A Bibliophile’s Miscellany: Books on the Financial Crisis
I don’t claim to understand very much about the economics or history of the downturn that began around 2008. What little I do know I largely attribute to the books I’ve read about it, both fiction and nonfiction. Many authors have seen fit to ruminate on the market crash and subsequent recession, perhaps because it evokes for them some perennial human themes of greed, obsession, and regret. I’ve chosen my favorite five books on the financial crisis (plus some bonuses) below.
1. Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood (2008), along with I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay by John Lanchester (2010)
Atwood is one of our finest modern-day prophets; she has also written knowingly about oppressive societies (The Handmaid’s Tale, 1987) and environmental collapse (2004’s Oryx and Crake and its two sequels, 2009’s The Year of the Flood and the forthcoming MaddAddam). In Payback her reflections on money go beyond the current financial crisis, delving into history and literature to ponder what it might mean to be in debt to the earth and to our ancestors: “Are we in debt to anyone or anything for the bare fact of our existence? If so, what do we owe, and to whom or to what? And how should we pay?” Her references range from the Egyptian goddesses of justice to Ebenezer Scrooge, by way of the Hammurabi Code, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and much more, in this earnest, learned treatise.
John Lanchester’s I.O.U. (published in the UK under the playful title Whoops!) is an equally useful nonfiction account of the financial crisis, pitched as a layman’s introduction to the economic history of how we got ourselves in such a predicament. (I’ve heard David Graeber’s 2011 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years described in similar terms.) Although he is the son of a banker, Lanchester claims no specialist knowledge, just a desire to understand and then impart to his readers the facts that every concerned citizen needs to know. As he puts it, reassuringly,
“Many bright, literate people have no idea about all sorts of economic basics, of a type that financial insiders take as elementary facts about how the world works. I am an outsider to finance and economics, and my hope is that I can talk across that gulf.”
He plots out, simply and methodically, just how the credit crunch happened, all along giving definitions of basic economic terms and explanations of cause and effect. A must-read if you wish to understand the global economy, both pre- and post-crash.
2. A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks (2009)
This postmodern state-of-the-nation novel has been likened to Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now or to the works of nineteenth-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac (who wrote a panoramic series of realist novels entitled La Comédie humaine, or The Human Comedy). What it may remind you most of, however, is Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, especially with Faulks’s excellent opening line, “Five o’clock and freezing,” and a long first paragraph giving a broad, sweeping overview of London in December 2007. Faulks’s vision encompasses all sorts of people: the good and the bad, the high and the lowly. His characters range from a villainous hedge fund manager to an impecunious lawyer (my favorite character and a good Dickensian trope), via a misanthropic book reviewer and a traumatized Tube train driver. There are a few threads running through and linking the characters, including the hospital, an Internet porn star, and a bicycle with no lights on that speeds past multiple characters at poignant moments.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that the book ends with relative comedy rather than the potential tragedy of a terrorist attack on the hospital where two of the characters are located. The only tragedy to foresee is the collapse of the economy, which, because of the abstract nature of the funds to begin with, doesn’t seem entirely real. Where the book descends from satire into silliness is with its parodic naming: “YourPlace” social networking website, chick band “Girls from Behind,” the “Pizza Palace” book of the year award, and so on. Nonetheless, I think Faulks has produced a convincing and sharp send-up of contemporary British society, a notable achievement for his first non-historical novel.
3. Capital by John Lanchester (2012)
Lanchester again, but this time his thoughts on the banking collapse are filtered through fiction. Capital is an accomplished mosaic portrait of contemporary, multicultural London in the midst of financial crisis. As a state of the nation novel, it’s marginally more successful than A Week in December, largely because the latter too often descends into risible spoof names and situations. And yet I felt more affection for Faulks’s characters, perhaps because they are drawn with more garish colors – like Dickensian heroes and villains – than Lanchester’s more measured, staid characters.
There are several major plot lines to Capital: the collapse of the banks, a failed terrorist attack, the discovery of a suitcase filled with £500,000 cash, and a creepy harassment campaign against the residents of Pepys Road, who are bombarded with postcards and DVDs featuring their houses, all branded with the slogan “We want what you have.” Fictional Pepys Road is the underlying connection between the large cast of characters: a mysterious graffiti artist, a Pakistani shop-keeping family, a Polish builder, a Hungarian nanny, a Senegalese football phenom, an octogenarian widow dying of a brain tumor, a millionaire banker with a spendthrift wife…and on it goes. As with Dickens, I find that my favorite characters may well be some of the most minor, particularly Mark, a weaselly, resentful personal assistant. My favorite passage is from his internal rant as he’s taking a train out of London:
“Middle-class mediocrity. Suburban mediocrity. A culture that openly worships the average. A society which allows the idea of the elite to exist only in relation to sport. A culture of fat people, lazy people, people who watch reality television, people who aren’t interested in anything except celebrity, people who eat in the street, people who betray their ordinariness every time they open their mouths.”
Another favorite is Mrs. Kamal, the Pakistani matriarch who turns complaining into an art form and manages her sons’ love lives with the audacity of Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Bennet.
