NOVEMBER 13, 2013
WHY DO THE IMAGES of 9/11 still strike us as powerful today? Here’s a possible answer: because they show the World Trade Center’s collapse. While we thought these images were synonymous with the post-9/11 “war on terror,” they have come to be read as the prophetic announcement of the 2008 economic collapse, which produced its very own war: of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. If I begin this review of Cristina Alger’s The Darlings — hailed as one of the first novels about the 2008 financial crisis — with the association of the crisis to 9/11, it is because the event is referenced several times in Alger’s book. This is of course hardly surprising in a New York novel set after 2001. But there is arguably more to it, given the ways in which Alger ties 2008 back to 2001.
First things first: Alger’s novel is set over Thanksgiving weekend 2008, starting on Tuesday, at 9:30 p.m. and going until Monday, 7:06 a.m. (each chapter is titled with a day and a time). The tightly plotted story is told from the perspective of its main players: the Darlings (Carter, his wife Ines, their daughter Merrill and her husband Paul, their second daughter Lily and her husband Adrian) and a few other key figures. To compensate for the condensed temporal frame, Alger’s characters nostalgically flashback in almost every chapter to the moment before they got caught up in the financial crisis. The novel is framed by an introduction and an epilogue that add a twist to the tale, drawing attention to the literary-economic, and in that double sense speculative “finance fiction” of the novel. If this is a novel about the fake performance of Delphic Capital, and specifically of Reiss Capital Management (RCM), The Darlings is ultimately also about another performance: the one through which Mortimer Reiss, the founder of RCM who is reported to have killed himself at the beginning of the novel, manages to evade his responsibility, even if it propels him into the life of an economic fugitive.
The collapse of “the Trade Towers” is evoked in one of the book’s closing chapters, focalized through Carter, the retiring CEO of Delphic Capital, whose downfall the novel chronicles. “After his rights were read and his hands were cuffed,” Carter thinks back to his daughter Merrill’s wedding to Delphic’s general counsel Paul Ross, just before “all was lost in New York” due to 9/11. That line sums up his feelings; but it also marks the financial crisis, and what is happening to Carter in the present, as the continuation of a loss that had already begun in 2001. The novel reveals, in fact, that Carter had seen it all coming. When Delphic’s outside counsel Sol Penzell is discussing Carter’s exit strategy, Carter remembers May 2, 2008, when “[t]he Dow had rebounded to 13,058 from a low of 11,900 or so fewer than sixty days before. And he had thought to himself when he heard that number: That’s it, that’s the dead-cat bounce. And then he thought, for no particular reason: I’m dying. I know it.” On the one hand, Carter is anticipating the collapse of the market less than six months later; but he is also establishing a connection between this collapse and his personal downfall, his body thus becoming a body economic that lives and dies with the market. The message is clear: “life” has become so thoroughly saturated by the economy that the market either takes it, or makes it.
But why would we care? After all, Carter deserves to go down. Alger works hard, however, to present the wealthy New Yorkers she is writing about as human beings. Strip away all of the finance in the novel and you are left with a family story, centralized around Carter and Merrill, that could have been set on Main Street. Seeing how generously Alger treats even her most dubious characters — Sol Penzell, for example — one cannot but conclude that her project, in part, is to reveal the humanity of some of the hard-working and in some cases dubious financiers and lawyers on Wall Street. There are human beings living on Wall Street too, Alger seems to be saying: Paul Ross, for example, who is, with Merrill Darling, the moral center of the book. And even: while there may be plenty of rotten apples on Wall Street, not all money comes from evil, and not everything that comes from money is evil.
To place this in the literary tradition of the finance novel, of which Alger is no doubt aware: Carter is no Sherman McCoy or Patrick Bateman, and Alger’s novel has none of the satirical and psychotic elements typical of finance fictions such as Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis and Robert Harris’s The Fear Index. The character that comes closest to this tradition is the flamboyant Alain, who oversees the flawed Reiss Capital Management — but Alger pointedly spends very little time on him.
Despite these efforts at humanizing Wall Street, one wonders whether Alger’s story is able to overcome the class rage with which many readers will no doubt approach it — an affect that, in this case, will not be not defused by satire (as in Tom Wolfe) or over-the-top psychosis (as in Bret Easton Ellis). And one might very well ask: why should it? Or why should we, as readers, follow what seems to be the novel’s desire?
