City Journal Autumn 2014

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By Nicole Gelinas

After The Fall: Saving Capitalism From Wall Street--and Washington

Eye on the News

Nicole Gelinas
Reading the Financial Crisis
Three post-Lehman novels measure the credit-bust world.
26 October 2012

A Week in December, by Sebastian Faulks (Vintage, 400 pp., $15)

Capital, by John Lanchester (W. W. Norton & Co., 528 pp., $26.95)

The Darlings, by Cristina Alger (Pamela Dorman Books, 352 pp., $26.95)

Where is the great American financial-crisis novel, comparable to the classic 1980s Wall Street sendup, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities? Right on time for the 1987 stock-market crash, that riot of a book gave us Sherman McCoy, Upper East Side bond trader, a protagonist (or antagonist) who embodied everything wrong with the yuppie decade. But six years after the housing bubble burst, and four years after Lehman Brothers imploded, two contenders that have garnered notice for the fictionalized version of life among the ruined—Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December and John Lanchester’s Capital—come from London, not New York. Gothamites shouldn’t despair, though. Cristina Alger’s The Darlings ably tells the Manhattan side of the story with less sprawling ambition but more raw feeling.

The two London books follow a formula. The metropolis is big, fun, and fascinating. The people are rich, poor, and in-between, and they hail from all over the world. Some are good, some bad, and some indifferent—and some will have to decide whether they’re good, bad, or indifferent. But one thing is certain: their lives will intersect in some unexpected way.

Published in 2009, A Week in December spans the week before Christmas 2007. Sophie Topping, the social-butterfly wife of a newly elected member of Parliament, is drawing up the guest list for a holiday dinner party. Among the guests she’ll bring together are John and Vanessa Veals, an “unsmiling hedge-fund man” from High Level Capital and his “long-suffering wife”; Farooq and Nasim al-Rashid, a “chutney magnate” who donates lots of money to “the party” (which one is unspecified), and his wife; Tadeusz “Spike” Borowski, a new-to-London soccer player from Poland, who met Sophie’s husband, Lance, at a public ceremony; and Gabriel Northwood, an idealistic but financially frayed lawyer. Through these characters, the reader meets others: Jenni Fortune, a Tube driver whom Gabriel gets to know when he represents the Tube in a lawsuit brought by the family of a man who jumped onto the tracks; and Hassan al-Rashid, the self-searching young adult son of Farooq and Nasim.

As these characters go about their workaday lives, the reader is meant to absorb the parallels between empty Western living and an empty, postmodern financial system: both are removed from reality. Jenni, before she falls in love with flesh-and-blood Gabriel, finds solace in an alternative-reality Internet game that’s just as many derivatives apart from real life as the financial industry is from the real economy. Vanessa, “brutally lonely” in her big house as her teenage son takes drugs upstairs, gives in to “the relentless, remorseless pounding of solitude” as she muses that financiers like her husband had “detached their activities from the real world.”

Standing out from the group are two people with the capacity to change everything for everyone. John Veals, the straight-from-central-casting hedge-fund manager who can’t make small talk and who obsesses over debt covenants, realizes before anyone that the financial system is on the brink. He determines to profit by devising complex trades on bank securities and other financial instruments. If he consummates his plan, Faulks writes, “millions around the globe would lose their jobs; other millions would go without food, or at least see their modest lives stripped of comfort.” The other potential agent of doom, Hassan, thinks the world is falling apart for another reason: Western infidels. Bombarded by racy billboards and television shows and tormented by his own red-blooded impulses, “sometimes he felt the world was just too full of women, girls, females of every kind who’d been put on earth by God to test his resolve.” As his alarmed parents observe his withdrawn behavior, Hassan agonizes about whether to blow up a busy part of London or succumb to his crush on Shahla, a friend from college.

Faulks struggles to create a moral equivalence between John Veals and Hassan. A financial speculator such as Veals, who thinks that something is going to happen—the world has borrowed too much money and is about to go broke—doesn’t make it happen, any more than a newspaper reporter makes the news by reporting on it. Hassan, on the other hand, will—or won’t—kill people. Faulks’s equation of what each of these men chooses—prosperity or crisis, life or death—is off-target, because the men are neither choosing morally equivalent things nor equally empowered to bring their choices into being.

Like A Week in December, Lanchester’s Capital, released earlier this year, features a motley cast grouped together by coincidence. The main characters either live or work on Pepys Road, a gentrified London street whose householders have been receiving ominous printed messages that say: “We Want What You Have.” Roger Yount is the banker whose company is teetering, Arabella his frigid wife, whose main purpose seems to be to annoy her husband. Matya Balatu is their Hungarian nanny. Zbigniew Tomascewski is the Polish construction worker who renovates rich people’s houses, including the Younts’. Petunia Howe, a dying elderly lady, is perplexed by her neighborhood’s changes over the decades. Smitty, Petunia’s grandson, is a provocateur who, Banksy-style, earns fame through anonymous public-art projects. Capital also has the requisite successful Muslim family with a relative who may be flirting with terrorism: Ahmed Kamal, who owns the corner store with his wife, Rohinka, has a younger brother, Usman, who’s been acting awfully “devout” lately. The novel also features the requisite confused-in-a-foreign-land soccer player: Freddy Kamo, who arrives fresh from Senegal with his chaperone father, Patrick.

In contrast to A Week in December, nobody in Capital—not even the menacing postcard-dropper, in the end—makes decisions that affect the world. Roger Yount, unlike John Veals, isn’t evil, but hapless. He’s just as surprised as anyone else when his teetering financial-industry employer fires him. Roger lusts after Matya, the nanny, but the impulse comes across as obligatory, not evidence that he really feels or even wants very much. The reader isn’t on tenterhooks wondering whether Roger will kiss Matya, because Roger never does much of anything, and when he does, it’s unimportant.

