Fictional Capital

Jonathan Dee. The Privileges. Random House, January 2010.

Sebastian Faulks. A Week in December. Doubleday, March 2010.

Adam Haslett. Union Atlantic. Nan A. Talese, February 2010.

Eric Puchner. Model Home. Scribner, February 2010.

Jess Walter. The Financial Lives of the Poets. Harper, September 2009.

“With the development of interest-bearing capital and the credit system,” Marx wrote in Capital, “all capital seems to double itself, and sometimes treble itself, by the various modes in which the same capital, or perhaps even the same claim on a debt, appears in different forms in different hands. The greater portion of this ‘money-capital’ is purely fictitious. All the deposits . . . are merely claims on the banker, which, however, never exist as deposits.” The financial crisis, in other words, was a crisis of fictitious capital, whose movements make up an increasingly large portion of the American economy. In these terms, mortgage-backed securities are highly fictionalized: bonds of bonds, bonds of parts of other bonds, bonds made up of insurance bought against these bonds, bonds ever more distant from the things in the physical world to which they refer.

This fictitiousness is the subject of several works of fiction that have followed the crisis, the most explicit of which is Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December. At the beginning of the novel, which is set in 2007, hedge fund manager John Veals describes the mortgage market to one of his traders; incredulous, the trader replies that “it sounds like this fantasy football game my son plays.” Yes, Veals agrees. This is “Fantasy Finance.” Veals will cash in on this fantasy — specifically, by betting that one of the banks heavily invested in the real estate market will be bailed out by the government — “at the invitation of the banks.” Bankers play Fantasy Finance because the government encourages it; as long as the fantasy lasts it pays, and when the bill comes due it will be sent to the taxpayers. Faulks’s novel includes lengthy technical descriptions of collateralized debt obligations and commodities markets and regulatory procedures, which have been cause for complaint for some critics. When they wonder if the world of high finance is too abstruse to make good fiction, what they are really wondering is: Is it possible for novelists to write about the times in which they live? What happens when fictitious capital is converted into fiction — and how valuable are these new instruments?

For Adam Morey, one of the four main characters in Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges, the point of making money is not to secure some solid prize, but to keep making it. When he adds up his worth — which he rarely bothers to do — the sum is enough for him and his family “to live on for the rest of their lives; but what did that even mean? It was unsettling to think of money in terms other than those of growth, of how it might be used to make more money. Something about it smelled of death to him but he didn’t know why.” Momentum is all that matters: in The Privileges, the men who get promoted at Morgan Stanley are the ones with MBAs, but Adam “lacked the tolerance for the one step back that might or might not set up the proverbial two steps forward. . . . The momentum of the business world was one-way only, a principle that should not be rationalized.” He takes a job at a private equity fund and then, on a whim, sets up an insider-trading scheme, which is so successful that Devon, his partner in crime, becomes skittish. He knows he’s not like Adam and those other billionaires who are “missing a part of their brain or something. No conscience. No memory for losses.” Adam berates him: “to say that we can’t be successful today because we were successful yesterday — that’s not smart, that’s just superstitious. . . . Everything that you and I have made happen in these last however many years? It never happened. It’s gone. It doesn’t exist. The only thing that exists, the only risk to be analyzed, is what’s in front of us today.” Like time, Adam moves in one direction.

During this conversation, which takes place in Central Park, a wedding party gathers nearby, and Devon notices “a strange bald man in a tuxedo struggling to fit an expensive camera onto a tripod . . . the camera looked like it was pointing right at him.” The scene immediately summons the one in Wall Street, when Charlie Sheen records his conversation with Michael Douglas in Central Park. While other authors of financial fiction appear to have used movies for research — for instance, Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic features a vast mansion unfurnished save for an enormous television, an image of empty, aimless wealth that will be familiar to people who have seen Boiler Room — Dee counts on us to recognize his allusion for what it is. Like Devon, we begin to expect the worst.

