The Obscure Object of Financial Fiction
By Justin Cartwright
Is the financial crisis good for the novel? It would certainly seem to offer promising material, a readymade stew of greed and folly, tragedy and schadenfreude, awaiting only the stirring of a clever plot and a seasoning of satire. And yet, as the panic of 2008 fades into memory, and complacency begins to return as a new bull market rages, topical novels have been slow to appear, though there have been many nonfiction books on the crash. What accounts for this hesitation, this diffidence before such a tempting subject? Might it be that the financial engineering blamed for blowing up the global economy is supposedly too esoteric to be understood by any layman? How could those exotic debt instruments, those abstruse formulae devised by physicists slumming on Wall Street, provide fodder for a popular fiction?
The ready response to these doubts is that financial crises are familiar cyclical phenomena, and each one seems to reprise the eternal themes of speculative frenzy: the irresistible allure of some new investment fad, the irrational exuberance, the madness of crowds. From the Dutch Tulip Mania of the 1630s to the South Sea Bubble of 1720, to the mortgage-backed securities that melted down three years ago, the markets have always been prone to self-destructive binges on some new intoxicant, and ambitious novelists have taken advantage of these moments as prime opportunities to explore the excesses of society at large. One classic example is Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875), which followed the Panic of 1873, a stock market crash that set off a six-year depression. Still, caution is well advised, for finance can be a treacherous topic in the hands of an uninitiated author, not unlike those derivatives whose explosive contents were a mystery to the credulous investors they burned so badly.
Justin Cartwright is a distinguished novelist, a Londoner born in South Africa in 1945. His tenth novel, Other People’s Money, views the recent crisis through a lens of peculiarly narrow focus, the decline of an old Anglo-Jewish banking family. The stroke-stricken patriarch, Sir Harry Trevelyan-Tubal, expires slowly at his splendid villa in the South of France, while his weaker-willed son Julian, who has succeeded him as chairman of Tubal and Co., desperately tries to cover up losses from reckless hedge fund investments in subprime mortgages, so that he can sell the “small but iconic” private bank to an American behemoth, First Federal. Feeling that he was never cut out for banking, tormented by anxiety, Julian longs to throw off his inherited burden, and goes to great lengths, even fraud, to free himself “from the bogus demands of history and tradition.” In a scene of Oedipal drama, he coerces his father into signing a power of attorney, and can tell from his “angry, distorted face” that Sir Harry “knew he was signing away his life.”
This moment is all the more brutal because it takes place in the tranquil garden of the Villa Tubal in Antibes, an idyllic retreat which is said to evoke the refrain from Baudelaire’s poem “L’Invitation au Voyage”: “Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté/luxe, calme et volupté” (“There, everything is order and beauty, luxury, calm and pleasure”). Indeed, the Trevelyan-Tubals have become ultra-refined over the generations, to such an extent that they almost identify more as connoisseurs than as businessmen. In this, they resemble Lord Kessler from Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning 2004 novel The Line of Beauty, an elegant banker and art collector, the nonchalant owner of a “nice” Cezanne and Madame de Pompadour’s escritoire. Maybe this is a new stereotype of Jewish financiers in highbrow British fiction, no longer coarse parvenus and swindlers but sensitive, aristocratic aesthetes, along the lines of Sir Harold Acton or the Sitwells. Sir Harry’s consolation in his last days at the villa is a painting by Matisse of the port of Collioure, while Julian has expressed his independence and modernity by commissioning a Howard Hodgkin abstraction to hang behind his desk, its blue paint dripping insolently onto the frame. But there is a hollowness and sterility to their rarefied existence. As the father’s much-younger second wife, a shallow ex-actress named Fleur, observes in a rare moment of profundity (so that the author suddenly seems to be speaking for her): “Harry and the family, for all their taste and sophistication, never speak to their souls.”
