FEBRUARY 13, 2012
SET IN BOLIVIA AMID THE UNCERTAINTY of the first weeks of Evo Morales’s presidency in late 2005, Peter Mountford’s compulsively readable first novel is a book about money. A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism is a bildungsroman in reverse, tracing the psychic dissolution of the somewhat-likeable protagonist Gabriel de Boya from his first, broke years in New York after graduating from Brown to the cocooned state of permanent transience he achieves as a hedge fund manager. Like Balzac’s Lucien de Rubempre, Gabriel is at once highly nuanced and an allegorical figure. No better or worse than anyone else, he’s just trying to get by in a world that’s systemically compromised.
While Mountford, a former financial analyst, is highly informed and informative about the macroeconomic game theories that order the world and color the most intimate parts of our lives, it is his novel’s premise that the sweeping life-force of capital might animate a personal narrative that is truly radical. As he said in an interview with Vanessa Hua for the Los Angeles Review of Books back in June:
Finance and economics clearly play an important role in contemporary history … . But if you’re aiming to write “serious” literature there’s a tendency to write about neurotic suburbanites or upper-middle class dilettantes. That stuff doesn’t interest me at all.
Conceived during his exiled Chilean mother’s brief student years in Moscow, Gabriel senses at an early age that the world is “more complex” than his old-school leftist, Nation– and Mother Jones-contributing mother might have it. Growing up in the oasis of upper-middle class life near Pomona College where his mom is a tenured anthropologist, Gabriel’s mixed parentage makes him adept, from his earliest years, at navigating cultural conundrums. But to where? In the end, Gabriel’s adherence to the twenty-first century truism that “the world is complex” proves just as useless as his mother’s primitive faith in ideology.
When Gabriel accepts a job as regional analyst for the Calloway Group, a hedge fund notorious for its feral ruthlessness, he plans to keep the job just until he has “enough money to be done with the issue of money forever.” Five years after graduation, his former classmates who took Wall Street jobs have entered the world of adulthood while he languishes as an online business reporter. Their opulent lofts and celebrity parties leave him trapped in a low-grade feedback loop of desire, moving between his dumpy Greenpoint apartment and office cubicle. As Mountford writes, “money, in general — the plain and unassailable acts of acquiring it and spending it — had turned out to occupy a more important role in adulthood than he’d expected.” All Gabriel wants is to be free from want, so when an opportunity arises to move to Bolivia for the Calloway Group and, with share options and performance bonuses, hypothetically earn millions, he jumps at it. He aces the interview; when his future boss Priya asks him why he wants to work for the Group, he replies: “I want to make a shitload of money for awhile.”
Gabriel arrives in La Paz on the eve of Marxist President Evo Morales’s election. Bilingual and bicultural, he is at home, even comfortable, with Bolivia’s dereliction. It is a country where — as Mountford writes in one of dozens of stinging descriptions — the sight of rebars protruding from concrete blocks is a sign of hope: should things improve, construction might one day be finished. Gabriel finds the shag carpets and tawny-glass chandeliers of the city’s five-star hotels sincere and refreshing: “He believed that the management knew perfectly well how outmoded their décor was. It wasn’t any funnier than the fact that their roads were falling apart. It just made an easier target.” Traveling to Bolivia in his late teens he’d found its intractable third-world poverty personally liberating. Temporarily released from the compulsion to “succeed,” he enjoyed the giddy epiphany that his American life occurred within the Matrix: “The United States was actually a very bizarre place. Elsewhere in the world, the unattainability of great fame and fortune was more readily accepted, so life was less driven by grandiose fantasies.”
Posing as a freelance journalist seven years later, Gabriel is charged with the vague mandate of reporting “anything that might be of interest” to his employers. And this is complicated. The Calloway Group’s impressive returns could not be achieved through such primitive means as investing in industry: to compete, they must manipulate markets. In the brief window between Evo Morales’s election and inauguration, Gabriel sees Evo’s dramatic promise to nationalize foreign gas companies as the only variable in play. If he does so, the handful of companies heavily exposed in Bolivia will become instantly worthless.
Bouncing between liaisons with two diametrically opposed, powerful women who are both positioned to share classified information, Gabriel conceives of a shell game even more Byzantine than the Calloway Group’s machinations. (Or so he believes.) If he succeeds, the digits on his Ameritrade account screen will metastasize within hours. In the process, he finds himself torn between his fuck-buddy arrangement with Fiona Musgrave, a 45-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter and his more romantic attachment to Morales’s media liaison, Lenka Villarobles. Drawn with a very wide brush — the naked and ruthless Fiona “had a hearty appetite for sex and fucked … as if it were an aerobic routine,” whereas Lenka, a sincere believer in Evo’s regime, “put everything into it, body and soul, and expected nothing less in return” — the female characters are just convincing enough to drive the plot forward. For a while, Gabriel believes that his scheme is a means to stockpile enough money to remain in La Paz with Lenka. But his real romance is with capitalism. Pondering Lenka’s naïve moral clarity, he looks at the “swelling and popping financial bubbles of the past century” and sees “a culture passionately obsessed with the acquisition of wealth. It was all heart.” Most of the book’s fascination lies not with the plot but in Mountford’s inspired depiction of the city’s splendor and squalor, where daily demonstrations are produced more by a surfeit of time than by any political agenda and presidencies conclude, historically, with assassination.
In the end, Gabriel’s scheme to bet against his employer goes haywire. His trades fail miserably, yielding him less than six figures … but he’ll “succeed” when his tainted report ends up reaping millions for the Calloway Group and he’s rewarded with long-term employment. Three and a half years later, the epilogue finds him on the tenth floor of the Lima Four Seasons managing the Calloway Group’s Latin American fund. Commuting within the bubble of five-star third-world hotels and his New York condo, he has come to see life as a funnel with only one way out: “The breadth of possibility shrank every single day until there were no possibilities left, and then life is over.”
Mountford’s conclusion recalls the devastating finale of Georges Perec’s Things: A Story of the 60s. Leaving Paris for well-paid, secure jobs in advertising, the desultory young couple Jerome and Sylvie eat a meal in the first-class rail diner and “find it quite tasteless.” Gabriel’s own past doesn’t even feel like a memory: “He looked at it and it looked absurd, fake.” Daringly allegorical and written with apt understatement, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism appears as a Trojan horse within the realm of contemporary literary fiction. Mountford has the courage to depict a world in which personal lives aren’t really that personal.