short story in print all over the city. I got to do a reading, too, at Kramerbooks, which was the experience of a lifetime.

The contest is back! The City Paper is calling for submissions for their upcoming fiction issue. It’s only 2000 words – that’s nothing! You’ve probably written longer emails. The deadline is November 11.

Writing a short story about DC will help others understand what it’s like to live in a place where so much is so wrong. And it might help you, too.

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Art from Injury: Ocean Agate by Theresa Amelia

Theresa Hillsdon and Ocean Agate

The brain is a mysterious thing.

After suffering a concussion, Theresa Amelia turned to art for healing, depicting the shapes that she saw in her mind after her injury.

The result is the beautiful work pictured above – Ocean Agate – that now hangs in a home in Georgetown. It’s mixed media, weighing in at 45 pounds, and features glass and crushed gemstones that glitter in the light, including over 25,000 hand-set mosaic pieces of glass, 20,000 hand-set pieces of tumbled or raw gemstones (Brazilian Aquamarine, Lapis Lazuli, Green Agate, Blue Soapstone, and Green Bloodstone) and over 20,000 ml of poured, custom colored acrylic resin.

Theresa was not an artist before her traumatic brain injury. While she did have a visual sense, from her experience as a photographer, to develop the skills, focus and vision to produce a work of art like Ocean Agate is an almost unexplainable leap. She spent more than 240 hours in its creation.

The injury changed her, producing innumerable negative consequences (like memory loss) but a few positive changes, as precious and as rare as the stones used in Ocean Agate. In addition to her newfound artistic ability, she now empathizes with people in a way that she never had before, feeling what they feel just by looking at them. Maybe this is due to her realization of the fragility of our consciousness or maybe the injury unlocked a part of her brain that we no longer use, this kind of empathy unsuitable for our busy, complicated societies.

Art provides consolation and a way to work through difficult times. Art therapy is used to help veterans returning from combat – traumatic brain injury is a “signature injury” from our endless wars.

And in some cases, brain injuries can lead to extraordinary art.

Thankfully, I’ve never had a concussion. But I’ve seen friends after it’s happened. They are truly not themselves, not knowing where they are or their own name. Experiences like that teach you that our identities are thin and flimsy things, held together by a few membranes in our heads.

Safe Streets Needed in the Nation’s Capital

Man blocks traffic to protest city's negligence in protecting people

“A tragedy,” you hear on the news but when you encounter real grief it’s almost impossible to process. You look away from the mother alone in her pain. She lost her son doing something that should be safe – riding an electric scooter in Washington, DC.

And here she was, days after his death, on the spot where he was killed, as cars honked and drivers cursed.

This was the scene at the memorial ride for Carlos Sanchez-Martin, who was run over by an SUV in a Dupont Circle crosswalk. A white ghost scooter was erected to memorialize him, placed at the spot where he died. We then occupied the street for ten minutes, placing our bikes and our bodies on the asphalt for safe streets.

Drivers couldn’t wait ten minutes. Someone died here and they couldn’t wait ten minutes. They honked and honked and a couple even got out of their cars to confront us, a situation thankfully defused by the Metropolitan Police Department.

Ten minutes. Drivers won’t even give ten minutes for someone that they killed. This is why we need safe streets in the nation’s capital.

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After the ten minutes were up, we left the intersection. Drivers poured through, nearly hitting people in the same crosswalk where Carlos Sanchez-Martin was killed. Drivers ran red lights despite the presence of uniformed officers. No tickets were issued.

Rachel Maisler organized the memorial ride. It has become her sad duty to coordinate these events, having brought mourners together for cyclist deaths on H Street and M Street.

And there will be another one, on Thursday, for Thomas A. Hollowell, who was hit by a red-light runner at 12th and Constitution, just off the National Mall.

If you’re murdered by a gun in this city, the police flood the neighborhood. Lights are put up. Squad cars are posted on corners to reassure people that they’re safe.

But if you’re a murdered by a car, nothing is done. I visited 12th and Pennsylvania the day after Hollowell’s death and cars were still running red lights. A more enlightened city would make physical changes to the intersection to make it safer and crackdown on red light runners.

But not the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). Safety is not a priority for this unresponsive bureaucracy.

At the memorial for Carlos Sanchez-Martin, a man sat down in the street. This wasn’t planned – no one even knew who he was. He sat down in front of four lanes of traffic with his scooter next to him.

DDOT does so little to stop rampaging drivers that ordinary citizens are willing to put their bodies on the line for safe streets.

The memorial rides are grassroots affairs. Organized by Rachel Maisler, they have forced the city to make changes that keep people safe, like removing parking spaces on the M St bike lane. Negative media coverage is the only thing that DDOT responds to.

The memorial ride for Thomas Hollowell is Thursday 5:30 PM at Farragut Square. People on bikes, scooters, rollerblades or even just walking – anyone who believes in safe streets is welcome. Wear white. It will be a silent procession to where Hollowell lost his life. Follow Rachel Maisler on Twitter for more details.