One could argue that The Darlings makes the case for a concept like the new, “generalized proletarianization” that the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler talks about in his work — a proletarianization that would include in the scope of its effects the 1 percent. Stiegler uses the term, in one instance, to refer to the fact that Alan Greenspan freely admits he no longer understands how the economy works. Carter is arguably a member of this generalized proletariat that has lost all knowledge: he appears to know very little about RCM, the firm that will bring down both him and Delphic. It seems instead that he is being played by Alain and Morty Reiss, and that he will end up in jail because of their irresponsibility. It probably goes too far to call Carter a “victim” — surely he knew or guessed some of what was going on? — but the provocative idea of his “proletarianization” — of the fact that he is being played with, like the rest of us, though not in exactly the same way — produces a crack in the opposition between the 1 percent and the 99 percent that has become one of the dominant political oppositions of the time.
And this crack may be interesting, politically: there may be an alliance that becomes possible there, across the division of the 1 percent and the 99 percent, and against those individuals like Morty Reiss and Alain who are really responsible for the collapse of the markets. Just to be clear, I don’t think Alger’s novel is saying that Carter deserves no blame. What the novel makes clear, however, is that the politicians and the media will mostly go after Carter — leaving Morty Reiss and Alain largely out of the picture. Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities already made this point in the late 1980s: although Sherman McCoy (like Carter) is hardly without blame, the novel shows that he becomes caught up in the pinball machine of politics and the media. But one wonders whether this spectacle, which is so focused on race and class, doesn’t detract from the more specific issue, which is the ways in which the lives of both Sherman McCoy and Henry Lamb — the black boy from the Edgar Allen Poe projects who will die from being hit by Sherman’s car — are being written — fictioned — by the interests of just a few (less than the 1 percent, and not necessarily those referred to as the 1 percent). In Wolfe’s novel: Reverend Reginald Bacon, the journalist Peter Fallow, and the district attorney Abe Weiss. That’s an issue that cuts across the Upper West Side and the Edgar Allen Poe projects, and in a strange way McCoy and Lamb become connected in their exposure to this mediatic and political violence that reflects back on the power of fiction itself. That might be why Sherman’s preposterous use of the Black Power salute at the end of Wolfe’s novel also makes a certain kind of sense: because it brings together his struggle against this violence with the struggle of all of those, including Lamb, whose lives are being written for them.
Consider, for example, how 9/11 in Alger’s novel brings together both sides of our contemporary conflict: both the financier Carter Darling and those who are out to expose him. About halfway through the novel, Duncan Sanders, who runs Press magazine and is considering running a piece on Carter, prepares for Thanksgiving dinner. As he sets up his apartment, he recalls both his relationship to his former partner Henry (nostalgia again: after Henry, it was all downhill) and the 9/11 attacks:
Because his face was buried in a book […] he didn’t see the plane that hit the north tower of One World Trade Center. The rolling boom sound jerked his head and ricocheted throughout his chest cavity like a collapsing mine. He stood up and could see a wall of black dust billowing upward. It wasn’t until nineteen minutes later when Henry burst through the front door, the hysterical dogs gathered like laundry in his arms, that Duncan realized that they probably knew someone who was dead.
And indeed, Duncan’s brother-in-law Michael was on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles, and because Duncan’s sister Roxanna was unable to speak to her daughter Alexa, it was Duncan who had to break this news to her. This ups the novel’s emo-factor, of course, and some readers may reject the book for that reason.
What’s interesting, however, is that Alexa — present at Duncan’s Thanksgiving party — works for the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), where her boyfriend, the lawyer David Levin, is investigating the case of RCM, and thus also Delphic Capital. Levin’s attempts are being frustrated, however, by his boss Jane Hewitt, who is up for promotion, and who also happens to be involved in a long-time affair with Carter Darling. This is the stuff scandals are made of, and Alexa will play a key role in this scandal’s exposure.
In this way, Alexa’s association to 9/11 and the collapse of the World Trade Center becomes linked to the 2008 financial crisis, In other words: to the collapse of global capitalism that the images of the collapsing World Trade Center already evoked. The association is uncomfortable: one imagines that she would prefer to see her father’s death undone (and Carter too wants to go back to the days before 9/11); at the same time, she desires the collapse of Carter Darling, the financier — which is arguably symbolized by the fall of the World Trade Center. It’s this complicated mix of associations and emotions, cutting across the different characters in the novel, that makes the references to 9/11 in the novel and their association to the financial crisis, worth reading — even if, as with the connection between McCoy and Lamb that Wolfe’s novel creates, one does not have to uncritically buy into the link between Carter and Alexa.
