“The Luck of Kokura”
by Gary Shteyngart
from the June 25, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

While I recognize Gary Shteyngart is funny, I’ve yet to really take to his fiction as presented in The New Yorker and, consequently have never read one of his novels, the last of which was 2010’s Super Sad True Love Story. I remember the excerpt of that novel that we got in The New Yorker, back when the magazine did their “20 Under 40.” It came off to me as a glib and, well, not particularly imaginative vision of the near future.

This week’s fiction is another excerpt, this time from Shteyngart’s forthcoming Lake Success, which arrives on September 4. Shteyngart’s focus in this book, I gather from the blurb, is a hedge fund manager who tries to escape to a simpler life. I’m curious how everyone responds to this piece. I think I’m a bit in the minority when it comes to Shteyngart, so I’m particularly excited to hear from those who like his work.

Here is how the excerpt begins (nothing that makes me want to keep going, I’m afraid):

Barry was trying to focus, but on what? Shapes began to materialize. Circles. Triangles. Three panels in outrageously bright colors. It was that squiggly aidspainter guy from the nineteen-eighties. A figure fell into his head. Something he had once discussed with Seema at a gallery—1.8 million. O.K. He was on a bed. He was hungry, but at the same time beyond hunger. He turned his head. There were magazines displayed on a nightstand: a Bentley mag and a Patek Philippe mag and a Nat Geo. He scanned the room quickly. The Rollaboard with his watches and Shiva’s rabbit toy and his passport was neatly placed at the foot of the bed. There was also a glass coffee table topped with a bottle of Fiji water, a jar of salted almonds, and familiar-looking bars of seventy-per-cent-cocoa Chocolat Madagascar. Barry crawled the length of the bed to the coffee table. He began stuffing the food into his mouth, the nuts and chocolate crunching sweet and bitter over his tongue, then poured the water into his mouth. He burped ferociously, his whole being coming back to life.

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By |2018-07-02T18:29:07+00:00June 18th, 2018|Categories: Gary Shteyngart, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. David June 18, 2018 at 2:39 pm

    A 9000+ word excerpt from a novel? I’ll pass. If, when the novel comes out, I hear enough good things about it that I’m on the fence about whether or not to read it, then I might come back and check this out. I’d place the odds of that at about 1%. Ok. Back to reading Freshwater.

  2. Greg July 1, 2018 at 6:46 pm

    I found the writing extremely strong here at the sentence level and in the overall plotting of this 2016 pre-Trump election tale….I consider the author to be in the same class as his fellow Americans that I adore: Franzen, Eugenides and Jess Walter….I can’t wait until the Tuesday after Labour Day to devour this new novel!

    The following were my favourite parts:

    “In New York, anything below five million didn’t even qualify as luxury.”

    “Like your first ankle monitor or your fourth divorce, the occasional break with reality was an important part of any hedge-fund titan’s biography.”

    “His father’s business servicing Nassau County pools was seasonal, and he could never squirrel away enough for the winter. Barry’s first crush must have been the blond mermaid on the Chicken of the Sea tuna cans his father bought at Waldbaum’s, four for a dollar.”

    “The Ferrari felt a bit much, as though Jeff Park hadn’t got the 0.1 Percenter’s Memo about experiences, not objects, being the shit, but then again Barry collected watches, so who was he to talk?”

    “The barmaid was in her twenties, and she was gorgeous in a way that suggested maybe she hadn’t been fully apprised of just how gorgeous she was.”

    “Who were these people, Barry wondered. These barmaids who gave free Cokes to itinerant Mexicans but wanted to vote for a man who would make fun of his disabled Indian son?”

  3. Larry Bone July 1, 2018 at 7:32 pm

    The Luck of Kokura by Gary Shteyngart is overly plush with detail and therefore a difficult short story.

    It has a veritable tsunami of details about various really expensive items that only really wealthy people would know about. And another tsunami of detail about complicated high level hedge fund financial transactions. Plus the voice of Barry is one of someone who is really really smart and has a really high IQ. But to what purpose?

    He is funny but such profligate detail is too much. Good editors are supposed to keep writers from going over the top. But if really showy prose is the author’s voice or brand, that is difficult. There is so much here that is difficult to relate to.