But the worst never happens — the camera is just a camera. Adam keeps making millions. The authorities never notice, and his wife, Cynthia, doesn’t care. There is nothing to obstruct his endless acquisition of wealth, and on this frictionless path he slides into the future. The only consequence of Adam accumulating all this wealth is that he accumulates more.

Just as financial success depends on forgetfulness, so too does personal happiness. In Adam’s opinion, he and his wife owe their happy marriage to a “shared talent for leaving all their baggage behind. Why would you want to go back and pick that up again?” This is the same attitude Cynthia takes toward her dying father, who had left when she was a child. The past is “like a safe-deposit box: getting all dressed up and going downtown and having a look in there isn’t going to change what’s in it.” Cynthia knows she is lucky to have found in Adam someone else who is willing to walk away from everything, and that their success is a product of this willingness: “We’re a fucking multinational,” she tells him. “We’ve trademarked ourselves.”

Dee, who began his book well before the mortgage crisis came to a head, has said that he tried to strip his story of as many historical details as possible, and his prose, strained of particularities, does feel somehow purified, as cool and clean as an air-conditioned lobby. This prose style is as powerful as it is subtle, which is to say extremely. Dee’s smoothness teaches us little about how wealth is made but a great deal about how it feels: padded by dollars, the Moreys are protected from the world outside their Manhattan apartment. Seen from their balcony, Central Park is as silent and still as a painting. Wealth pulls you away from the world, to heights from which it seems never to change — or at least from which those changes can be ignored.

Faulks’s A week in December reads like an inverse to The Privileges, thick with topical detail on London in 2007. Faulks interlaces the stories of seven characters, one of whom is a Tube conductor, and in many ways the novel aspires to the status of a subway map: a diagram that shows the order underlying the city’s teeming chaos, the points at which lines converge — at which you can make your connection. Everything appears on Faulks’s map: terrorism and reality television, professional sports and their attendant fantasy leagues, a Second Life–like game in which users spend real money on virtual genitals, and the then accelerating American mortgage crisis. The narrative train is steered by Veals, who stands to profit enormously from the irresponsible activities of the banks he calls “Moregain” and “Goldbag”: after finding out that one such bank is dangerously leveraged, he starts a rumor that it is about to be taken over by the government. Faulks closely tracks the transformation of this fiction — in Veals’s view, less a lie than a pre-truth — into fact, including swift, efficient descriptions of credit default swaps, commodity markets, short-selling, and so forth.

Just as Faulks is more explicit than Dee in his treatment of the economy, so, too, is he more direct in binding it to his characters’ internal lives. “Even if in cash terms she would be expensive to run,” he relates of Veals’s calculations regarding his fiancée, “the maintenance of Vanessa would in other ways be low: she wouldn’t sap his energy; he wouldn’t find himself in the position he’d seen with a lot of promising traders: having to spend so much time servicing or reassuring his wife that it would take his mind off making money.” Everything is measured on the same scale: our feelings affect our fortunes, and so there is no part of life that cannot be defined in terms of dollars gained or lost, no part of the self whose business can be separated from business. If we want to succeed, we must manage more than our time — we must regulate our imaginations as well.

It is not that Veals does not care about other people: he does not even believe in them. His consciousness is so circumscribed that he cannot imagine the existence of another consciousness. It is easy to transfer risk to other people — investors, taxpayers, the young banker who takes over your desk after you’ve fled with your fortune to Anguilla or wherever the wireless signal is strong enough that you can trade on your own, if you feel like it — when those people do not exist in the first place. “When, or rather if, the financial crisis ever stabilized, there would be a recession in what journalists charmingly termed the ‘real’ economy. Millions around the globe would lose their jobs; other millions would go without food, or at least see their modest lives stripped of comfort. But,” thinks Veals, surveying the city from his office window, “I have mastered this world. . . . To me there is no mystery, no nuance and no complication; I am a man alive to the spirit of his time, the one who hears the whispers on the wind.” Veals does not pretend to believe in some beneficent invisible hand. The only one that matters is his own, and so he looks out over London, and laughs.

