The relationship between personal wealth and personal wellbeing is a tenuous one. If anything, there’s increasing evidence that happiness is relative, not absolute, and even at the uppermost economic strata, anxiety and misery pervade. The status-obsessed 0.1 percent spend inordinate psychological energy comparing themselves to the incalculably wealthy 0.01 percent, against whom they come up short by every quantifiable metric. A rising tide may or may not lift all boats, but it seems to put a damper on the orgies on the yacht.
In Manhattan, the one percent can delude themselves into thinking they’re merely “comfortable,” still basically middle-class people at heart. In Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, Lake Success, the wife of a hedge-fund guy can say without a trace of irony that “Our only real indulgence is a personal chef,” while the hedgie himself believes that “Most poor people wouldn’t know what to do with substantial sums of money” because “you have to train yourself to be wealthy.”
That hedgie is Barry Cohen, a Republican who seeks solace in his collection of watches in moments of crisis — of which there are many. A foolish decision regarding a pharmaceutical maker called Valupro has caused the billions he has under management to erode. His toddler son has severe autism and his beautiful wife displays open contempt for him at a dinner party. She later begins an affair with the host — an obscure Guatemalan author who Barry realizes has been subtly goading him to say outrageous things that will become recycled into his next book. (He has a verified checkmark on Twitter, at least.)
Hungering to be a writer, Barry named his firm This Side of Capital, an allusion to a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose most famous book took place in nearby Great Neck (although in The Great Gatsby, it’s called West Egg). Barry’s pool-cleaning father was a flinty bastard, and his whole life seems foreordained to dwarf what precarious financial security the old man had — and if that means knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, so be it. So Barry embarks upon a bus trip through the American South hellbent on reuniting with a college girlfriend, The One Who Got Away.
Shteyngart traveled through the country in the summer of 2016, just as Barry did.
“I did everything he did,” he tells SF Weekly in anticipation of his Sept. 12 appearance at City Arts and Lectures. “I don’t have much of an imagination, so I did it in a journalistic way. The book was reported, not just written.”
He observed his fellow passengers and chatted with whoever struck up a conversation. Gradually, it dawned on Shteyngart that Trump’s rise wasn’t merely a “slighter aberration of the grand plan of American history,” and he had a real shot at winning. The entire national discourse was off-center.
“People talked about whether they went to prison the way people in New York talk about whether they went to law school,” Shteyngart says. “It was such a window into another world that’s as actual asd as important as the one we live in. It’s a parallel universe but one that’s great in its own way.”
Even if you’ve reached your lifetime quota of New York Times profiles of quote-unquote Real Americans, Lake Success’ light touch will leave an impression on you. The scenes are believable, and the author doesn’t target ordinary people’s foibles — or even Barry Cohen’s self-absorption. Rather, we get a send-up of the ultra-American idea that we’re all individuals in charge of our own destiny. In Shteyngart’s more fatalistic America, we’re essentially just actors in a late-capitalist play, and the people at the very top are the unhappiest and least self-aware because they’re the most invested in perpetuating the whole system. In one hilarious scene set in a bad neighborhood in Baltimore, a teenage drug dealer sells Barry some crack and then performs an exaggerated version of himself for Germans who visit this bad neighborhood in Baltimore because they binged on The Wire and want to experience urban grit. (“Omar comin’! Ich bin ein Drogendealer! Woop woop!” he shouts.) The kid might even make more money from this Baudrillardian pageant of grit than from his real line of work.
Meanwhile, Barry, a temporarily dethroned master of the universe, spends half his remaining net worth on a fancy dinner in Atlanta with an old colleague, hoping to charm his way back to the top. No matter how you slice it, that’s a terribly imprudent financial decision — but compare it to the tsk-tsking that people on public assistance get when they use EBT to buy a two-liter soda.
Lake Success glances upon this seldom-acknowledged fact about America, how the country’s cosseted economic and cultural elite have absolutely no concept of what life is like for the bottom half. Some conservatives think poor people can’t be poor if they’re overweight or own a cell phone. Some liberals are confounded when lower-income people appear to vote against their own interests. Without ever morphing into a screed, the novel posits inequality as the cause of all this. To Shteyngart, whether we’re rich or poor, we’re equally miserable and powerless.
“People that I met, doing research in the hedge-fund world, were not happy,” he says, adding that under a system where capital gains are taxed less than earned income, “the money flows from us to these people — but the money that flows to these people doesn’t even make them happy. It’s a lose-lose situation.”
He’s stayed friends with some, but mostly the quants, those math or physics majors who found their way into finance and who might share Shteyngart’s own self-professed allergy to money. But that’s not to say that statistics necessarily provide comfort. Lake Success’ bugaboo is the FiveThirtyEight “Nowcast,” pollster Nate Silver’s real-time aggregator that gave Hillary Clinton somewhere between an 80- and 125-percent chance of winning the presidency.
“Then the ‘Times needle’ came along,” Shteyngart says, referring to the Election Night tracker that watched Clinton’s fortunes plummet as the Upper Midwest turned red. These mathematical assurances that all would be well turned out to be just infotainment for a particular strain of cosmopolitan liberal. Having clicked refresh a thousand times, Shteyngart learned his lesson — mostly.
“I haven’t [checked FiveThirtyEight] in awhile, but I know we’re getting real close to the midterms and I know the future of civilization is going to be decided by the midterms,” he says. “But what’s it going to help? It’s an endless roller coaster. I’d rather look at watches.”
Barry undergoes a slow-moving transformation as he roams through the heartland, referring to Clinton as “that treasonous bitch” only to refer to himself as a “moderate Republican” and a “moderate fiscal Republican” — but those definitions have come unmoored from the party’s base.
“People would say the most horrible things about poor people and then it’s ‘I’m fiscally conservative, I’m into gay marriage,’ ” Shteyngart says. “How many times did I hear people say that? Partly because their kids are gay and married. I was just like ‘Get me out of this world, can I borrow one of your helicopters to fly the hell out of here?’ ”
Even though his dogged assistant tracks him down, dangling the promise of a private jet that can be “wheels up” in under an hour, Barry doesn’t fly. He sit on buses that smell like urine and the cloying chemicals used to conceal the smell of urine. He gets as far as El Paso, where misfortune forces him to accept a handout from a stranger. But the border city strikes him as “real” — so real that he instantly desires to make a new life there. But even that uncharacteristic bout of earnestness gets a soft rejection for what it is, a decision borne of unexamined privilege.
Gary Shteyngart, in conversation with Isabel Duffy at City arts and Lectures, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 7:30 p.m., at the Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes St., $35 (includes a copy of Lake Success), cityboxoffice.com.