    Shteyngart does nail down a few things really well, such as the indirect opaque way of talking that rich saavy topper financial executives have, “You can get a better watch than a Rolex. That’s not the image someone as smart as you wants to project.” It’s a putdown followed by a compliment on the end put there so the guy might not feel he’s actually being dumped on.

    Supposedly Barry wants a simpler life. I think this story works as a karma comedown sort of reckoning. Barry feels guilty about his luck once it turns bad. And Jeff knows Barry (who begs him for a $2,000 loan) isn’t very nice which he more or less tells him when he says, “You don’t have any credit cards. You don’t have a cell phone. You travel on a bus where you pay for the tickets in cash.”

    Clearly Barry is out of control. He throws his luck away. He knows and appreciates the possibility of “nice people” as in “this is the thing about America. You can never guess who’s going to turn out to be a nice person.”

    This short story has some pretty big focus problems which point to possible thematic focus problems in the forthcoming novel. Yet it is probably very appealing to readers familiar and interested in such a complicated protagonist as Barry. This piece would be so much stronger if some big name publishing editor edited the hell out it so it was maybe half as long. The ending is the least overdone and strongest and best part of the narrative.

    The beginning is overwhelming. There is a certain amount of detail necessary to establish that here is an obnoxious blowheard going down the toilet like the Ratso Rizzo character in the film, “Midnight Cowboy.” But it’s just too much and pushes a potentially larger group of readers away. Still the essence of the story is strong and well worth being vigorously retooled into a more impactful cautionary narrative from a fallen expert financial hedge fund whiz.

  4. Greg July 2, 2018 at 12:32 am

    Thanks Larry for your comprehensive feedback…you got me re-thinking my original impressions!

    Also, are you suggesting that TNY editor in the future should make alterations when deemed fit – even though it’s an excerpt from an established author?

  5. Larry Bone July 2, 2018 at 7:45 am

    Greg:
    Editing is a ticklish subject. The editor is always supposed to be on the author’s side. So Gary would have to take a decision as to whether he would be comfortable with reworking the short story and novel. That is always the author’s call. The only real problem with too much detail is that it bogs down the story, kills the momentum or takes the wind out of the sails of the story. Yet he is a well-established author and may feel that the detail is part of his brand. And what moves or doesn’t move a story forward is always open to question depending on the reader’s and/or writer’s preference.

  6. Larry Bone July 2, 2018 at 8:46 am

    Greg:
    To actually answer your question I should probably be quiet and not suggest anything especially my not being either a professional writer or editor. But for the good of the story and book, certain details have more impact than others. To secure the reader’s interest, the most impactful detail shouldn’t be diluted by lesser detail of questionable impact. Shteyngart’s narrative reads like a confessional but the father hearing it on the other side of the partition might get exasperated. One could argue that a very smart person character in a disturbed state of mind might not care that much about obtaining someone’s interest or understanding. He is just telling what is bubbling up to the surface of his thought and all the aspects of the thing going on in his head and all his reaction to what his friend says and thinks. So all the detail is just the expression of the slightly unhinged nature of the protagonist’s personality.

  7. Greg July 2, 2018 at 11:13 pm

    Thanks Larry for covering all the angles here on editing!

    Also, Alice Munro has said that a piece of work can be judged by the quality of the material which was REMOVED. And I think Hemingway also shared this line of thinking….

  8. Larry Bone July 3, 2018 at 4:21 pm

    Greg:
    Thanks for mentioning Hemingway and Alice Munro. Hemingway seems the complete opposite of Shteyngart. Established writers generally try not to tamper much with their voice or writing style. If this story was trying to win a contest with a 1,000 entries, the author could go over the details, select out his or her best lines and see how best to weave them into his story for maximum impact. Any detail that doesn’t keep the reader from continuing to read the story or takes away from the exerience is reworked or left out. It could be perfect top story submitted yet some other story win the prizes. Key thing would is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. And I might even read the book even if the protagonist is annoying because I want to see what happens. Is he truly done or is there some sort weird realization or change in this guy’s fate? Destiny gives him some kind of pardon or some totally unexpected something happens. Some kind of grace (though I know that’ may be asking for too much).
    Larry B.