The trajectory of a commercial family’s decline from a stern work ethic and philistine stolidity to exquisitely cultured degeneration is familiar from the great German precedent of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901). For all its topical urgency, Other People’s Money seems pulled toward that tradition, an old-fashioned novel of manners and class disguised as a torn-from-the-headlines “state of the nation novel,” as the British say. Cartwright appears more interested in money as a social talisman than in the actual machinations of finance, although he says in his acknowledgements that he has “taken advice about banking and how it works.” He makes little effort to explain how Tubal and Co. was caught up in the financial crisis, apart from some vague allusions to “credit swaps and diced mortgages” that turned out to be only “chimeras.” In his account, even bankers aren’t quite sure how finance operates. Julian muses that his father “never fully understood the world of banking. Not many important bankers do.” Yet Sir Harry arrogantly believed that bankers “are part of a higher elite, who really understand how the world works. Their understanding of money has given them something incomprehensible to politicians and ordinary people.” Fleur conceives of this incomprehensibility in mystical terms: “The bank itself sits in the middle of its own magic circle of money…It pulses benignly…She thinks of the Hindu temple she visited in Mumbai with its scented inner sanctum…The bank has the same narcotic-spiritual effect.” The cumulative effect of these echoing expressions of bafflement from various perspectives is a pattern of obscurantism, a cloak of mystification thrown over the very nature of finance.
This vagueness spreads over the novel like a fog, muffling its occasional gestures at indignation. Cartwright’s satirical sallies lack a sharp bite and his moralizing sounds half-hearted. Take for example Julian’s internal soliloquy: “This rotten crumbling industry resting on greed and half-truths; this pretense that Tubal’s itself is somehow special, that the people who work in banking are particularly talented, that the government is principled, that the old country still possesses ancient wisdom and deeply bedded human standards. It’s all a sham…” That rant might not have sounded so feeble if Cartwright hadn’t introduced a comparative rhetorical standard by quoting just a few words from a letter by Dickens. Julian recalls: “Dickens described the financiers of his time at a charity dinner: sleek, slobbery, bow-paunched, overfed, apoplectic, snorting cattle. Something like that.” This burst of adjectival overkill is a reminder of the fierce energy and righteousness that Dickens brought to his social satire, which he turned on the figure of the fraudulent financier Mr. Merdle, the “benefactor to Society” and the object of its eager adoration, in Little Dorrit (1857). Even a tiny taste of his impassioned rhetoric contrasts starkly with Cartwright’s prose, which seems curiously lifeless and disengaged for long stretches of Other People’s Money. Comic subplots give rise to much curmudgeonly tilting at the trivialities of modern life, but the querulous humor dulls the tragic potential of the main plotline.
Perhaps attempting to emulate the pungency of Dickens’s caricature, Cartwright sets up a symbolic confrontation between the faineant toff Julian and the vulgar, overbearing, Brooklyn-born Cy Mannheim, the CEO of First Federal, who boasts, predictably, of having “graduated from the school of hard knocks.” Not above stooping to blackmail, Mannheim gets the better of Julian in a hard-knuckle negotiation. But Tubal and Co. is not a strategic acquisition, merely a luxurious trifle for his trophy case: “The repository of all that make-believe Englishness is as good as an honorary knighthood for Cy Mannheim from Coney Island.” His crass Anglophilia is reminiscent of Eugene Lopwitz, the CEO of the Wall Street firm Pierce & Pierce, home of the Masters of the Universe in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), who has a similar mania “for things British,” cluttering the 50th-floor office with antiques and, in one memorable scene, presiding long-distance over a New York meeting from a London cricket match. In Wolfe’s handling, though, the character is not a mere contemptuous sketch, but a remarkable Dickensian grotesque, his absurdities making him seem all the more paradoxically real. And indeed, the whole Pierce & Pierce office is an unforgettable microcosm of the world of finance, with its zoo-like bond-trading floor where Ivy League men regress into bestial behavior, hypnotized by the green blips on their Bloomberg screens and screaming curses into their phones, all of it mimed by Wolfe’s manic prose style, a modern variant of the overstuffed Dickensian original. (And it is worth noting that Bonfire was serialized, like a Victorian triple-decker, in Rolling Stone).
That office could be the inner sanctum of the temple which Cartwright leaves hidden. Content to mystify finance as an alchemical pseudoscience, he falls back on dubious genealogy to illumine its secret workings. His choice of “Tubal” as the name for his 11th-generation banking family has a provocative Shakespearean resonance, being the name of “Shylock’s friend” in The Merchant of Venice. Tubal is introduced in Act III, Scene 1 of that play with Solanio’s remark suggesting that he may be a moneylender as formidable, or as detested, as Shylock: “Here comes another of the tribe. A third cannot be matched, unless the devil himself turn Jew.” Tubal and Co. was founded in the City of London by one Moses Tubal in 1671; perhaps the suggestion is that the ancestors emigrated from Venice to London after Cromwell permitted the readmission of the Jews, who had been expelled from England in 1290. In any case, over the centuries the Tubals have become part of the English establishment, converted to Christianity, and acquired a baronetcy and a typically English hyphenated surname. Their physical characteristics have also evolved: the family portraits testify that the “gloomy ancestors” seem to have become “less Mitteleuropa with each passing generation as they married fair people.” This is “a family which once spoke Yiddish, although insulated from the shtetl by generations of Eton and Oxford and foxhounds,” so that “the family are not even Jews any more.”
