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11.03.11

Literary Gold in Hard Times

The global recession has inspired a crop of novelists, most notably Anne Enright, to produce fiction that seeks not to condemn materialism but to shed light on how wealth and privilege becloud our values.

If the recession began in the last months of 2007, it hit literature in the first months of 2010. Around that time, a trio of high-profile novels featuring amoral money-grubbers appeared. Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges  (January 2010) told the story of a shady and outrageously successful New York financier and his wife. Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic  (February 2010) followed a criminally ambitious banker. Sebastian Faulk’s A Week in December (published in the U.S. in March 2010) included a hedge-fund manager “whose heart beat only to market movements.” By the time these novels appeared, journalists and economists had already exposed much of the faulty financial systems’ workings; in early 2010, novelists attempted to explain the hubris, ambition, impatience, and iniquity that were their cause or consequence.

The first recession-prompted literary reaction was protest—outcry through a Manichean morality that pitted the evil money-manager against innocent victims. In The Privileges there’s a damaged step-sister of the materialistic wife, reminding her how blithe and unfairly blessed her life has been: “You have never suffered a day in your life. You’ve never not gotten anything you wanted.” An elderly woman in Union Atlantic battles the evil banker over his monstrous McMansion, and a secretary ultimately reveals the banker’s crimes. The “misdemeanors of the bankers will be paid for by millions of people in the real economy losing their jobs,” says a drunken dinner guest in A Week in December. The bankers, he continues, will keep their jobs and their money, “which is bloody odd when you come to think of it. Because really they ought to be in prison.” The protest of the 99 percent, it seems, took place first in literature, then in parks. They “have no idea,” says the step-sister in The Privileges of her spoiled niece and nephew “how the other 99 percent lives.”

But the stridency of these novels is not the most complex or surprising shift in contemporary recession literature. Protest literature, after all, is nothing new, and outrage in prose has often anticipated anger in the public square. (Think of what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for slavery, North and South for factories in Britain, The Jungle for factories in America, A Passage to India for Indian independence, and Invisible Man for civil rights.) A more subtle, but simultaneous effect of this recession is that novelists are writing plots without reductive moral underpinnings—they are allowing their characters to operate without a moral compass and challenging their readers to find it for themselves.

Despite the intrusion of the truth-telling stepsister, this mode is evident in The Privileges. For all the stepsister’s ire, indignation is not the general register of this novel, which depicts a world of such gleaming prosperity that it’s hard not to be seduced by its shiny surfaces: there are private-school intrigues, cutting-edge cardio routines, Manhattan duplexes, and damaged teens with drug problems to consider! Dee does not seem particularly fond of his characters, but neither is he ruthless. “I am not interested in judging them,” he said in an interview. The “idea of inventing imaginary characters in order to condemn … doesn’t seem like a grown-up occupation to me.” The last pages of the book reiterate the forget-the-past attitude that allows Dee’s characters to move through the world without concern for the damages that they leave in their wake. There is, at the end, no comeuppance, just a sense of the stealth poison of materiality—its psychic numbing. The characters’ desires are shaped primarily by acquisitiveness, their conversations money-bound, their insights limited to dollar signs. “There was rich and there was rich,” the wife thinks to herself.

This trend toward material amorality is even more apparent in the new novel from Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Anne Enright, published in the U.S. in October. The Forgotten Waltz  is told through Gina Moynihan, a woman in her thirties with an uninspiring job and a lackluster marriage, who begins an affair with her married neighbor, Seán. It is set in Dublin and its suburbs in the winter and spring of 2007 to 2008 and then in 2009, a temporal specificity that is established with winking references to various consumer goods. “They were buying Evie her first laptop; a little netbook,” Enright writes. Remember netbooks? They were the next big thing in computing in 2008 (said The New York Times), then almost forgotten three tears later. Gina watches a DVD box set of The Wire (just at the moment when the show’s popularity was probably at its peak). Above all, the rise and fall of the real-estate market sets the novel in a specific moment.