  9. Greg July 3, 2018 at 11:24 pm

    Thanks Larry for expanding again on this ‘teaser’ the author gave us….I’ll report back to you in late September after reading the novel!

  10. Madwomanintheattic July 9, 2018 at 5:07 pm

    I can’t even think about the writing; the story is just too sad, too revelatory of the men who are now in charge, (here comes the metaphor) even when they are escaping from their autistic children on a Greyhound bus.

  11. Leon de Pola July 11, 2018 at 9:38 am

    The New Yorker did not indicate in any part of the magazine that this story is an excerpt of a novel. So, it is presented as short fiction and should be read independently of the novel from where it came.

    Putting that excerpt issue in a bracket, I think this story is best read with the focus on Jeff Park who seems to have more than recovered from his Excel fiasco in New York when his former boss makes his appearance in his Atlanta apartment. At this point, we know there should be tension to settle an old score, but they carry on a few days before the crisis arrives as Barry asks for a small loan.

    Jeff could have just let it go and forked over the cash; after all he has more than recovered from that monumental Excel mistake, but Barry is not able to redeem himself, because he has not been honest about his situation.

    The luck of Kokura is Jeff Park survived and is now rich. This now points to the bad luck of Nagazaki, which is foreboding on Barry. And Jeff Park is going to let Barry leave without his small loan but with a better understanding of how bad it must have been for Jeff on the day that they fired Jeff over an honest and almost mechanical mistake. But to Jeff this sudden appearance of Barry is nothing but an opportunity to balance what is probably his spreadsheet of the people made life miserable for him.

    These characters live on a profane world, their lives rotating on their net worth, fancy cars and watches. That loan could have turned things around — some things are more important than money, like the bonds of the mentor and the ward. All could have been forgiven. But not so for these “masters of the universe” as Tom Wolfe referred to them in Bonfire of the Vanities. Good story. But sad.

  12. Greg July 17, 2018 at 7:52 pm

    Thanks Leon de Pola – This part made me really think:

    “Jeff could have just let it go and forked over the cash; after all he has more than recovered from that monumental Excel mistake, but Barry is not able to redeem himself, because he has not been honest about his situation.”

  13. avataram July 29, 2018 at 7:47 pm

    Finally got to read this story. Normally I dont like extracts from novels, and this is an extract from his forthcoming novel, Lake Success. Lots of nice touches- Barry’s hedge fund’s name – This side of Capital is definitely a tribute to F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, This side of paradise.

    Gary is a big watch enthusiast and a contributor to Hodinkee- the online (and now offline) watch magazine, and it shows a lot in the watches he discusses, where Jeff has recovered from his excel sheet fiasco to own a Patek 1518 in rose gold (last sold at a Phillips auction for 1.5m CHF), Barry is still on his FP Journe Octa automatique lune (around $50k) and his Patek 570 (around $18k). I was wondering why Barry wasnt doing the obvious- asking Jeff to buy his watches and get the money, rather than asking him to spot him $2k, but I guess that would be too humiliating for Barry to do. Maybe his watches are destined to be stolen at the Greyhound bus stand after all. In the same Hodinkee interiew that Gary talks about his watches, he speaks of escaping into Hodinkee and vintage watches at the same time as distressing news of Trump’s ascendancy came through on 538 and from Gary’s own Greyhound travels that he mentions in his interview to Cressida Leyshon of the New Yorker.

    The specific instance of Valupro and Gastrolux also seems to be very close a real-life NYC hedge fund story- that of Bill Ackman and his investment in Valeant pharmaceuticals, where his hedge fund lost $4bn. Ackman began firing people from the hedge fund and cutting expenses, famously laying off his driver and saying he could take the subway. Having been fired from by my NYC hedge fund rather unceremoniously like Jeff, it gives me great joy to buy watches my former bosses cannot afford and to follow the downfall of other hedge fund titans like Ackman and Barry himself.

    I think there is a lot of F Scott Fitzgerald’s “This side of paradise” in the novel- both Barry and Amory being Princeton Grads to start. I definitely look forward to Lake Success, after this excerpt.

  14. Greg July 31, 2018 at 5:56 am

    Thanks Avataram for pointing out the Scott Fitzgerald nods….I so can’t wait for the novel after Labour Day!

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