The
American

Spellbound

Behind the Book

Vika Stakhanova has everything figured out. “You’re either on Wall Street or you are a bum and there’s nothing in between,” she reasons. She’s an exemplary, abiding, thoroughly institutionalized member of the American corporate world. Vika does not have any friends; she has acquaintances. She does not have ideals; she has a comfortable niche. She does not have interests. She’s consumed by her pursuit of the “game.” Whatever personality she once had has been cemented and thrown into the river, mafia-style, away from sight. On Wall Street, personality is bad for business. Her usual MO is snark and derision – de rigueur qualities of a cynical and weary Manhattan dweller.

But Vika is quietly proud of her place in life. She knows that her position on a proprietary desk at a major bank is the product of her hard work, austerity and diligence. She once worked as a janitor and now she trades complex bonds on Wall Street! She’s the embodiment of the American Dream: a poor immigrant who rose through the ranks to achieve success, as defined by the reigning meritocratic ideology.

Her professional success has Vika properly anesthetized. “I prefer an honest fight,” she tells her date, a hedge fund manager who is amused with her level of self-delusion.

He chuckles in delight. “Honest fight? You think that you trading your index is somehow beneficial to humanity?” Vika does not appreciate such caustic insight.

As the world begins to deteriorate in the summer of 2008, she retreats further into her cocoon. “The fools… well, the fools are there for us to fleece and then to show mercy,” she muses.

And then shit hits the fan.

The financial collapse didn’t just destroy the way of life for millions of ordinary Americans, it also destroyed our carefully built narratives about hard work, merit and fairness. What does hard work mean? What are we working hard toward? When Vika asks herself those questions, in a rare moment of clarity, she panics. What happens when we come face-to-face with such dilemma and realize that our old mental arrangements just don’t work anymore?


***


I hope my readers will find their own answers. I think that our biggest problem today is that we are afraid of being serious, afraid of acting like grown-ups. We often find ourselves arguing about the important issues of the day, only to have the discussion deteriorate into the battle of wits, quotes and zingers. Depth is to be avoided, as it is thought to make us dull and didactic. Society doesn’t attach much value to those qualities. What is valued is the ability to entertain, to infuse the discussion with some clever reference, and make everyone chuckle and forget about the underlying issue entirely. Jokes and snark for some, and obsessive, deliberate indifference for others are a way to not deal with reality.

The fear of being earnest, combined with the need to project our presence to the world, twist us into unimaginable contortions that are impossible to maintain and remain sane. This book is an attempt to find an out from this predicament.