Pre-crash, Gina and her family are boom-happy, preoccupied with limestone floors, granite walls, and other elements of square footage and home decor. Upstairs, in the bathroom of her lover’s house, she snoops around the “olive-green walls, smelly candle, weather-beaten wooden buddha … a white lattice cupboard under the sink.” Downstairs she notices the “lollipop bay trees with red Christmas bows,” and a “Cotswold gravel and box hedge thing that I hated and wanted in exactly equal measure.” When her boss is in Belize, he’s “looking at a villa”; in Poland, she “nearly bought a flat.” Gina has “Sunday-supplement dreams.”

Then things go, as Gina puts it “cabbage-shaped.” Her mother dies, too, and the burden of selling her house is almost as great as her grief. The house is on the market for 17 months, she tells us—first advertised during “the good old days, when … if you wanted your kitchen tiled (and we wanted little else), you had to fly the workman in from England, and put him up in a hotel.” Almost two years later and the “For Sale” sign is still in the ground. “No one will buy it,” Gina says, “so that’s how much it is worth.” There’s a diffuse bitterness—directed toward a real-estate agent who wears Alexander McQueen shoes and who, Gina suspects, “knew something we did not”—but in general, there’s just resigned desperation. “Selling the house was the answer to everything. We brought the price down from ‘two and a bit’ to ‘nearly two’ and it was still short odds on winning the lottery.” The rhetoric is hyperbole, but the sentiment is real. Ireland has been among the countries hardest hit by the recession, and it’s been acutely felt in real estate. Last December, The New York Times reported that there were more than 2,500 “Ghost Towns” in Ireland—communities where more than half the homes were empty.

The Forgotten Waltz is not merely a novel depicting economic ramifications of the global recession through the housing market. Like The Privileges, there is a more restrained narrative experiment at work—the obfuscation of ethics by a cloud of materiality. When Gina marries her husband, she remembers the price of her underwear (€220 or $304), but little else. Her encounters with Seán—the supposed love of her life, as she frequently states—are hazy, refracted through money and commodity. Away for a weekend, she considers the interior decoration of their hotel suite as much as the sex: “We made love as soon as we saw the bed and then wandered the rooms—it was actually a family suite with a living room and kitchenette: dark wood, stripy cushions.” On a weekend jaunt to Budapest, sex ranks even lower: “I don’t think we made love in Budapest. We made money, of course.” As Francine Prose points out in her review for The New York Times, the suspense of this book comes not from characters or events, but from seeing if Enright would “allow her narrator to be redeemed by any of the emotions that are commonly believed … to be improving and redemptive.” She doesn’t.

A subtle effect of this recession is that novelists are writing plots without reductive moral underpinnings—they are allowing their characters to operate without a moral compass and challenging their readers to find it for themselves.

The reception of this novel, and other recession-influenced novels that may come after it, will perhaps generate a different type of suspense: will readers separate the author’s subtle subversions from the relentless, ordinary amorality of the protagonist? Or do they need the more obvious dynamics of Union Atlantic or A Week in December to feel the evils of careless extravagance? There’s evidence that a dramatic backdrop may be required. Some reviewers seem to have missed the subtext entirely. “Fall’s Sexiest Book,” The Huffington Post deemed it (despite the foggy elision of most of the actual sex). The “pungency of her tart observations,” wrote a reviewer for NPR’s website, “rescues” the trite aspects of the novel “from banality” (missing that the banality is the point). The San Francisco Chronicle called the novel “foggy and unmoored,” without seeming to understand the purpose that the haziness serves.

Like protest in literature, materialistic amorality has, of course, been done before. Emma Bovary’s lust is both material and sexual. The adulterous grown-up children of John Updike’s Couples (1968) covet each other’s properties almost as much as their wives. The aptly named John Self of Martin Amis’s Money (1984) can barely grasp anything concrete through his fog of costly self-indulgence. And so, in a sense, these novels further a tradition more than they indicate a shift. Cycles of profligacy and poverty have prompted ambiguous, amoral narration before—gentle investigations of the everyday evils that can overtake anyone with a credit card. Will readers absorb the understated insights threaded through recent novels? If the recession officially ended in the summer of 2009, its literary legacy is still unfolding.