The Man Who Came Uptown

The Man Who Came Uptown

Can a book change a life?

Anna thinks so, believing that putting the right book in the right hands at the right time can turn someone around. She’s a librarian at the DC Jail, responsible for picking out titles for troubled men. With time on their hands, they are avid readers, devouring everything from Westerns to Steinbeck.

One of the men is Michael Hudson, facing a felony gun charge. He’s freed, thanks to Phil Ornazian, a private investigator, who sprung Michael to involve him in a series of armed robberies. Phil, and his partner, an ex-cop, target drug dealers and pimps. They think that they’re the good guys.

With a library card and a new-found love for reading, Michael is trying to go straight. Can he escape those who seek to entrap him in criminality?

That’s the basic plot of The Man Who Came Uptown but the novel is really about the line between good and bad. Pelecanos is great when it comes to depicting men who operate on both sides of the law, people who commit violence in the name of justice. But once you cross into that kind of criminality, is it possible to come back without consequence?

His style can be awkward at first, with characters that speak in exposition, explaining things like gentrification in ponderous sentences.

But if you live in DC, this is a must read. George Pelecanos portrays a gritty Washington of neighborhoods far from the monumental core. It’s also a love letter to books and the DC Public Library system, a feeling that I share.

There really is a library at the DC jail. Books can change a life. It’s possible to come back from bad and rediscover your essential goodness.

Shameless Plug: If you liked The Man Who Came Uptown, check out my crime novel Murder on U Street. It traverses many of the same neighborhoods as Pelecanos’ book but with more of a satiric bite.

Chasing the Great American Eclipse

Chasing the Great American Eclipse

Watching the sun go dark in the middle of the day will change how you look at the world. Suddenly, everything you thought of as permanent seems transitory, made even more precious by the idea that the world we know could disappear in an instant.

That was my experience seeing the eclipse last year in western North Carolina, a moment that was both humbling and inspiring.

I was delighted to see my essay and photos in Chasing the Great American Eclipse, a new photobook that documents last year’s epic solar event. This gorgeous tome follows the eclipse as it darkens the United States, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, with stories and images from a nation brought together, if just for a moment.

Letter from Washington: The Choice

U Street Metro

The second cop was serious.

I had been stopped within minutes of crossing the border, my rental car with out-of-state plates a magnet for Kansas police looking for drug smugglers from pot-friendly Colorado. The first set of officers were in a black SUV. I was speeding, as was everyone else that morning on I-70. The officer wasn’t even in a police uniform I recognized but, instead, clad in black from head to toe and wearing body armor, as if he was about to engage heavily armed terrorists on the burnt plains of western Kansas. He peered into my car and told me to slow down.

The second cop was alone. A state trooper. I had slowed down after the first encounter. This one said I had swerved in my lane.

“I’m just going to give you a warning,” he announced. “Where are you coming from by the way?”

“Colorado.”

“What you doing out there?” he asked, pretext blossoming in his mind.

“I went to bike around,” I said, pointing to my bike in the back. I had spent a couple days biking around Frisco and then visiting friends in Denver.

He chatted me up, asking about Frisco and sharing how he had visited there with his son for a baseball tournament. Then he took my license and returned to his car for a very long time.

A good ten minutes passed, more than enough time to write a warning. I realize now that he was watching me to see my reaction. Would I squirm? Toss something out of the car? Fidget nervously? I just sat there, wondering how long it would take me to get out of this flat state full of aggressive police.

Then he returned.

“You don’t have any drugs or guns in the car do you?” he asked.

“No.”

“Do you mind if I search your car?”

It’s a good thing that I’m from Washington, DC, and have dealt with security theater for years. I’ve removed my belt to go through metal detectors, been prodded by rent-a-cops in dimly lit lobbies and had a suspicious granola bar removed from my backpack at the Capitol. I’ve been yelled at by the Security Service for the crime of riding my bike in the street and ordered off the Ellipse during the government shutdown by the Park Police.

“Sure,” I said.

Leaning into my front seat, he zipped open my backpack and peered into it. Then he opened the backseat and did the same to my suitcase.

And then he let me go. Quite the clever little operation he had going – promise just a warning, watch to see if the suspect does anything suspicious and then ask to search the vehicle. How could you refuse?

If I had been an immigrant, a person of color or anything other than a white man with a spotless record, I’d be in jail right now. Guilty or not, he would’ve found a pretext.

A few days later, I was back in DC. Glad to be out of a car, I returned to my auto-free lifestyle, making my way around the city by foot, bike and, occasionally, by Metro.

Metro was a wonder a decade ago, an essential piece of the city that you just assumed would work and always be there. Now, neither guarantee is in place, as we’ve let this vital piece of infrastructure decay and collapse.

