Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Too proud to fail

In his indefatigably charming fifteenth novel, Other People’s Money, Justin Cartwright’s ecstatic loon of a playwright, Artair MacCleod, evokes Irish author Flann O’Brien’s manifesto for future writers: “Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required.” Banking literature may, however, be precluded from this agenda. Barring Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire Of The Vanities, Sebastian Faulks’s A Week In December, Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, writers never took great relish in demonising bankers. Of course, Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers had a prescient scene featuring a bank run, seen eerily turning into a reality three decades later at Northern Rock.

Cartwright, a British novelist, tries to make an unequivocal case for the bankers who are supposed to be the reason why the economy is in the toilet at this moment. After the economic meltdown of 2008 Tubal and Co, the small, privately-owned bank in London, is battling bankruptcy; while its longtime leader, Sir Harry Trevelyan-Tubal, is inching steadily towards a vegetative state of mind of which his daylong stare at a painting by Matisse is a grave indication. His younger son, Julian, who is at the helm of affairs, sees no option but to sell the bank which fell for the fake allure of junk bonds and toxic assets.

The sell-off is a hush-hush affair but quite a few external forces are hell bent on scuppering the deal. MacCleod complains bitterly at being denied his monthly allowance, for forgoing Fleur, Sir Harry’s alluring second wife, who used to be a middling stage actress. Estelle, Sir Harry’s woman Friday who moonlights as his caretaker while suppressing her romantic feelings for him, is fiercely opposed to the sell-off. Melissa, an eager, wet-behind-the-ears hack at a rag in Cornwall, stumbles across the Tubal can of worms by sheer coincidence. A nebulous source from Tubal supplies her information about the impending sell-off. Her cantankerous editor suddenly decides to bite off more than he can chew by trying to expose Julian’s attempt at face saving. If that’s not all, Fleur has an extra-marital affair with Morne, her gym instructor, which can prove to be detrimental to the bank’s shrinking fortunes.

With an assortment of entertainingly oddball characters, Cartwright turns up with a stunning piece of fiction that never lacks in verve, insight and imagination. It’s high time someone told those Occupy Wall Street people that the bankers are not exactly evil. Julian, who was almost armtwisted into the job, is an unlikely banker. He never revels in the perks of the job. In fact, he dreams of the pony that he raised during his childhood. He wasn’t being disingenuous when he frets about his chauffeur’s health. This passage articulates Julian’s Janus-faced existence, “The meetings, the legal documents, the stale air on flights, the churning anxiety, the oppressive sense of importance, the dead coffee in insulated flasks, the dull conversational conventions, the wilting sandwiches and above all— way above— the insistent belief that this money production is a superior form of activity and that those who deal in it are superior people.”

A novel on the aftermath of recession might sound like a low-hanging fruit but Cartwright manages just the right mix of acuity and humour, a rarity these days. He lays down a couple of dictums that might again herald the gilded age of banking: “The thing about banks is that they should stick to what they know”, “if it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it is a duck but these guys are so greedy they tell themselves it’s not a duck, it’s a nightingale”. To call Other People’s Money a recession novel is doing grave injustice to the author’s brilliance. Never does he get into a “Dear Reader” mode where his characters spout inanities about what CDO is and where things went wrong. Explanations break the flow of fiction and Cartwright knows that.

Cartwright explores human frailties through a range of relationships, some strong, some flaccid. A lump in the throat is guaranteed when Julian says at the end to his aide that “I could have been a real banker”. Equally, heartbreakingly good is the tender bond between Estelle and Sir Harry. Regrettably, Cartwright doesn’t explore the angle in greater depth.

He provides snatches of the persona of Sir Harry (the usual cliches: art patron, opera connoisseur, old school banker) but never does he give a better insight into the man responsible for the novel. But then, one-tenths of tardiness can certainly be forgiven for nine-tenths of absolutely dazzling work.
Other People’s Money does to banking what Kingsley Amis did to the campus novel through Lucky Jim, Evelyn Waugh to journalism through Scoop and David Lodge to academia through Small World: turn the most definitive study on the milieu. If ever that Flann O’Brien manifesto is to come true, people writing on finance can heave a sigh of relief thanks to Cartwright.

Author: Justin Cartwright
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 263
Price: $15


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