The danger with this kind of kaleidoscopic novel is that it prioritizes breadth of experience over depth of insight, such that you feel you do not know any of the characters as intimately as you might in a less panoramic narrative. His female characters, especially, suffer from this cursory treatment. Nonetheless, Faulks and Lanchester, having attempted the British equivalent of the Great American Novel, both achieve a portrayal that effectively encapsulates modern Britain. These novels owe much to the realist tradition enthroned with the Victorian novel; as Bryan Appleyard revealed in a Sunday Times interview with Lanchester (February 19, 2012): “While writing it, he read big, solid Victorian novels, and there is a feeling in the book that, in literary terms, the excesses of the 20th century never happened, that the experimental novel is dead.” There is a conscious return to tradition, in terms of both style and content.
I especially appreciated the multiplicity of meanings involved in Lanchester’s title: it’s about the nation’s capital and the meanderings of financial capital; it also again echoes Pride and Prejudice with Sir William Lucas’s cries of “Capital, capital!” As I’ve found over nearly seven years of living in its vicinity, London can be a splendid place as well as a prison, with a breathtakingly diverse cast of residents. Capital is a perfect companion volume for anyone who wishes to consider what modern urban living is, ontologically as well as personally.
4. Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett (2010)
Adam Haslett’s debut novel is another capable fictional response to the banking crisis. Main character Doug Fanning is seemingly invincible: he thinks he is perfect and untouchable – that the property dispute threatening his mansion will just go away, that he can have an offhand sexual relationship with a teenage boy and no one will be any the wiser, and that he can commit fraud without getting caught. When his inevitable fall comes and he is returned to the Middle East setting where he experienced his first humiliation in Gulf War service, it’s a bit of a letdown; he is no classic tragic hero, just another disaffected young narcissist. The novel is reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (and indeed, Franzen and Haslett seem to be pals) with its setting of suburban angst, and of A Week in December with its Dickensian fable of society gone wrong – through the lens of banking misconduct. Haslett will be one to watch out for in the future.
5. The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy (2012)
The Devil I Know is a modern pecuniary fable as timeless as the legends of Faust and King Midas. Protagonist Tristram Amory St Lawrence, the thirteenth Earl of Howth, gets caught up in a dodgy property scheme in his native Ireland, led all along by Monsieur Deauville, the sinister advisor he knows only as a voice on the phone. A downfall is inevitable – indeed, the book is structured as Tristram’s courtroom testimony circa 2016 – but it is revealed through such a sly, roundabout satire (the name Tristram is surely meant to evoke Laurence Sterne’s wildly bloated and divergent mock-autobiography, the classic eighteenth-century novel Tristram Shandy) that you will be riveted through to the end.
And a bonus read:
(Even though it isn’t set in the wake of the recent financial crisis, I enjoyed it so much I can’t resist including it.)
6. All is Vanity by Christina Schwarz (2002)
Nancy Pearl whetted my appetite for this novel simply by describing it as the story of a writer who turns her best friend’s life into fiction. But All is Vanity has many timely themes, including a classic morality tale of unwise financial choices.
Margaret Snyder quits her job as a high school English teacher in New York City, deciding she’ll take a year out to write a novel. She starts writing about Robert Martin, a Vietnam vet who’s trying to start his life back up again in the States, but only manages a few workaday scenes of him having breakfast. Progress is painfully slow, causing Margaret to wonder whether she’s really cut out for this novelist lark after all. When she and her husband Ted realize they need more money coming in, she can’t even get her old job back or hold down a demeaning internship for a magazine editor. She’s been let down by the reality of life and the inevitability of failure; she wonders bitterly, “Had I been, after all, only an overachiever type, who, in fact, had not managed even to overachieve?”
Meanwhile, for Letty MacMillan, Margaret’s best friend since childhood, it seems like the tables are turning. After years of economizing to create a decent household for her husband Michael and their four children, Michael gets a great job offer at Los Angeles’s Otis museum and it feels like they can finally treat themselves to things they’ve wanted for ages. They start off small: a dishwasher, a remodeled kitchen, then a new house, an SUV, and so on. Letty believes that “with these accoutrements, we had clearly succeeded in life. Without them, we had failed.” They also throw lavish dinner parties in their desperation to impress Michael’s posh new colleagues. Before they know it, costs have spiraled out of hand and they are nearly $150,000 in debt. Letty embezzles money from her boss’s events planning company to try to pay off some of the worst debts, all along believing that Margaret’s promised book advance will rescue her.
For Margaret has abandoned her Vietnam vet narrative and instead turned Letty’s story into a barely disguised novel about “Lexie” and “Miles” – starting as a light-hearted redecorating saga and swiftly descending into a Madame Bovary-esque tragedy of debt and despair. And Margaret takes a secret thrill in her power to drive the real-life plot along by encouraging Letty’s consumerism and dictating what an impressive party would require. For Margaret the shopping fantasy is a way of exorcising her own money problems; Ted is so stingy he makes her record all expenditures in a ledger, all the way down to shoelaces, whereas Letty shoves piles of second- and third-notice bills under a mattress. The two friends’ differing attitudes towards money both reflect a bitterly defended sense of entitlement. Ironically, Letty seems to be the true writer out of the pair: her e-mails are always delightfully written and she is allowed a few first-person segments interspersed with Margaret’s narration. When it comes to talent – and especially money – what is deserved and what is fated don’t always seem to work out fairly.