Faulks’s novel has been advertised and received as satire, but many of what are meant to be the most cutting passages aren’t sharp enough to puncture their targets. When Faulks aims for the absurd, making our world appear slightly more warped than it is in order to reveal how warped it truly is — when, for instance, a reality television show contestant commits suicide on-air, or when Veals shrugs off the fact that his scheme will cause soaring food prices and starvation — he misses. Contestants on reality television shows have, in fact, killed themselves during filming, and traders, like Ayn Rand’s uncaring Atlas, always shrug. These scenes expose Faulks as an innocent; he’s trying to startle us by imagining the worst, but the worst he can imagine is no worse than the world as it is.

Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets is the first American novel written (very quickly) in the wake of the crisis. Describing the struggles of a former newspaper reporter to meet a looming mortgage payment, it is a book of its moment. PowerBars, GameBoys, text messages (present participle: “TM-ing”), mortgage modification plans, Costco, craigslist, CNN, CNBC, Chapter 7, Chapter 11: we’re meant to rummage through these bargain-bin details until we find something that fits. Walter relies on the reader’s consciousness to give this world shape: whatever humanity the characters possess is what we loan them. We aren’t meant to sympathize but to identify, and so our interest in them is a kind of self-interest.

The book is weirdly effective because what it so blithely describes — people losing their jobs, people losing their homes, long-standing relationships fraying over money — is in fact happening all around us. Yet the emotions stirred up are stirred up aimlessly, indeed a little cynically. Bad things occur but are never held to be the fault of bad decisions made by particular human beings. Everyone in Financial Lives — including drug dealers, narcotics police, and the guy messing around with the narrator’s wife (!) — has pretty good intentions. Nobody is held to account; nobody could have behaved differently, or better. For a book about the financial crisis, this is an odd interpretation of how people exist in the world, which is: unselfishly and with everyone else’s best interests in mind. How strange, and how telling, that a book that’s supposed to be about someone suffering from the economy’s decline takes a position implicitly sympathetic to the nice people who perpetrated it. The Financial Lives of the Poets does indeed tell us something about the current moment — but it does so by imitation, rather than representation, of the meretricious ways of the financiers.

Set in 1985, Eric Puchner’s Model Home begins from the point of view of Warren Ziller, a father of three who cleaned out his savings to move his family from Wisconsin to Herradura Estates, an “equestrian village” (read: gated community) in Southern California. It was “a brilliant, even a noble, idea” that called Warren to the coast: to cash in on that fertile climate where “the condominiums are in bloom,” all he has to do is turn sand into Auburn Fields, a tidy community for the “drive-till-you-qualify crowd,” those hopeful homesteaders who cannot afford to buy anywhere else. As surely as grassy lawns can be made to grow in the desert, Warren believes, demand for these houses can be coaxed into existence — and so with his business partner he builds twenty houses before they have even sold the lots. Then the county announces plans to turn the adjacent patch of desert into a toxic waste dump. If they do not sell the units, the development will be foreclosed, as will Warren’s own home, and so sell them he must, even though it means deceiving potential customers. Eventually Warren goes broke, and the family is forced to move into one of the model homes. The rest stand empty: the Zillers alone occupy this scorched earth, land so worthless the bank is in no hurry to seize it. Under the white sun the “toxic pond,” a pit of sludge, shines as blue as a swimming pool.

As an image for the current financial crisis, Auburn Fields is an apt one. The abandoned homes, the pit of poisonous waste: these are the corrosive consequences of irresponsible development, “toxic assets” made literal. They are also part of the legacy of ninety years of government policy, beginning with Herbert Hoover’s “Own Your Own Home” campaign, that encouraged our financial and emotional investment in the single-family home. “The home owner has a constructive aim in life,” Hoover declared, asking builders to devote more resources to residential construction and urging Congress to pass laws that would allow banks to increase lending to potential homebuyers. A host of subsequent legislation — including the establishment of Fannie Mae in 1938, the preferential treatment given to savings and loan associations with Regulation Q in 1966, and the effective legalization of subprime loans in 1980 — nudged home-ownership closer and closer to the core of our self-understanding.

