I can’t imagine what came over me when, after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, I set out to write a financial thriller. Actually, I can. I’d thought for a long time of taking a diversion from journalism into fiction—an idea that culminated in A Fatal Debt, my novel just published in the UK. I was based in New York for the Financial Times when the crash broke out, and I thought, if this isn’t the right time, then when? It helped that other journalists had grabbed the best non-fiction ideas.
I had a longstanding fear about such a venture. It felt as if it would be awfully hard to turn the goings-on in the City of London or on Wall Street into something that the reader could not only understand but also enjoy. I have read many efforts, both literary and commercial, and most felt to me flawed. The reader can judge whether I did any better.
Few novels set in the world of finance manage to be realistic while succeeding as works of art or commerce. The exceptions stand out in the memory—two of my favourites are Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age (about a 1970s property developer who goes to jail) and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.
Some of the most effective stories about business and finance have come from non-fiction. It somehow seems simpler for writers to capture real-life characters caught in business crises, such as the leveraged buyout kings in Bryan Burrough and John Helyar’s Barbarians at the Gate, than to make them up.
The crisis of 2007-08 did in fact produce a good crop of novels, from Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges and Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic to John Lanchester’s Capital. But they are less about finance itself—what happens on a trading floor or in a mergers and acquisitions boutique—than the society around it. For the visceral experience of characters wrestling with gains and losses, you have to read Michael Lewis’s The Big Short—a triumphant return to Wall Street from the author of Liar’s Poker—or Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, which digs inside the Wall Street bailout.
What’s the problem? For one thing, financial truth is often stranger than fiction. It would be hard to make up such characters as Lehman Brothers’ hyper-aggressive Dick Fuld without seeming implausible. A greater challenge comes from the fact that finance is more interesting in theory than in practice. It may have larger-than-life, testosterone-fuelled figures, wealth and elements of glamour. But the working lives of the masters of the universe (the term coined in Tom Wolfe’s great novel with a Wall Street hero, The Bonfire of the Vanities) are often both mundane and virtual.
Trollope had it easier. In The Way We Live Now, Augustus Melmotte, the novel’s villain, rustles up a railroad company to con Victorian high society. As one memorable set piece shows, it has actual board meetings where people argue. No one stares at a screen on which a melodrama is playing out silently.
Derivatives have made finance infinitely harder to grasp for those executives who supposedly know what is going on, like the UBS board that had no idea it even owned the bonds that nearly made it collapse in 2008. They were being paid to understand; the reader has no such duty to concentrate.
Modern finance, with its algorithms, arbitrage, benchmarks and securitised debt, has become a tough, impenetrable subject for a novel. I admire Robert Harris’s The Fear Index for tackling it head-on by turning a hedge fund computer into a character. I have tried to meet the challenge by making my protagonist a psychiatrist, drawn into the bipolar world of Wall Street.
I hope the industry does not become so complex and dry that novelists shy away from tackling it. That would be a sad retreat from the 19th-century novelists who so vividly recorded contemporary commerce and the industrial revolution. One memorable example is Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son: Carker dies under a train, a literal victim of the railway boom.
Finance is knottier than it was, but it is just as central to the way society functions. Could there be a better topic for a novelist?
John Gapper is a columnist for the Financial Times. A Fatal Debt is published by Duckworth
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