June/July/Aug 2012

Fictitious Values

Boom and bust in twenty-first-century lit

Christian Lorentzen


IN THE FALL OF 2013 OR 2014, if not before, we’ll probably be reading a novel about Occupy Wall Street. What would such a book look like, and what would it tell us about money? You can bet the narrator will be omniscient and the telling panoramic. If half the action takes place in and around Zuccotti Park—where the hardened core of the cast squats, drumming, deliberating, echoing announcements—the rest will be scattered about the newsrooms, boardrooms, barrooms, and bedrooms of Manhattan, with excursions to Williamsburg or Long Island City or Hoboken, maybe even Staten Island, convenient by ferry, and surely suburbs to the north such as Greenwich, cradle of the 1 percent. But beyond journalistic attention to the protests’ throbbing center and the fissures extending up the avenues, how to dramatize it all?

A class-clashing love triangle would do it. A twenty-eight-year-old woman drifts down to the park. She’s radicalized in mind—what’s just about a system that’s saddled a hardworking designer like her with constant revolving credit-card debt and a mountain of student loans?—and in heart by an anarchist she meets at a people’s assembly. The trouble is she’s just started dating a dreamy hedge-fund manager, the sort of finance professional who keeps in touch with his roots by moonlighting on the weekends as a cabdriver with his grandfather’s medallion. (Did I mention his grandfather survived the Holocaust?) Over pillow talk, as he faults her new affinity group for insufficiently appreciating the dynamic possibilities of the meritocracy, she realizes just how complicit he is in the system of not just national but global inequality. She zips out of bed and down to the occupation. Her jilted swain shows up to work to find his fortunes reversed: His fund is shedding him. The occupation continues, as does her affair with the earthy anarchist. When the cops arrive to cleanse the protest, she finds him bleeding and possibly concussed. She drags him west in search of a cab. Guess who’s driving.

Most social novels aren’t quite so crude, but broad strokes and rigged coincidences tend to be a necessary evil—or, in a better-case scenario for readers, a comic boon. Tougher for the novelist are the tasks of rendering convincing characters across the class spectrum and capturing economic intricacies in a way that’s both cogent and readable. I’ve not heard of any institutions that offer joint MFA-MBA degrees.

The impulse to become a writer suggests a fundamental fiscal incompetence. Fiction writers, often deriving their income from their status as writers (by teaching) rather than from their actual writing, tend to carve out lives somewhere within the middle class but find themselves at a remove from the higher and lower echelons of economic activity. The campus—a zone that encourages all participants to make a pretense of classlessness—has become the default home of most novelists, and this may partly explain why class is an easier subject to avoid now than in the days of Wharton, Fitzgerald, or Ellison. The love triangle in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot tilts not according to a geometry of class but according to the characters’ reading tastes. In any case, authors’ actual relationships to money don’t make for thrilling plot twists. Nobody wants to read a novel that climaxes with a successful book deal. There might, however, be a decent conceptual fiction to be written under the title A History of My Student Loans.

Milo Burke, the narrator of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel, The Ask, makes a useful class distinction after an encounter with a governor’s daughter: “She was from the people who kept everything. I was from the people who rented some of everything for brief amounts of time. I knew I deserved no pity, would get none from the people who kept everything. They only pitied the people with nothing at all.” I don’t think it’s rash to assume that most American fiction writers come from and remain the people who rent things, and it’s worth considering how much sympathy they extend to people wealthy enough to keep things. So pity the novelist who sets out to write about the rich: Demonizing bankers may be an effective political tactic, but it’s not an option for a novelist trying to draw well-rounded characters, or for one who wants to offer an understanding of contemporary society that becomes more than a class grievance.

This hasn’t lately stopped some fiction writers from taking on the subject of big money, trying to render complex wealthy characters despite the inherent difficulties of doing so. Stories about high-level capitalists often follow characters moving gleefully from renter status to keeper status, always at pains to avoid an unhappy fall. One recent fictional banker, Doug Fanning in Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic (2010), is head of the foreign-operations wing of a big bank. He incites the ire of a retired history teacher who lives next door to the McMansion he carves out of the Massachusetts woods. By the Dickensian logic of coincidence that somehow still governs such books, she is the sister of the Federal Reserve official who exposes Fanning’s cover-up of frauds committed by one of his traders in Hong Kong. The scandal eventually deprives Fanning of his house and his freedom—not soon enough, however, to prevent his desperate neighbor from burning down her own house and immolating herself. Fanning, though despised by many of his fellow characters, isn’t quite a monster in Haslett’s portrayal. He is a veteran, having served in the Gulf in 1988 and on the USS Vincennes when it shot down Iran Air Flight 655, and the estranged son of an alcoholic single mother. He builds his house in the town where she used to work as a housecleaner, seeking to incite envy among his former class superiors. He seems aware that he’s caught in a cycle of mutual despicability, even when he’s out to lunch:

