Money

Why once-frugal author Gary Shteyngart started spending $10,000 a year on watches

Bestselling novelist and memoirist Gary Shteyngart ("Little Failure," "Absurdistan"), has always been careful with money, he writes in an essay for The New Yorker. Then, in response to a midlife crisis and the political instability of 2016, his values shift, and he buys a collection of watches. Total cost: About $10,000.

His fascination with watches begins when, in the midst of a panic attack on a stalled, crowded train, he calms himself by focusing on the second hand of his Junghans, which he had bought for himself from the MoMA Design Store for $1,000.

Frugality, to him, has always meant freedom, but, faced with the probability of a Trump presidency, that starts to matter less.

For a writer, the money you make can be traded in for your creative independence, hence one is permanently building a rainy-day fund. I have always tried to keep on hand enough cash to cover at least two years of expenses in case the public stops being interested in my work, while plowing the rest into low-cost index funds. Thrift was comforting; material goods uninteresting, bordering on gauche.

And yet on April 12, 2016, I walked out of the Tourneau TimeMachine store, on Madison Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, with a receipt for $4,137.25 and a new Nomos Minimatik Champagner on my wrist, the sales clerks bidding me farewell with a cheerful cry of 'Congratulations!'"

By my own standards I had just thrown away a small chunk, roughly 4.3 writing days, of my independence. And yet I was happy.

The Nomos serves as a gateway drug. Shteyngart wants more. As 2016 unfolds to his alarm and dismay, watches help him cope.

"In a society hopeless and cruel, the particular and the microscopic were the only things that could still prove reliable," he writes.

Early on in the piece, the novelist drops the word "Rolex," signalling, in the manner of Chekhov's gun, that he will eventually purchase one for himself — and he does.

"In October, my feelings of dread spiked, and so I decided to buy a Rolex," he writes.

But even the vintage Air-King, an ultimate status symbol procured online for a bargain, does not sate him. He acknowledges, "I was obsessed," and also, "my life was unraveling." His sister-in-law suggests that he is going through a midlife crisis and he does not contradict her. The watches, it seems, are the highbrow version of a hot rod and a mistress.

Xaume Olleros | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Reached for comment by CNBC, Shteyngart shrugs at the idea that he is coping with a midlife crisis.

"I'm not the world's best driver so let's all be thankful I didn't buy a Porsche. Watches never hurt nobody."

As he relates in his essay, he indulges himself in more timepieces before the year is out: A waterproof Tudor Heritage Black Bay 36 he can wear while he swims and a digital Casio from eBay that reminds him of the halcyon days of his childhood. They both enthrall and frustrate him, since even high-priced precision watches only give the impression of infallibility.

He writes:

I checked my Air-King and Nomos and Junghans against the atomic clock of time.gov. The Nomos had lost five seconds in the previous 24 hours, the Junghans close to 10, and the Rolex had gained 15. It took an average of three timepieces to tell the actual time. We were using watches to calculate our own demise, and we weren't even doing it accurately.

He muses, "If only watches could do what they so slyly promise. To record. To keep track. To bring order."

Still, even though his purchases cannot fully deliver on their promise, Shteyngart is unrepentant.

"In total, I had now given up 10.1 days of artistic freedom to four watches in the course of less than a year," he concludes, even before capitulating and grabbing that last Casio. By CNBC's calculations, using hints dropped throughout the piece, his total comes to about $10,000.

The celebrated author would neither confirm nor deny that estimate to CNBC. He does, however, say, "I hate material goods but these little tick-ticks have warmed this middle-aged soul."

"I hate material goods but these little tick-ticks have warmed this middle-aged soul." -Gary Shteyngart, author of "Little Failure"

Shteyngart also adds that he hasn't gotten a lot of joy out of success in general.

"Unless you're moving from the bottom to the middle class, material success is not terribly exciting and brings many problems to many people, chief of them boredom," he says.

Presumably the kind of boredom that leads well-off people to pursue elite excitements: Watches seem to be to him what bird-watching is to his fellow novelist and contributor to The New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen.

Watches may have become Shteyngart's hobby in this period of fraught uncertainty because they possess the power to make the abstraction of time concrete, measurable and easy to understand. For a certain kind of anxious person, counting the seconds as they tick by may be as close as you ever get to being able to live in the moment.