Model Home reveals the lasting impacts of these efforts, though perhaps not in the ways Puchner intended. Much of the novel unfolds in the model home of the title, but a good deal of time is spent in other homes, too: the first fancy house in Herradura Estates; the even fancier house of Warren’s son’s girlfriend; the significantly less fancy house of his daughter’s boyfriend; the old family house in Wisconsin; a tent. By the end of the novel, Warren’s wife leaves him, taking with her two of their three children, and the book closes on an image of Warren in despair: alone in his model house, he remembers being alone in another house, his childhood home, when he would wait for his mother to return from the second job she worked to afford that house, and the overwhelming, wrenching pain of joy he felt when she at last appeared. This, the older Warren thinks, is all that matters.

In its focus on both spatial and psychological domesticity — the family home, the family fights — Model Home is not unusual. Puchner’s novel is that familiar animal in American fiction: the domestic drama, a sequence of private betrayals and epiphanies, almost none of which occur in the workplace. (If aliens ordered a random sampling of American fiction from Amazon and had it free-two-day-shipped to Mars, they would think we spent most of our time at home on the porch, or chopping tomatoes in the kitchen.) The popularity of domestic fiction — which imagines the house to be the site of our highest human drama — and the mortgage crisis are symptoms of the same thing: the American overvaluation of the home as a token of personal success. Such books perpetuate our faith in our homes’ symbolic worth, even as their economic worth plummets. And so rather than get angry at the crisis-makers and profiteers, we cry alone in our rooms, and read books about other people crying alone in their rooms, because home is where things happen, where our problems, and their solutions, can be found. A house with its door shut, surrounded by other houses, whose doors are shut, too: this is the family, that gated community.

Like A Week in December, Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic delves deep into the workings of the financial and regulatory systems. Unlike Faulks, Haslett began his book before the mortgage crisis came to a head, and consequently his depiction of meretricious bankers, reckless investment, and government bailouts has been heralded as something oracular and majestic, a fiction that turned into fact.

Set mostly in 2002, Union Atlantic moves between multiple third-person perspectives. Doug Fanning is a banker who develops and oversees the increasingly lucrative securities division of Union Atlantic (once a reliable commercial bank, now a giant, tentacular financial services conglomerate) and uses his newfound wealth to build a vast, characterless mansion in Finden, a wealthy Boston suburb. His neighbor in Finden is Charlotte Graves, a former high school teacher who thinks her town has bankrupted itself, forsaking lessons learned from the past — and selling off its land, in particular a plot given by her grandfather, which has just been bought by Doug. The threads binding them are pulled tighter when, after claiming he needed millions to cover his clients’ positions on the Japanese stock market, one of Doug’s traders at last admits that there were no clients, that all the money in the market is Union Atlantic’s. Doug decides to keep funneling money from the commercial side of Union Atlantic to the phony clients. Eventually an employee reports Fanning’s falsified trades, and Henry Graves, Charlotte’s brother and president of the New York Federal Reserve, arranges for the purchase of a $20-billion stake in Union Atlantic by “a consortium led by JPMorgan Chase and the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi.” The Fed issues a statement saying it is prepared “to provide liquidity as needed in the event of serious market disruptions.” The White House press secretary calls the fraud “a case of a few bad apples,” but Henry, and Haslett, have their doubts.

Haslett’s prose can be beautiful and baroque, unusually phrased and allusive, as in this passage in which Charlotte Graves considers her former students: “They were closed to that higher ambiguity that came only from observing at a close range a person compelled by knowledge, someone who might show by example how one’s first self, illiberally imposed, could be given up in favor of a chosen course.” Charlotte herself is one of those people compelled by knowledge; her sections are rich with references to the Western canon. “The privilege of walking by the river in nature’s company,” she thinks, “owed as much to a mind trained by poetry . . . as to any quiddity of nature’s own. . . . You saw through the poem. Imagination created experience, not matter alone.” Doug Fanning, on the other hand, finds no use for books; he pities his secretary, an aspiring novelist whose occasional insolence he attributes to “a compensatory fantasy . . . for the inherent powerlessness of a person with an advanced degree in short fiction.”

