How Fiction Tackles Global Economic Uncertainty
Tobias Carroll on Boom-Bust Capitalism, and Stories of Austerity
The social effects of financial catastrophes inevitably work themselves into fiction—which should not surprise anyone, given the tensions they reveal, the anxieties they expose, and the societal contrasts they throw into sharp relief. Many of John Steinbeck’s most well-known novels reveal the human drama that could be found when one uttered the phrase “Great Depression.” And while outright realism can convey the spirit of an age, more stylized approaches can also do the trick.
Consider how Martin Amis’s Money and London Fields turned the economic anxiety and market fluctuations of the 1980s into hallucinatory comedy of the bleakest variety—or how David Peace’s GB84 turned working-class anger in Thatcher-era England into incandescent surrealism through a collage-like juxtaposition of prose effects. And with the very real possibility of financial turmoil and cuts to social programs on the horizon for the United States—possibly as a result of the building of a massive wall on the US/Mexico border—similar conditions may well show up in American fiction before too long.
Setting works of fiction in financially uncertain places and times allows writers to tap into a host of grand themes: social instability, the conditions of wealth and privilege, and how history being made looks to those who it threatens to overwhelm. They can also offer authors their own space from which to comment on the economic misfortune affecting their characters, whether it’s a tragic fate befalling someone ambitious whose plans are dashed due to a market upheaval or a kind of karmic justice befalling an unsympathetic character.
The last decade or so has seen enough global economic fluctuations to spawn a host of memorable narratives. The 2008 financial crisis in the United States comes to mind, as well as the related crises that comprised it, from housing to banking to manufacturing. The result of governments around the globe implementing austerity measures to cut costs—which affected the livelihoods and living standards of millions—also tapped into primal anxieties about trust and the relationship between people and the states around them. Across the world, some dedicated free-market advocates and their socialist counterparts doubled down on their beliefs, while others found themselves assailed by doubts and recriminations. And there are other accounts of societies under the burden of economic turmoil as well, as demonstrated by a recent New Yorker article by William Finnegan on the effect of rampant populism and political corruption on daily life in Venezuela.
Systems of belief entering a kind of crucible is the stuff from which memorable fiction has been made. And the financial crises of the last decade, and their aftereffects, have left their mark on a stylistically and geographically diverse array of books.
Some of these books examine financial questions directly. For one, there’s John Lanchester’s 2012 novel Capital, which has plenty of sympathetic characters, as well as more than a few whose actions are increasingly risible. As the title suggests, this is a book at which economic interests are at the heart of its plot. The novel opens in late 2007, when various markets are on the up and up. It’s set among the residents of a London block that has, over time, become dramatically desirable real estate. And so the residents are a decidedly mixed group: there’s a family who runs a shop on the corner; an elderly woman whose grandson is a Banksy-ish conceptual artist; an overstuffed man who works in finance; and a promising young professional soccer player newly arrived in London to play for a team that is unnamed. (Though several details—a Francophone striker circa 2007, an ability to outspend Arsenal—suggest that it’s Chelsea.)
In this ensemble cast, the idea of capital manifests itself in several ways, whether it’s via the character who’s wealthy (and yet financially strapped and holding out hope for a massive year-end bonus) due to his work in the financial sector or the soccer player, whose skills at the game offer him the potential of substantial economic mobility—and an even larger windfall for his team. Having some of the characters operate a corner store makes that theme of capital even more direct. And lurking in the background is the shifting face of the neighborhood, which presently encompasses a host of economic classes, but certainly seems to be on the rise. The end of the novel’s prologue refers to it as “this street of winners.” It’s accurate on the surface, but as Lanchester delves deeper into these characters’ histories and conflicts, it comes off as more ironic. So, too, is the presence of a number of postcards emblazoned with the phrase “We want what you have,” which prompts an array of bewildered or outraged reactions from their recipients.
This outright display of class resentment is the novel’s most overt display of fiscal anxiety. Through a series of subplots involving Roger, the character who works in finance, the financial crisis of 2008 lurks in the background—“it had been a strange year in the markets”—and, gradually, comes to the forefront. By a little more than halfway through the novel, Bear Stearns has collapsed; later on, there’s a reference to “all sorts of nasties emerging from the US derivatives market.” Through one character, Lanchester shows how the emergence of a financial crisis affects the industry itself; through the web of interconnections that he establishes—one character might watch another play soccer on television or YouTube; another might hire yet another as a contractor—Lanchester slowly zeroes in on the ways that one person’s misfortune can affect another, and another, and another.
Alternately, Lanchester’s novel is one that both painstakingly tracks financial connections between its characters and which argues against the tendency of some to view people entirely in terms of their potential revenue. A cringe-inducing moment occurs late in the book after Freddy, the soccer prodigy, has been injured. Another character, fond of soccer, ponders “having a look at some clips of Freddy in his prime.” Freddy, it should be mentioned, is all of 17 when the novel begins—and this line is an effective, if heavyhanded, warning against a system that views you as having peaked before you’re even in your twenties. The title of Lanchester’s book has a nice firm ring to it, too—it’s almost like he’s evoking something else, another warning against the overreach of the invisible hand.