Doug saw a guy at a table by the window, early twenties, dressed in expensively faded jeans and a sweater pre-patched at the elbows. He was leafing through a magazine, the white wires of his earphones trailing down into his pocket, a laptop open beside him. He saw these people everywhere now, these aging children who had done nothing, borne no responsibility, who in their bootless, liberal refinement would judge him and all he’d done as the enemy of the good and the just, their high-minded opinions just decoration for a different pattern of consumption: the past marketed as the future to comfort the lost. And who financed it? Who loaned them the money for these lives they couldn’t quite afford with their credit cards and their student loans? Who else but the banks?

The peculiar step from “bootless” to “credit cards and their student loans” captures Fanning’s equation of the military and finance regimes as the two beams holding up American society, with himself as a sort of sacrificial figure (he’s about to get caught) involved in pursuits many of us would consider essentially predatory. Haslett humanizes Fanning by involving him in an improbably tender homosexual affair with a teenager he finds snooping around his big empty house. His previous conquests, female, include his aspiring-writer secretary and a lousy sculptor—metaphors for finance fucking the artist class.

One of the perils of money fiction, demonstrated acutely by Haslett, is the recourse to quasi-journalistic writing (note the op-edishness of the above passage) to explain economic phenomena that can’t be shown and so must be told. Early on, after a passage that explains how the bursting of the tech bubble affected the property market in 2000, Haslett describes one of Doug’s dreams. It’s as if he needs to assert that he’s not a journalist or a textbook writer but a novelist with access to his characters’ inner lives. Like an SEC agent with actual power, he also flaunts his control of their fates. At the end of the novel, Doug is expelled from the people who keep things—he doesn’t even get to keep his own identity—and returns to Kuwait, as a fugitive with a fake passport, to become an Iraq-war mercenary. Haslett’s final humbling of Fanning is less a punishment than an attempt to render him sympathetic, a victim of a system that incentivized his excesses, then discarded and scapegoated him while protecting his similarly craven superiors. In the end, Union Atlantic, despite its wide-ranging if haphazard heaps of smuggled research, has little to tell us about modern finance beyond the notion that the system is perverse, which most of us have already guessed.

Jonathan Dee, whose novel The Privileges (2010) arrived, like Haslett’s, soon enough after the financial crisis to enjoy the special attention the crisis lent the subject but too soon to be about the crisis, is concerned with how the people who rent things become people who keep things and keep it that way. Adam Morey, who goes from Colgate University to Morgan Stanley to a private-equity firm called Perini Capital to command of his own independent fund, commits fairly elementary Ivan Boesky–style insider trading and doesn’t get caught. Like Fanning, he’s a white gentile from the working class (novelists seem disinclined to write bankers as Jews or other minorities), but his motivations for entering finance have less to do with class resentment than with a mildly Oedipal urge to get one over on his working-class father, a pipe fitter and union executive, whom he taunts on his wedding day:

“Hey, you know what I found in my room?” he says. “In the dresser drawer? A list of room rates. Did you guys see that? Do you have any idea what this place costs?”

“Oh, Adam, please,” his mother whispers, “today of all— ”

“As it happens, I did,” his father says, reddening. “I’m just glad I’m not the sap paying for all this.”

“More reason to be glad we never had girls,” his mother says, and laughs as if she were being filmed laughing.

“That wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference to me,” Mr. Morey says. “I don’t have to put on a show for anybody. I don’t have to pretend to be anything I’m not.”

