Dollars Damn Me

IS MONEY AS INTEGRAL a topic for the novel as war is for the epic? Robinson Crusoe, pillaging the shipwreck for amenities to make island life tolerable, thinks philosophically that the gold he finds on board will be of infinitely less use to him than one ordinary knife, but on second thought takes the money away with him just in case. What would Pride and Prejudice be without the entail that threatens to evict the Bennet daughters from their home, or The House of Mirth without Lily Bart’s disastrous descent into debt? “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery,” says Mr. Micawber, and novels from Balzac’s Cousin Bette to Sophie Kinsella’s popular Shopaholic series tell stories structured by the accumulation of debt in a consumer culture in which the need to assert status by way of extravagant material trappings mires protagonists ever more deeply in financial embarrassment.

The fortunes of the modern European novel as a popular form of entertainment rose over the course of the eighteenth century alongside the emergence of global financial markets, so it is not surprising that markets and the novel should share so many patterns and commitments. Middlemarch, with its masterfully dispassionate arrangement of seemingly irrelevant stories into a coherent interconnected whole, may be the novel that most perfectly illustrates and exemplifies the workings of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Bad choices about money doom Lydgate as surely as they bring down Emma Bovary, with self-destructive spending speaking here to the damaging effects of trying to clamber up into a social class whose exigencies dwarf one’s actual income. Not having enough money isn’t the only kind of money problem a fictional character can have. There is also the problem of having the wrong kind of money (Gatsby), or indeed of having too much money, period. In The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl, vast wealth makes it impossible to be treated as a human being (Milly Theale) or to treat others as autonomous individuals deserving of respect and kindness (Maggie Verver).

The English novelist Edward St. Aubyn shares Henry James’s interest in how wealth deforms individuals and families, although he ultimately takes his protagonist into a realm of survival no longer defined primarily in terms of money. St. Aubyn’s five-book Patrick Melrose series is charged with sexually shocking subject matter (a father’s rape of his five-year-old son) and extravagant drug use, but these horrors are made possible and precipitated by a deeper pathology—the moral decay that comes with the Melrose clan’s inherited wealth. Derived originally from a nineteenth-century Ohio dry-cleaning empire, the money has, a century later, condemned the British Melrose family to excel in an icy-hearted milieu defined primarily by decadence. In Bad News, the second installment of the series, Patrick—whose weekly expenditure on heroin and cocaine currently hovers in the realm of five thousand dollars a week)—flies from London to New York via Concorde to collect his dead father’s ashes. It proves an expensive trip:

Capital erosion was another way to waste his substance, to become as thin and hollow as he felt, to lighten the burden of undeserved good fortune, and commit a symbolic suicide while he still dithered about the real one. He also nursed the opposite fantasy that when he became penniless he would discover some incandescent purpose born of his need to make money. On top of the hotel bill, he must have spent another two or two and a half thousand on taxis, drugs, and restaurants, plus six thousand for air tickets. That brought the total to over ten thousand dollars, and the funeral expenses were on their way.

These numbers are obscene, and yet they have come to sound humdrum; presented in this singularly blasé fashion, they come across as integral to the novel’s other excesses.

Patrick’s mother, Eleanor, a Mrs. Jellyby figure whose philanthropy masks her failures at home, writes checks to the Save the Children Fund because she can’t do anything to help her own son, and ultimately leaves her house and her fortune to a Transpersonal Foundation run by a cheerful crook. In a novel of the nineteenth century, this is the development that might have put Patrick on the path to debtors’ prison. By the time we reach At Last, St. Aubyn’s final Melrose installment, Patrick, who doesn’t have health insurance, has blown his remaining funds on a thirty-day stay in rehab. This ruinous expenditure, however, doesn’t doom Patrick to a life on skid row—on the contrary, St. Aubyn lets Patrick settle solidly into more modest financial standing. Though he inherits nothing from his mother when she dies, it emerges that a trust put in place by Eleanor’s grandfather designates Patrick as the ultimate beneficiary. It contains roughly $2.3 million—a sum that strikes the lawyers who administer the trust as derisory, but that may indeed allow Patrick “to separate the bed from the sit.” It is an almost Dickensian reprieve, a legacy large enough to provide consolation without being so massive that it will permanently distort one’s relations with oneself or others. St. Aubyn’s preoccupation with class makes him seem something of a throwback, but in the end the point isn’t about being fabulously wealthy or on the street. Monetary stability allows Patrick to move beyond the strictures of mere survival. And it’s here that St. Aubyn finds his disturbing, open-ended question: With moderate material comfort, as distinct from the corrupting effects of the megawealth of the old family fortune, will the damaged Patrick locate any of the solace Crusoe found in the years after the wreck?

Jenny Davidson teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and is the author of Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century (Columbia University Press, 2008) and the novel Heredity (Soft Skull Press, 2003).