Lanchester explores ordinary people’s relationships to money more deeply than Faulks does. The biggest decision Arabella, Roger’s wife, must make is whether to fall apart when the bonus era ends. Zbigniew finds a stash of cash while doing a renovation; he must decide whether to give it to its owner or return to Poland a wealthy young man. Petunia’s middle-aged daughter, Mary, realizes that she’s happy because she knows she’ll be rich when her mother dies and leaves her the house. All the characters have Matya’s “ambivalent relationship with the currents of money on which much of London seemed to float.”

Formulaic books can succeed brilliantly, but when they don’t, the formula becomes a distraction. Both A Week in December and Capital have moments of promise in which the real world seems to come off the page. In the former, one feels for Vanessa as she tries to connect to her family, and for Hassan as he struggles not to desire Shahla. In Capital, one feels for Freddy’s father, Patrick, who longs to go into a British pub and fit in but is too self-conscious in a foreign land to do so; “he was the thing which was in the wrong place.” But neither the novels’ writing nor their plots can overcome their going-through-the-motions quality. Despite the novels’ heft, the reader spends too little time with any of the characters to make a connection that goes beyond cliché.

The problem may be the subject matter itself. The Western financial crisis is a big topic, but it remains difficult to determine who did what to cause it or how to feel about those responsible (whoever they are). Veals and Yount are no more compelling than the real-life bank CEOs and other top officials against whom American and British prosecutors have had such trouble bringing criminal cases. A successful prosecution, just like a successful novel, needs a riveting story. Who did what, and why? Where is the financial crisis’s human agency? Were the bankers evil, or just dumb? Did they act, or were they acted upon? We don’t know, and neither John Veals nor Roger Yount nor anyone else in these novels convinces us one way or the other.

In The Darlings, released in early 2012, Cristina Alger efficiently dispatches this problem. Alger ignores the larger financial crisis. Starting in the weeks after Lehman Brothers’ collapse, she tells the easiest story of all: a version of the Bernie Madoff saga. Carter Darling, head of the Darling family, defines New York success. He’s the semi-retired chief executive of a hedge fund, Delphic, that gets consistently good returns for its investors. Carter has a long-suffering wife, Ines, a mistress whom he’s loved for years, and two beautiful daughters and two upstanding sons-in-law, both of whom work for the firm.

Alger is a keen observer of financial-elite psychology. She makes the reader intimately familiar with people who never leave Manhattan except to go to East Hampton or to Europe. As Lily, Carter’s younger daughter, muses, she had learned from her mother at a young age that “the world was populated by people waiting to take advantage of Lily. Boys without means were interested in her money. Boys with means were still interested in her money because children of the wealthy lacked a work ethic.” For his part, Carter knows that there’s only one person in the world who cares more about him than about his money: his illicit lover (and even she’s not a sure thing). When inquiring after his well-being, “Everyone else, including his wife, meant: ‘How is the fund?’” he thinks.

Alger introduces us, too, to the people who would like to have such worries. “Manhattan children were like armadillos,” she writes, “sharp-clawed and thick-skinned, deceptively quick-moving.” Of transplants to Manhattan who don’t make it, she continues, “they would come to New York for a few years after college, rent shoebox apartments in Hell’s Kitchen. . . . They would feel themselves becoming impatient, jaded, cynical, rude, anxious, neurotic. They would give up. They would opt out. They would scurry back to their hometowns or to the suburbs or secondary cities . . . before they had a chance to breed. The ones who stayed long enough to raise children were the tough ones, . . . the ‘kill or be killed’ ones, the ones who subscribed to the philosophy of ‘whatever it takes.’”

Whatever it takes, indeed. Carter achieved his results only by not asking the questions he and his underlings, including his close family members, should have asked. Delphic did so well for so long only by investing its funds in another investment fund, Reis Capital Management. Now Morty Reis, an old family friend, has disappeared off the Tappan Zee Bridge one rainy night before Thanksgiving. As Carter and his daughter Merrill, as well as Merrill’s husband, Paul Ross, who works for the firm, grasp with creeping dread, Reis was running a Ponzi scheme that has chewed up Carter’s clients.

For the Darlings, life as they know it is over. Alger gets into the minds of people as they watch the things they know and cherish slip away. Setting the scene for one of New York’s dozens of fall benefit dinners, which takes place before the Reis news has hit the press, she notes, “There was no Howary [a failed law firm] table at the New Yorkers for Animals benefit that year; no Lehman table, no Merrill Lynch table, no AIG table.” Merrill, the quintessential conscientious elder daughter, knows that the scandal will cost her her corporate law-firm job. Carter thinks it will cost him the love of his daughters.

Alger’s New York is intricately etched. Many fiction writers—Lionel Shriver chief among them—have been willing to use 9/11 as a cheap plot trick, but Alger’s gentle evocations of her characters’ memories of the attack on the World Trade Center don’t feel like that. As one character, the young SEC official Alexa Mason, observes, looking from a window across the Lower Hudson to Lower Manhattan, “a single sailboat was tacking to the west, its prow aimed at Ground Zero.” Alger’s story, too, keeps readers engaged. As Carter and his family members and acquaintances struggle to save themselves from prosecution or bankruptcy, they learn what’s important to them and whether they even understand what money means. As Sol, the loyal lawyer, notes of Carter’s dismissal of his riches, people only profess not to care about money until it’s gone.

Alger rushes her denouement, which is far-fetched (though maybe only slightly more so than the reality of the past five years). But in the end, the financial crisis is about real people, from bank CEOs to voracious middle-class Americans coveting palatial houses, who succumbed to greed, fear, and other base impulses. The Darling family members aren’t bad stand-ins for those people—which is to say, for us.

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