Note the implication that money forces people into fictions of their own: the mother acting as if she’s being filmed, the father unwilling to pretend, the son disguising a jab as a gee-whiz. A different sort of novelist might have included the room rates. The wedding, held at a Pittsburgh club and paid for by the bride’s stepfather, costs thirty-eight thousand dollars. It’s one of the few dollar amounts the novel actually names; another is the hundred thousand dollars Adam’s wife, Cynthia, pays her estranged father’s girlfriend to leave the scene when he is dying in a hospice two decades later. It’s clear, as James Wood has pointed out, that Dee has a lot of contempt for the Moreys, and one of the ways he shows it is by withholding the sort of redemptive comeuppance Haslett heaps on Fanning. But Dee is also more interested than Haslett in what the Moreys’ money affords them. Fanning’s McMansion is a crude symbolic asset for a man who otherwise never learned how to live outside of barracks. The Moreys, by contrast, own apartments in familiar Manhattan neighborhoods and at least one house outside the city, and send their children to Dalton and expensive colleges. They can spend the night at hotels or fly away on planes at will. Dee’s attention to lifestyle details has a whiff of covetousness, on the part of the intended reader if not the author himself. To read the entire novel not wanting a little bit of what the Moreys have would be like watching a pornographic film for the camerawork.

There are a few ways out of these traps—ersatz journalistic gap filling, hapless gesturing at the system’s perversity, and ogling fortune with envy and scorn—of writing about bankers. One is to make the job incidental to, rather than a subject of, the larger fiction: Gary Lambert, in The Corrections (2001), is genuinely sympathetic because he’s mostly a henpecked husband, father, and son, frightened of being depressed, and Jonathan Franzen, who seems actually and interestingly fascinated in the sort of knowledge the profession provides, uses Gary’s job to point up his parents’ generation’s naive, old-fashioned, and self-undermining relationship to money. Another is for the author to be a former banker, like the English novelist Alex Preston, whose hero in This Bleeding City (2010) has a convincing reason for taking a job in finance: He wants to be rich enough to get his ex-girlfriend back. But perhaps the best way to write fiction about money is to abandon realism at the door.

Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, now a motion picture, is an absurdist day in the life of an asset manager called Eric Packer, a Ulysses making his way very slowly in a limousine from east to west midtown. The book has aged well since it was published in 2003, anticipating, as it did, mass protests against capitalism on the streets of Manhattan, even though, in the novel, those protests take place in Times Square and involve, instead of drum circles and Kickstarter campaigns, smashed windows, rat attacks, burning tires, a bombed bank, a self-immolation. The novel is about an asset manager who deliberately destroys his clients’, his wife’s, and his own fortune on the way to being assassinated, and the absurdist approach lets DeLillo consider the culture of money and finance abstractly and in all its weird contortions. And it allows his characters to say things that wouldn’t be sayable in a realist book, like these lines spoken from inside the besieged limo by Vija Kinski, the chief of theory for Packer Capital, about the protesters: “The market culture is total. It breeds these men and women. They are necessary to the system they despise. They give it energy and definition. They are market-driven. They are traded on the markets of the world. This is why they exist, to invigorate and perpetuate the system.” Without stylized leaps like DeLillo’s, realist-fictional bankers never sound as vivid or funny or disgusting as actual bankers do when rare legal interventions expose their words to the public. The SEC’s 2010 complaint against Goldman Sachs quoted Fabrice Tourre during the mortgage crisis of 2007: “The whole building is about to collapse anytime now. . . . Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab . . . standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstrosities!!!”

In a fate worthy of a DeLillo character, Tourre is now pursuing a doctorate in economics at the University of Chicago. Not many fictional bankers go to jail, either—or if they do, they wind up in the corrections system’s version of a boutique hotel. Jerold Bradway, the narrator of DeLillo’s 2010 story “Hammer and Sickle,” was incarcerated for a crime he says was “not interesting,” committed when he took over his father’s business: “Did the inmates want to replace one doctrine, one system of government, with another? We were the end products of the system, the logical outcome, slabs of burnt-out capital. We were also men with families and homes, whatever our present situation.” Bradway and his fellow inmates are human, but just barely; they are more like symbols of money, “slabs of burnt-out capital.” They are being punished, but the punishment is also symbolic: Their minimum-security prison is so light on security that it’s possible for Jerold to take a midnight stroll to watch traffic on the highway and breathe “the fumes of free enterprise.” Money is everywhere, but everywhere reduced, or refined, to symbolic “fumes.” Jerold and his fellow inmates, whose crimes range from government-toppling frauds to simple and total nonpayment of taxes, watch his young daughters’ parodic, self-produced cable-television financial reports and listen to their singsong news of collapse in Athens and Dubai. The numbers they call out have the ring of meaninglessness (“Dubai has the debt. Is it 58 billion dollars or 80 billion dollars?”). The prisoners’ true punishment consists of being separated from “the data systems that kept us fed and cleansed,” the moving of capital rather than its accumulation. Confined to a place where the only possible value is symbolic, some of them take to gambling with virtual money.

