Robert, the protagonist of this week’s story, “The Sightseers,” is a
member of New York’s moneyed élite, making millions a year and living
with his wife and children high above the city, in an apartment
overlooking Central Park. When did you first start thinking about him?
How do you expect a reader to approach him?
Honestly, I’m not sure. I wanted to present Robert as someone who has,
for all intents and purposes, achieved the American Dream. From modest
beginnings he’s now knee-deep within the one per cent. He’s married the
perfect woman. He lives in an aerie overlooking the feeding grounds of
Manhattan. All that jazz. Once those conditions were set, I needed to
finesse a character who has his feet in extreme privilege while his head
is drifting elsewhere. There are glimpses of his overt performance; of
his fondness for an earlier, purer existence; of his present-day doubts
and sublimated anger. Something is not quite right with Robert. The
striver is striving for Consciousness, which is one of those rare things
that money cannot buy. He’s basically a dream of himself, and, in the
end, he enters uncanny terrain. No doubt this is a familiar type, maybe
even bordering on cliché, yet I think the struggle is familiar and
relatable, minus the many millions and millions and millions of dollars
involved. That said, this is also satire and so inhabits the broad
implications of that form.
Robert’s family is making its second foray into “funded tourism,”
sponsoring a vacation in New York for a family called the Herons, and
following their progress—Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, “Wicked”—via live streams from cameras the parents and kids are wearing.
Did you know from the outset that the story would include this element?
Do you want it to feel futuristic, or as if it could be happening right now?
The premise came first. I was trapped behind a group of tourists who had
just unloaded from a tour bus, and they were both excited and
beleaguered, taking pictures and yet also guarding their bags from
potential pickpockets. They seemed to be almost like actors who knew
they had to express proper awe and wonder in order to justify the
hassle. This hot dog had to be the best New York hot dog. This Broadway
show had to be the best Broadway show. Everything was heightened. This
blind need for the quintessential seemed sweet and naïve. This is New
York! And then came the almost giddy suggestion from a friend of mine:
what if rich people paid for this experience so they might vicariously
go through this simpler, purer version of tourism—sort of a mix of
crowdfunding and reality show. They could feel good about their
charitable selves and also feel superior in terms of their own version
of this pursuit—rich people never wait in lines; rich people participate
in highly curated travel experiences; rich people have bottomless
access. Anyway, it seemed like a weird, dark idea, and not too far from
New York is the city of Robert’s adulthood—he grew up in Susquehanna,
Pennsylvania, and he’s nostalgic for the city as it was in the moment he
arrived, just after college. His wife is a native Upper East Sider.
Robert thinks that “change for her was more a matter of replacement,
nostalgia a series of trends circulating the same theme of money.” Do
you agree with him? Can only an outsider have such a sentimental
relationship with New York, imagining the New York of 1989, say, to be
the true New York?
Seems to me there is no true New York, only your New York. It is the
most subjective of cities, a place that is hard not to take personally.
But native New Yorkers have an odd relationship with their home town.
While we notice the changes and take great pleasure in cataloguing what
has been lost and what will never be regained—sorry, newbies—we often
miss our own stake in the matter, like lobsters in the pot who ask for a
warmer bath, please. In my mind, the heat has always been about money,
whether high or low or in between, money as ambition, money as
historical marker (remembrance of real-estate prices past), money as a
measure of success, money as a source of fame—but since we have swum in
this water all our life, we don’t notice the temperature change, only
the pinking of our shells and the new, delicious smells. We have seen it
all, we say, even as we are being cracked open and dipped in butter.
O.K., that simile got away from me.
What kind of version of the city are the Herons experiencing? Is it a
They are certainly seeing a version of the city, and seeing this version
under the gun of the clock. They’ve got to cram in all the sights;
otherwise, what’s the point? I often feel this way when travelling, as
if I have to be this A-plus student and hit every museum and famous church
and important monument and landmark—oh, and also have the most perfect
meal in a well-known yet obscure restaurant. We crave the genuine, the
local, the authentic, even as we are being pulled along by our noses.
It’s the same with Yelp. I’ll go to a new city and I’ll look up the best
Mexican restaurants within a mile, and already I’m done, already I’ve
left behind any semblance of what it means to be a traveller, already I
am participating in mass, preordained movement. But God forbid I eat a
lesser burrito when I know there is a mind-blowing burrito somewhere in
this neighborhood. So the Herons are not really experiencing their own
New York until they escape and lose the presence of these amused
observers. In that moment, they’re reinventing themselves—the most
classic of New York moves—and they become both dangerous and intriguing.
Robert is attuned to the micro gradations of class and status in his
social world, and the game of one-upmanship, sometimes overt, sometimes
concealed, that he and his peers are engaged in. How constraining do you
want us to feel that society is? And how much has it shaped the contours
of his marriage and family life? Do you think that Robert would ever be
prepared to blow it all up?
Well, I do think that they’re trapped within this mode of money and
prestige. As I say in the story, they’re hostage to their own
opportunity. This allows them to avoid the more complicated issues of
what it means to be human: to suffer, to fail, to question existence, to
struggle and in the struggle discover deeper connections. Instead,
there’s the daily competition to win at life, as though life plays by
those rules. This hinders the ability to be vulnerable, to express
weakness. Relationships can only go so far. Because everything can
always be better—and this is from people who have everything. It’s like
obsessive-compulsive consumerism. Robert understands this in his gut. He
leans on “Om namah Shivaya” without knowing its meaning. He’s drawn
into the mysterious beating heart of Rothko. And by the last paragraph
he has a vision in the wilderness.
These are people who have foundations, who make big donations to
liberal causes, who seek to rectify structural issues of discrimination
and inequality. How do you think they view New York’s inequalities?
I hope as unsustainable, but for the most part they’ve made their money
within a system that depends on discrimination and inequality. And
organizations that fight discrimination and inequality often depend on
large gifts from these individuals and their corporations. It’s this
closed loop. The dark shadow of the American Dream. And Manhattan has
been hollowed by this wealth, certainly corrupted. I think that people
nowadays view paying their taxes as a form of charity. Big money has
become like a fossil fuel.
Partway through their vacation, the Herons appear to abandon their
itinerary—their cams show only the ceiling of their hotel room. At the
end of the story, when Robert is walking his dog in Central Park, he
starts to imagine that the Herons are in the park, too. “He could feel
their contempt radiating in the stillness. As if they were wild
creatures. Eternally screwed and on the hunt.” Do you want to invert the
power dynamic in that moment? Can the Herons ever triumph over the
Roberts of the world?
Yeah, I wanted to have the Herons represent the scary other, perhaps the
fear of red states spilling blood on the blue states. We live in edgy
times. It feels like sides are being drawn, battle plans readied. The
terrible dehumanization of enemies has begun. I’m not worried about the
rich in this story, they have their contingency plans, but I think the
rest of us should be scared. And there is no Lincoln on the horizon.
Are there any books (or films or TV shows) that have done a
particularly good job of capturing the lives of the hyper-rich in New
Not a New Yorker, but I think Luis Buñuel probably did it best.