Alger’s novel is a realist fiction that marks the revival of the finance novel today. Its realism should be appreciated in this context: Wolfe already famously tried to capture New York City, and more specifically the trials and tribulations of the “fabled bondsman” Sherman McCoy, in his brand of social realism. He advocated in this context a journalistic approach to fiction writing — see his “literary manifesto for the new social novel,” initially published under the title “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” in Harper’s Magazine in 1989. But Wolfe’s novel really turned out as satire (in part because of the criticism that its serialized chapters received — Wolfe was criticized for once again privileging the white, upper-class perspective in his attempt to write a novel of the city). In its representation of McCoy, the book thus seemed to miss the realist mark.
Bret Easton Ellis took this “failure” further, enlarging it in American Psycho to surrealist proportions, with Patrick Bateman — employed at Pierce and Pierce, where McCoy was also working — as the psychotic murderer of Wall Street whose confession ultimately remains meaningless. In the case of Ellis’s novel, which includes scenes that are either excerpts from or thinly disguised rewrites of his earlier Less Than Zero — not a finance novel but a portrait of generation X — it should be noted that the psychopathology it documents is certainly not uniquely financial and may in fact be only an extreme form of a crisis of the spirit affecting all of us today, and not just those caught up in the world of finance. In Ellis’ representation of not only Bateman’s but an entire generation’s proletarianization (continued in more contemporary works like Tao Lin’s Taipei), there is a questioning of the separation between the 1 percent and the 99 percent that can also be found in Alger. Since Ellis, other finance novels — Cosmopolis or The Fear Index; and Fight Club could also be included in this list — have highlighted the psychotic element of the world of finance and the people in it.
Alger, however, takes this tradition back to the realist impulse that is present in Wolfe (whom she thanks in the acknowledgments of her book).
Indeed, it’s worth noting how some of the concern with the novelist’s credibility as a chronicler of reality (already evident in Wolfe) returns in the reception of Alger’s novel. Everyone who has reviewed or praised the book — and I guess I now become guilty of the same thing by association — seems to feel the need to point out that Alger knows the worlds of finance and of law — worlds that collide in her novel — from the inside. A Harvard College graduate with a degree from New York University’s School of Law, Alger “has worked as an analyst at Goldman, Sachs, & Co. and as an attorney at Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale, & Dorr” (her bio states). She “knows her way around twenty-first-century wealth and power,” notes The Wall Street Journal (which, by the by, has role in her novel). “Alger knows the ins and outs of both Wall Street and upscale NYC lifestyle, nailing all the details.” Jay McInerney even goes so far as to playfully “compare” her qualities as a novelist to those of a financier: “Cristina Alger is so good,” he writes, “you just know she’s an inside trader.” If you read it, the book will turn you into an “insider,” too (Charles Finch).
There is something puzzling about the fusion of the “inside trader” and the novelist that is found in all of these reviews. First of all, it is worth noting that this collapse appears to be cast as a positive. In the case of the novelist, it’s to your credit to be characterized as an inside trader — in particular if you’re a realist. Good realist authors are inside traders. I understand, of course, that the worlds of finance and fiction are different, and that McInerney’s remark is largely made in jest. But it is worth wondering about the fantasy of the inside trader that our admiration for the novelist (and in this case the realist novelist, who knows all the ins and outs of the world they are describing) is perpetuating. Surely, the problematic aspects of inside trading do not simply disappear because we are in the realm of fiction? Surely they are not simply dismantled when the inside trading produces culture or entertainment? If Alger — or the realist novelist — is indeed something like an inside trader, one would probably expect them to hold this position critically, to be aware of its potential risks, and to practice their trading knowingly, if at all?
These questions extend to the fiction writer’s speculations in general. For even the realist fiction writer (inside trader or not) engages in practices of speculation, and whatever realism she or he produces will be of the fictional, speculative kind. If such a speculative fiction engages the contemporary world of finance — which is, today, also predominantly speculative — then some questions emerge about the complicities between these two types of speculation, about the problematic of what I called, earlier on, literary-economic speculation. Within such a perspective, the fusion of finance and fiction goes both ways: for in an era where money leads to more money without the intermediary of the commodity that in Karl Marx’s theory is characteristic of capital — in the age of what Marx calls fictitious capital, and more specifically of finance capital, which may ultimately have very little to do with capital since there are no commodities involved, only complex financial instruments like derivatives — one must also reflect on finance’s fictions, i.e., on the fictions that those who are in finance (people like McCoy, Bateman, and also Carter and Morty) are writing.
