Money Changes Everything

Mel Bochner, Money (detail), 2007, oil on velvet, 48 x 63".

DARCY IN PRIDE AND PREJUDICE MADE £10,000 A YEAR. Jay Gatsby was a millionaire. For centuries, novelists have explored how wealth (and its absence) shapes characters’ lives. But twenty-first-century money culture presents fiction writers with new challenges. In the era of spiraling debt and economic crashes, has money become too abstract to represent directly? Given the stark contrast of the 99 percent versus the 1, is it still possible to create empathetic portraits of the rich? For this special summer section of Bookforum, we asked novelists and critics to reflect on these questions while considering books from the past and near present. In the lead essay, CHRISTIAN LORENTZEN considers the successes and failures of money-themed fiction in the new millennium. HEATHER HAVRILESKY assesses John Lanchester’s novel of the housing boom and market hysteria, Capital. Other contributors look back further to novels from a variety of eras—chronicles of high-society decadence, satirical portraits of Wall Street’s moral failings, and dramatic inventories of department stores that drive shoppers and local merchants to ruin—to consider money’s evolving role in fiction. Closing the section, ANDREW ROSS weighs in on Michael J. Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy, a philosophical tract on contemporary modes of cash-driven social prerogative so extreme that they seem ripe for fictional treatment. It’s only a matter of time before a novel comes along that will allow us to see the way we live now.