Chatting was his primary activity. The office was overrun by quants and other assorted math geniuses, half their staff now seemed to flow from MIT or its less-endowed counterparts from around the world, while wide-shouldered, charming Princetonians like Barry were left to handle the big picture of yearly separating guys named Ahmed of the Qatar Investment Authority from 2 percent of the assets Barry managed. He did that by talking to them in the broadest, most backslapping former-athlete way possible. All of those hours practicing his “friend moves” in front of the mirror back when he was at Louis Pasteur Middle School had finally paid off. “Friendliest dude on the Street,” some young bro had once called him.
In Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success, Barry runs his own investment fund and is a multimillionaire, lives in Manhattan with other investment bankers, has a beautiful and intelligent wife and a young son, but Barry, the “Mentor” to other up and coming capitalist sharks sees his life unravel as his son, who still doesn’t speak, but continues to scream at three years old, is diagnosed with autism, and as the FBI are closing in on him for insider dealing. Barry’s fund had invested in a company making essential medecin more expensive thus pricing the poor out of medical care. Nostalgic, selfish Barry, echoing a road trip from his early twenties, takes off on a greyhound bus to rediscover “America” and its people, meeting the poor who travel on greyhound busses. He passes by Baltimore, for instance, where he discovers the neighbourhoods featured in “The Wire” only to understand that it has become a tourist attraction and that narcotics have long since moved on, technically and geographically.
The events take place in the run up to the 2016 presidential elections and the fear that Trump could actually win. We discover Barry as having been an adolescent unable to feel part of society and to relate to people but who worked hard to train himself in small talk and smiling which took him to where he is today. He still has trouble controlling his rages and has worked on this with his shrink, becoming a collector of expensive watches:
Whenever he felt this out of control, when the world lurched around him and his own body felt counterfeit, he remembered what his shrink had told him: “Look at your watch.” He looked at his watch. It was a Nomos Minimatik with a champagne-colored dial. Nomos was his new thing. They were not expensive watches, they topped out at 20K, but they were made in the tiny German town of Glashütte, far from all that overpriced Swiss razzle-dazzle, and they stuck to a strict but playful Bauhaus aesthetic. The watch did its work. It calmed him.
Shteyngart also takes us on a visit of the seriously rich in Manhattan, where wealth can be measured by the difference in floors between two apartments in a building. Eventually the road trip ends and life must go on. What has Barry learned from his trip? Will he be a better person? Will he give up investment banking to do “something useful”?
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First Published in English as “Lake Success” in 2018, by Hamish Hamilton.
Translated into French by Stéphane Roques and published as “Lake Success” by Les Éditions de l’Olivier in 2020
The quotes as read in French
Le bavardage était sa principale activité à lui. Le bureau était envahi par les analystes quantitatifs (ou quants) et autre génies des maths, la moitié de leur personnel semblait désormais tout droit sortie de MIT ou de ses équivalents internationaux moins bien pourvus, tandis qu’il revenait aux anciens de Princeton comme Barry, aussi charmants que large d’épaules, de prendre de la hauteur pour mieux délester chaque année tous les Ahmed de l’Authorité d’investissement du Qatar de l’équivalent de 2% des actifs gérés par Barry. Il y parvenait en se livrant aux plus grandes démonstrations d’amitié possibles, digne de l’ancien sportif qu’il était.
Chaque fois qu’il sentait que cela prenait des proportions incontrôlables, que le monde convulsait autour de lui et que son corps lui donnait l’impression d’être une contrefaçon, il se souvenait de ce que lui disait son psy: “Regardez votre montre.”
Il regarda sa montre. C’était une Nomos Minimatik à cadran champagne. Les Nomos était son dada. Elles n’étaient pas chères, coûtaient tout au plus 20 mille dollars, mais étaient fabriquées dans la petite ville allemande de Glashütte, loin de tout le clinquant suisse hors de prix, et s’en tenaient à une esthétique Bauhaus aussi stricte que ludique. La montre tenait son rôle. Elle le calmait.