But, occasionally, you get glimpses of its past glory. Yesterday, there was a photo exhibit opening that I wanted to attend in Crystal City. It’s an easy bike ride, less than thirty minutes, but on Friday the skies opened up, a week’s worth of heat ending in monsoon rains.

I took the Metro, prepared for the worst of rush hour. But I waited less than a minute at Dupont Circle for a Red Line train. And no wait at L’Enfant Plaza, as I switched trains. The train emerged from a tunnel on a bridge over the Potomac, the skies dark, the 14th St Bridge bright with red taillights of Virginia-bound cars. A couple more stops and I was in the underground warren of Crystal City, as traffic in the city ground to a halt due to flooding. Returning home was equally easy.

Cities need subways. A nation’s capital especially needs one for the thousands of federal workers that rely on it every day. And god forbid there’s an actual emergency in Washington – you’re not evacuating the city on streets that gridlock during mere rain.

We’re told there’s no money for a working Metro. No money for health care. No help for the poor. That’s socialism.

But there’s plenty of money to patrol the wastelands of Kansas. Cash grants are available to outfit corn-fed yahoos with assault weapons, body armor and gas-guzzling SUVs. Federal funds flow out of Washington, where they are needed to fix the Metro, to the empty quarter of America.

It doesn’t have to be this way. To quote Barack Obama’s recent speech, the upcoming midterms offer us, “one of those pivotal moments when every one of us, as citizens of the United States, need to determine just who it is that we are.”

Are we a nation that jails immigrant children, punishes the poor and wastes billions on a vast security state or are we a people that invests in a future that we can all share? Find out on November 6.

Capital Bikeshare Plus: First Impressions

Capital Bikeshare Plus

Capital Bikeshare goes electric!

CaBi has added electric bikes to their arsenal, as part of a pilot program that runs through November. Capital BikeShare Plus, they call it. These new ebikes are designed to be used just like the iconic red bikes, integrating seamlessly into the existing Capital Bikeshare system. There’s no additional charge to use them for CaBi members.

As a long-time CaBi user, I was anxious to try one. I checked the CaBi app and saw that one was available, delineated with a little lightning bolt on the map. Shazam!

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The electric bikes are black and easy to spot. I unlocked it from the dock the way I do with any other CaBi, with a fob on my keychain. Among the many things that Capital Bikeshare gets right is ease of use.

Pulling it out of the dock, I noticed it looks and feels almost exactly like the familiar red bikes. If it’s heavier, I didn’t notice, and it handles just like a CaBi, except faster.

There are a few key differences, however, the biggest being pedal assist. To activate it, you press a button on the battery on the bike. I expected a light or something to turn on. Nothing did.

But, after I got on and pressed down on the pedal, I knew: this is on! Almost too on, sending me flying down the sidewalk before I was fully prepared.

Capital BikeShare Plus bikes have three gears, just like the red bikes, and, like the red bikes, the first two gears are useless.  a variable transmission, according to the ever-knowledgeable Mr. T in DC. Like I do with the three-speed CaBis, I kept it in the highest gear.

There are a couple other nice additions to the bike too. The first being a functional basket, rather than the magazine rack on normal CaBis. The fenders are longer and more robust. The bell is better, too, built in to the handlebars rather than hanging off it.

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But you don’t care about that. How fast is it?

Fast. While the top speed is limited to 18 mph, you get up to that speed almost instantly. A couple turns of the pedal, the motor kicks in and you’re merrily racing along.

I tried not to be a jerk about it. I didn’t blow by cyclists going uphill, but instead let my speed drop, following them as they labored over the gears like factory workers.  On straightaways, I passed “serious” cyclists on road bikes, hunched over, sweating, lycra-clad, while I rode by, smiling, upright, in a polo shirt.

Speed is fun. Americans love speed and 18 mph in a world where everyone is going ten seems helluva fast.

But where e-bikes shine is going uphill. I had to go to an appointment near L’Enfant Plaza. With my speedy CaBi Plus, I got there early. With time to kill, I decided to test the bike by taking it up the steep slope of Capitol Hill on the sweatiest, hottest morning of September.

And it was no work at all, the bike climbing the hill almost effortlessly. If I had taken a non-electric CaBi, I’d be nearing a heart attack when I reached the top, but with CaBi Plus, my heart rate barely changed.

On the way back down Capitol Hill, I followed a guy in a suit on an electric scooter, a sign that e-transportation is the future. Electric bikes and scooters are ideal for short trips, particularly in cities. The coming decades may not belong to Tesla but to something much simpler: electric bikes.

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CaBi Plus, and electric bikes in general, are also perfect the vast majority of Americans who don’t feel comfortable on a bike. Pedal assist allows people with health issues to ride again, as well as people who don’t want to get sweaty. They also allow people to get up to speed quickly, which is useful when commuting in traffic.

I was sad to return Capital BikeShare Plus to the dock – that’s when you know it’s love. But there are eighty of them in the city so I’m sure we will meet again.