Haslett has said he wanted “the rhythm of the prose and the language [to] be specific to each character, because that’s how I get to know them. . . . Charlotte’s chapters have a certain rhythm to them. Doug’s are more clipped.” They are also often predictable, packed with the inflated, steroidal phrases so often put into the mouths of macho bankers: one of Doug’s traders, for instance, sounds “jacked up . . . pumped about what he had in hand but wanting more.” Doug, it seems, was difficult for Haslett to get to know, for he is at once a clichéd banker — taciturn and totally self-interested, a mercenary machine who, in order to escape federal indictment, flees to Iraq and finds work with a private contractor — and not banker enough. Isolated and mostly uninterested in sex, he feels underdone and accidentally conceived, the kind of guy who would release his restless anger in any number of ways, if only Haslett would let him.

Perhaps Doug is half-imagined because Haslett could not let himself imagine someone whose imagination is so impoverished, who thinks to himself in words wholly uninfluenced by the words of writers — someone who did not become himself by reading books. If Haslett’s rendering of the world of finance feels less than full, it is because the world of finance is full of people who do not read fiction, and whose minds are consequently so mysterious to Haslett he cannot fully inhabit them. Whereas he can imagine all too easily the bookish Charlotte and her despair. At the end of the novel, Charlotte is overcome by voices urging her to violence, voices that

drowned out the litany in her head, the one that she’d lived by and with, her litany: Henry II and Magna Carta and Gutenberg and Calvin and Milton and Kant and Paine and Jefferson and Jackson’s rabble and Corot and Lincoln and Zola and Dickens and Whitman and Bryan on his cross of gold and the patterned fabrics in the paintings of Matisse and Walker Evans and Copland and Baldwin and King in Memphis, the chorus exploding in her, the ideas all that were left, a pure narrative drive using up the last of her.

She douses the books in turpentine, and lights a match.

Is it a coincidence that the authors of all of these novels are white, educated men between the ages of 38 and 57? It can’t be, not entirely. The men who write these books are the men who might have made the money and the mistakes, had they chosen differently — they’re the former classmates of those who did, and might. (Yale Law School, where Adam Haslett studied after publishing his first book, offers a class called “Operating a Hedge Fund.” Anyone “interested in launching a hedge fund,” reads the catalog description, “should benefit from this course.”)

And indeed the feeling one gets from reading these books in succession is of an attempt to master the universe by other means. The bankers are to be rebuffed for their ethical vacuity but admired, even envied, for the scope of their influence. Global finance has made the bankers omniscient, able to influence the course of distant lives at the touch of a keyboard, and so omniscience becomes the guiding principle of these novels, which range freely around the world, through the minds of multiple characters, and in and out of the dull minutiae of credit swaps and collateralized debts. The vastness of the crisis novels is meant to lift the fiction writer to the level of financier. What satisfies Doug, after all, is not the accumulation of wealth but watching the world warp and wend according to his will: “At such times, his churning mind turned lucid and through it power flowed as frictionless as money down a fiber-optic line, the resistance of the physical world reduced to the vanishing point.” Describing what it felt like to finish Union Atlantic the same week Lehman Brothers collapsed, Haslett said that “the timing was uncanny. I remember I was up at MacDowell, at the artists’ colony, finishing the book, and I remember walking into the little central hall there and seeing the headline about the Dow dropping 700 points and Lehman Brothers, and it did feel a little bit like my head was exploding into the world.”

In a way, this ambition is laudable — we are always in search of fiction that is willing to meet the world as it is, and the world as it is is global, fast-moving, and heavily mortgaged. But these books, in the end, suffer from a sense of duty toward the financial world — they are dutiful in their research, dutiful in their blame, and dutiful in assigning great significance to the spheres that they describe. They get to know the causes of our economic problems, and the people who caused them, but not too well, lest they be identified too closely with a world everyone agrees is broken. Thus they stand a little above and aloof from their subjects, just as the agents of finance stand above and aloof from the harm they cause.

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