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.