It’s not only that the novelist becomes fused with the financier. Today, the financier is something like a novelist. They write the world in which we live, and if the financial crisis of 2008 revealed anything, it’s that their writing leaves much to be desired.
Alger’s novel seems to be keenly aware of this fusion, and The Darlings reads like a commentary not only on the world of finance but also on the practice of fiction writing — a commentary on literary-economic speculation. For what the novel ultimately exposes is Sol Penzell’s attempt — with Carter’s approval — to rewrite reality to save (to the extent that it is possible) Carter Darling. The plan is simple: on the side of Delphic Capital, they will blame everything on Carter’s partner Alain, and emphasize the fact that Carter has been retiring and has had no oversight over RCM. With the SEC, they will implicate David Levin as having been bribed not to pursue RCM (and Delphic): in this way, they can save Carter’s girlfriend Jane. To make all of this happen, Sol needs to ask his secretary Yvonne to set up backdated wire-transfers for off-shore money, deposited into accounts that can be traced back to Levin. There’s one glitch that will make Sol’s plan fall apart: to set up the wires, he needs to have someone sign off for Delphic, and to complete this part of the puzzle (and without Carter’s approval) he sacrifices Carter’s son in law Paul Ross, Merrill’s husband, and adds his signature. It’s this move that makes both Yvonne, Sol’s secretary, as well as Paul and Merrill, stand up against Sol and Carter — even if Carter technically can’t be blamed for Paul’s implication in this plot.
It’s a careful plot indeed that runs parallel to Alger’s own narration. Sol’s fiction — the speculative way in which he tries to rewrite reality, or “manufacture facts,” as he puts it — is characterized in the novel as:
[The kind of negotiations that take place] in the shadows […] where money simply disappeared into numbered offshore bank accounts. Sometimes no money exchanged hands at all, except of course to Sol, who was compensated handsomely for the representation. Instead, billion-dollar relationships were forged, debts of gratitude incurred, favors curried. The fact that he received no recognition for this work, not even from his wife, was, to Sol, a small price to pay for the privilege of doing the work he did. While he loved the practice of law, his work now was far more sophisticated than a traditional legal practice. It was negotiation at the highest level, a form of extralegal brokering that made him a very powerful man.
It appears that Sol still somehow sees himself as being involved in a legal practice — just not of the traditional kind. He is in the “extralegal” practice. Later in the novel, Carter adjusts the semantics:
Carter felt a chill run down his spine. It was all a chess game to Sol; he saw this now very clearly. It was a brilliant play. Highly risky, of course, and totally illegal. But if successful, they gained much while giving away little. It was a classic deflection sacrifice: Offer up the pawn to save the king.
Sol’s speculative practice is, quite plainly, illegal — criminal. And it turns out that at least some lawyers in the novel — Alexa Mason, David Levin, but also Merrill Darling and Paul Ross — will have issues with this.
Again, it’s not all rotten apples on Wall Street for Alger.
As finance fiction, The Darlings thus ultimately reflects on the fictions of finance themselves: on the ways in which lawyers and financiers are plotting reality. The problem is the kinds of fictions they come up with: some seem to have very little reality to them, and to be stitched together with almost nothing — nothing of substance, in any case. They are badly written and the product of an impoverished imagination. Where on earth did these lawyers and financiers learn to think and write? They should, perhaps, have taken some more humanities courses while they were in college. Their fictions are ethically and politically problematic. I’m not saying Alger is an example in this context: I’ve raised some ethical and political questions about her representation of Wall Street, and there are technical issues with the construction of her novel and her writing style as well (the use of flashbacks becomes predictable; Alexa “nervously” runs a hand through her hair after Duncan, four lines earlier, has already sensed her “nervousness”; “Anyway, Lily was smart enough to …” is followed three lines later by “In any case, Ines was a firm believer …”; etc.) However, Alger’s novel shows that it’s our task, as readers, to call out the lawyers and the financiers on the fictions they produce. And also, to try our hand at writing: because someone will have to write the literary-economic realities in which we live, and those fictions better be good. Never before have stories seemed more important. It’s one of the virtues of Alger’s novel that it brings this point home to us — from finance, into fiction. And (hopefully) back.
Arne De Boever has written two books: States of Exception in the Contemporary Novel (Continuum, 2012) and Narrative Care: Biopolitics and the Novel (Bloomsbury, 2013). This review is based on his new book project, Finance Fictions: Speculation in the Contemporary American Novel.