Money’s virtuality isn’t a new thing—debts historically predate coins—but we are far removed from Joseph Addison’s 1710 exercise in point of view “The Adventures of a Shilling”: “In the beginning of my sixth year, to my unspeakable grief, I fell into the hands of a miserable old fellow, who clapped me into an iron chest, where I found five hundred more of my own quality who lay under the same confinement.” It’s hard to imagine as vivid a faux memoir being written about a collateralized debt obligation. If the novel is the literary form that, since its invention, has best been able to capture the passage of time, it has a similar capacity to render the accumulation, the dissipation, or merely the flow of money. Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods (2011) tracks the progress, from trailer to penthouse, of a genius called Joe, whose insight is that capitalism is essentially prostitution. He makes his fortune legitimizing, concealing, and sterilizing prostitution within corporate offices. Yet his success does nothing to remedy his loneliness: We see him near the novel’s end bringing home, but despite the opulence on display, failing to bed, his star employee. The incident only spurs him to another profitably bizarre idea. Money is a force that can transform his circumstances but not his character; it cannot salve his alienation. Compare the student in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (2011) who mistakenly wanders into an Advanced Tax class and is spiritually “called to account,” and turns from a deadbeat stoner into a practically ascetic IRS agent. Imposing order on money becomes for him a sacred activity, and he trades one form of alienation for another. Money—as tax forms—flows through Wallace’s IRS like a spiritual tranquilizer, inducing a sort of holy boredom.

The banality of money may be a reason writers shy away from quoting dollar amounts. If we can’t escape prices in our daily lives, can’t we at least escape them in novels? Besides the risks of committing an embarrassing inaccuracy and alienating the reader, who may have completely different notions about what constitutes a living wage or a reasonable price for a sandwich, quoting actual numbers dates the work in a way that it didn’t in the relatively inflation-free bullion-backed nineteenth century. So it was striking to read the opening of Rivka Galchen’s story “Appreciation” in the New Yorker in March: “Gross income for the daughter in 2007 was $18,150. Gross income for the mother in 2007 was $68,742. Gross income for the daughter in 2008 was $23,450; in 2009, it was $232,476; in 2010, $140,702; and in 2011 $37,853. The mother’s gross income for the years 2008 to 2011 has not been ascertained.” The story turns into an argument between mother and daughter about how to keep being people who keep things—things like apartments, money “converted into an asset”—how, in other words, to avoid risk, something male characters in fiction written by males seem constantly to be seeking. From the opposite end of fiction’s spectrum of prestige, another work in which dollar amounts tend to be stated frankly is Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel (2009). A penniless poet is arrested once for stealing a shirt to deliver a reading in, then again for stealing $40 headphones while carrying $28 in his pocket; when he does get his hands on money, he goes to Atlantic City, amasses a wad of $800, and loses it in an hour, retaining $20 he intends to spend on a steak. In real life, the author, who frequently sells his possessions in “Mismanaged My Money” sales on eBay, seems unconcerned with joining the people who keep things.

If you search the New Yorker’s online archive for the keywords “poor people” (a phrase recommended at the site, which suggests that its architects figure its readers will self-identify otherwise), twenty pieces of fiction published since 2005 show up: two posthumous works by Henry Roth, ten stories set in developing nations, one set in England in 1920, and seven set in the more or less contemporary USA. One of these, Rebecca Curtis’s “Twenty Grand,” revolves around a family-heirloom antique Armenian coin (supposedly worth “twenty grand”) that a desperate mother of young children, without a dollar or a token, spends at a tollbooth on her way to get food money from her husband at his military base. The coin’s notional value (“I got it evaluated,” the husband says) represents a future of having things to eat and keep. When the parents try to reclaim it from the toll taker, they leave their children in the car, the children wander down the highway trying to go to a rest-stop McDonald’s, and the story’s real moment of terror ensues. Horrifying scenes of children almost lost also occur in The Privileges, when the subway doors close on Cynthia Morey, separating her from her kids on the 4 train, and in The Ask, when Milo Burke, a middle-class desk jockey with a life of “crabbed, moneyless exhaustion,” loses track of his son in Bryant Park. If, across the classes, it’s children who emerge as the most cherished assets, it’s a sign that sentimental impulses still outstrip financial imperatives as the moving forces of our fictions. Or perhaps it’s that children, no matter their short-term liabilities, seem, for a while at least, to be the one asset with unlimited growth potential.