In a 2008 article for Slate, Nathan Heller wrote about visiting Iceland after the country’s economy had imploded. He alluded to the relative affordability of meals and other options to him, using a very memorable image along the way: “to visit Iceland now, especially if you’ve been before, feels something like joy riding in the Maserati of a hospitalized friend.” It’s this setting that informs Oddný Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins, originally published in Iceland in 2011, and newly translated into English by Philip Roughton. It’s a dizzying book: Eir blends aspects of fiction and memoir, and sometimes offers alternate versions of her narrator exploring different emotional dynamics. But it’s also a difficult book to imagine outside of the (recent) historical context in which it was written.
“Such crises are like any other time of upheavel, when renewal becomes closer than ever before,” the book’s narrator writes early. And throughout Land of Love and Ruins, a series of contrasts exist: between the storied pasts of multiple nations (references to the Sagas abound, and certain religious feast days are used as chapter headings) and the more fluctuating contemporary landscape in which the narrator finds herself. The book can be thought of as an attempt to reconcile certain things that cannot easily be reconciled: the comfort brought by tradition and family juxtaposed with the personal freedom that modernity has brought with it.
It’s a tension that the current economic moment exacerbates. “People from town view the land beneath summer cottages as plots, not the earth,” the narrator writes at the end of a rumination on contemporary development on older sites. A running subplot involves members of the narrator’s family selling off land left to them by her grandfather to a Chinese businessman, who may or may not seek to develop it. “The worst thing is that some people actually believe that it will provide them with a few breadcrumbs,” she writes. “But it should be remembered that we’re not a starving nation.” Eir closes that observation with nods to two poets: one Icelandic, who conjures scenes of powerful natural imagery, and one from California—specifically, Snoop Dogg. Again, there’s friction in this juxtaposition, but that’s the intention; there’s friction between love and ruins as well.
How does art hold up under the weight of financial pressure? Mauro Javier Cardenas’s dizzying The Revolutionaries Try Again and Bae Suah’s A Greater Music (the latter translated into English by Deborah Smith) each address questions of art and aesthetics even as issues of national identity and the shifting nature of borders stymie things. The narrator of Suah’s novel is a Korean writer living in Germany, and contending with fluctuating relationships over time with a man named Joachim and a woman known as M. Music is a constant in the narrator’s conversations: “At the time I was more taken up with M than I was with Shostakovich,” she recounts early on in the narrative. The narrator has a strong sense of what she likes in terms of both music and literature: one brief scene finds her recounting her frustration with several books of Joachim’s: American Psycho, as well as “the books on physics and art, and the Harry Potter series.”
She’s also a character living on the other side of the world from her home. She heads back to Korea for a while with the intention of returning to Europe, but finds that economic forces are working against her: after enumerating a number of grim financial scenarios, she adds, “on top of that, the rent had been pushed up by the skyrocketing value of real estate. I had to abandon for good the idea I’d had of wintering in Norway or Finland.” It’s a juxtaposition of the life of the artist in a world that increasingly devalues their work and leaves them at odds with broader fiscal trends. That clash manifests itself in a different form (and on a different pair of continents) in Cardenas’s novel, but they share an interest in the juxtaposition of aesthetic concerns with the realities of austerity.
The novel’s three central characters are three Ecuadorian men who, in their youth, had had bold political ambitions, and have become frustrated in different ways with the direction their country had taken. (This is a somewhat incomplete summary, if only because a full summation of the styles and narrative expansiveness of the novel would be nearly as long as the novel itself.) But there are plenty of long riffs on economics—a debate between two of the characters ends with a litany of statements in which austerity is taken to its logical ends: “Privatize the phone lines.” “Privatize electricity.” “Privatize water.” The note on which it ends, though, could well be used as a rejoinder to many an argument of the “the free market will save us” variety: “Then what?”
Writers both live in the world and write about it, and that can lead to unavoidable messiness. Unless one is independently wealthy (and wholly secure in that wealth), it’s impossible to not have economic concerns of one’s own. Each of these novels tells a very different story, both literally and aesthetically—in other words, no two are told in similar fashion. It brings up another concern—namely, the fact that all of these writers evoke economic chaos and the problems of austerity and recession in vastly different ways than the realism of Steinbeck or the Modernism of (say) John Dos Passos.
Is is accurate, then, to say that an experimental approach is necessary to convey a period of economic upheaval? Perhaps. The effect that stress and long-term uncertainty can have on one’s psyche certainly leads to a blurred quality after a while, a sense of collage or a series of unwanted jump-cuts in one’s own story. John Lanchester, Oddný Eir, Bae Suah, and Mauro Javier Cardenas have vastly different ways of addressing periods of uncertainty, but they all use prose to summon up a certain gut-level sensation: that the earth is shifting below us, and what’s to come will be far different than the moment we’ve just left behind.