Without suggesting that there are certain taboos which must always remain inviolate, it bears saying that Cartwright’s decision to conjure a representative tale of the financial crisis by invoking the traditional scapegoat of Jewish bankers, however attenuated their lineage, deserves some skeptical attention (yet oddly it went unnoticed in the British reviews). That decision inevitably prompts a host of associations in the history of English literature, the Ur-text being The Merchant of Venice, so insistently evoked by the name of Tubal. And any English novel about crooked financiers must stand in comparison to The Way We Live Now, in which Trollope chronicles the brief ascendancy of Augustus Melmotte, a financier of obscure foreign origins who engineers a massive swindle involving shares in a nonexistent Mexican-American railroad, gets elected to Parliament and even hosts a dinner for the Emperor of China before his exposure and downfall. It is rumored that Melmotte may be Jewish, and his career carries contemporary resonances of Lionel de Rothschild, who became the first Jew to enter Parliament, and of Benjamin Disraeli, whose adroit climbing of “the greasy pole” of politics to become Prime Minister outraged many who saw him as the archetype of the immoral Jewish adventurer, notwithstanding his childhood baptism. Yet while Trollope himself undeniably is not above the prejudice so rife in his time, he also relentlessly mocks its hypocrisies and stupidities, so that it becomes one of the satirical whips with which he scourges an entire society.
In Other People’s Money, however, the scourging is more circumscribed; not only are the leading bankers Jews, but so is the sole representative of that unprincipled government, the cabinet minister who abets Julian’s cover-up. This produces the unfortunate impression of a monolithic secret society, a cabal, at the top of a corrupt and cozily interrelated system of banking and politics, which, the novel suggests, bears full culpability for the financial crisis. Whereas in Trollope’s day the Rothschilds and Disraeli in fact were topical figures, it is difficult to guess what Cartwright intended by writing as though he were living in a world still bound by Victorian ideas on “the Jewish Question,” unless he deliberately set out to update or subvert them in some subtle revisionist fashion. A more plausible explanation is that he wandered into this murky thicket without much forethought or self-awareness, almost like a sleepwalker, lulled by the “narcotic-spiritual” fumes of the obscurantism with which he enshrouds the mysteries of banking. What’s certain is that he neglected to account for the changing times: London today of course is a polyglot entrepôt of international finance, hardly subject to domination by a small cabal of any sort. Straying far from the verisimilitude of a state of the nation novel, Cartwright has invented an alternative reality locked in thrall to ancient myths.
So Cartwright has not written the great novel of the financial crisis. But what lessons can be drawn from his unsatisfactory attempt? First of all, it seems imperative that an author should make a good-faith effort to grasp the rudiments of actually existing capitalism, to go beyond the mystery of money itself and avoid treating it as an inscrutable fetish object. A promising early clue that Cartwright neglects to follow up, but might have led him out of this impasse, is a reference to the concrete contents, the objective correlative, as it were, of those infernal packaged mortgages that brought Tubal and Co. to its knees: “chunks of mortgages on an alligator farm in a swamp, two thousand worthless homes in Mississippi, a shopping mall in a town which has been flattened by a hurricane and a lakeside clapboard holiday development in Antigua which is currently underwater, so that, when the water recedes, the holiday homes will be pulp.” Here is ample matter for satire, ideally suited to expand the scope of the story beyond the cloistered settings of the London bank headquarters and the Villa Tubal, to encompass the far-flung exurbs where the crisis had its roots and inflicted the most pain. The task for the novelist who wants to capture the essence of the real estate bubble, and to apportion the blame for its bursting more fairly, is to wade into the swamp of ordinary middle-class life and dig up those roots, in order to trace their hidden connections with the commanding heights of high finance.
Joshua Lustig is a senior editor at the Facts on File World News Digest in New York and has contributed book reviews to the Hedge Fund Law Report.