If money is a matter of possible futures, the book with the most to tell us about the present moment is one in which money hardly figures at all: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), a novel that dispenses with a realist depiction of society as a theater of individual striving and instead shows that we live in a world where character, creativity, and love cannot save us. In this respect, Never Let Me Go, as Nancy Fraser has recently suggested in New Left Review, suggests a literature for the 99 percent. It follows three young people from a dreamy adolescence in what seems to be a privileged boarding school into a truncated adulthood that expires as they donate their organs to the barely glimpsed society that has created them—these children are clones—to exploit them. Their only assets are their very bodies, over which they have no control. It doesn’t take much of a leap to see in Ishiguro’s scenario the lifetimes of debt paying and service employment that await dreamy children at a time when college tuition swells at twice the rate of inflation. Gatsby’s green light is no longer an adequate symbol for our dreams. Ishiguro, in his novel’s last pages, supplies another: discarded plastic shopping bags, caught in barbed wire and the branches of trees, torn up and flapping in the breeze.

Christian Lorentzen is an editor at the London Review of Books.

ookforum

June 13, 2012
6:14 pm

It's not very meaningful to say that "most American fiction writers come from and remain the people who rent things". I can't imagine there are many writers who rent the food they eat, the coffee or liquor they drink, the clothes they wear, or the electronic gadgets that are a part of everyone American's life. And do they all live in the few American cities where an automobile is not a necessity? So what are we talking about? Real estate?

In any case, most American writers certainly do display a woeful ignorance about, and even hostility to, financial matters.

midasw

June 23, 2012
3:07 pm

I've published eight novels, most of which deal with the world of big money, none of which came close to the exemplar of the genre, Bonfire of the Vanities, although I did get my picture on the cover of Institutional Investor as "Wall Street's First Bestselling Author" (I had been a partner of Lehman Brothers - the Lehman Brothers, not the cheesy Fuld version - in an earlier life.)
The problem, as I see it, is that most "money novels" involve gimmicks, and small-scale stuff, not the amoral, awful social context in which Wall Street and the corpocracy have drowned us. Take John Lanchester. His nonfiction book about the crisis was pretty good; I find his novel "Capital" unreadable. Same writer, same subject, but clearly Lanchester doesn't understand his subject well enough psychologically (process is easy) to imagine it into a novel.
I started writing almost 35 years ago, after reading Little Dorrit, and realizing that Merdle's 20th century counterpart had been in my office just the previous week. Merdle was imagined; he may have been suggested by one of the 19th Century railroad swindlers, but he sprang from Dickens, not Bagehot or the Financial Times. No one has written "business" better than Balzac. No novel I can think of shows/tells you what you really need to understand about business, even though money is hardly mentioned, than The Leopard. Dorothy Parker said "If you want to see what God thinks of money, look at who He gives it to." Novels about money need to start there.
-Michael M. Thomas

Chi-Editrix

June 24, 2012
1:59 pm

I just finished the fourth and last of the Patrick Melrose series ("At Last"). St. Aubyn makes the filthy rich both screamingly funny and heartbreakingly sad, though not perhaps as funny and sad as, say, Frank McCourt made the poor. Still, a job well done.

William Spell Jr.

June 27, 2012
2:24 pm

William Faulkner was once asked why he never wrote about rich people. "Because I don't know any," he said.

TheBigAl

July 5, 2012
12:35 pm

Thanks for recommending the Melrose series. As for novels about big money: the mystery and crime genre mostly constitutes the current place where contemporary Theodore Dreisers and Louis Auchinclosses reside. The rest of us, when we write, see money as something people have or don't have, never an end in itself. Wealth is hardly an object of interest in its own right, unless you're doing "The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." What is interesting is the point of intersection between those who have and those who don't, the point where The Great Gatsby resides. What people do with their money, and how they use it to gain power, sex, or more money, and how money allows them to be careless with the lives of others, are always interesting situations if that point of intersection is dramatized. While a contemporary Marge Piercy could dramatize some manifestation of the Occupy movement, the divide between the 1% and the 99% requires a contemporary Zola or Balzac, not a Piercy or William Dean Howells (The Rise of Silas Lapham).

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