Money Problems

April 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

In this week’s New York Times Book Review, an issue devoted to the theme of money, Pankaj Mishra and Rivka Galchen offer contrapuntal looks at how money is treated in fiction. Mishra, aptly, starts off with a quote by William Dean Howells: “Business is the only human solidarity.” He finds money as a topic too often glossed over in fiction due to the writer’s discomfort with what he calls “a compromising and humiliating relationship with his aggressively commercial society.” The writer, kept afloat by grants and patrons, is too insulated to understand money’s cruel realities:

One result of the steady professionalization of the imaginative life is that the working classes, let alone the poor and the destitute, have largely disappeared from contemporary fiction. The dominant tone of irony, part of a characteristically bourgeois project of self-concealment and euphemism, has merely enhanced money’s amazing ability, in Saul Bellow’s words, “to survive identification” as a great evil and “go on forever.”

This is not to say that many works — from John Updike’s Rabbit quartet to Dave Eggers’s “A Hologram for the King” — haven’t registered the main events in the recent history of money: oil shocks, the proliferation of technologies, the migration of low-wage jobs to the newly industrializing countries, shifts in consumer habits, hubristic technicism and reckless financialization. “Without money he was hardly a man,” Jonathan Franzen writes in “The Corrections,” which dramatizes the fantasies of neoliberalism (“The more patently satirical the promises, the lustier the influx of American capital”). … But only a few contemporary fictions have bracingly exposed the writer’s own furtive participation in the vulgar pursuits of wealth and fame.

This view seems too ahead of itself in the age of the MFA student struggling to make ends meet on a teaching stipend. Galchen takes the view that money finds its way into narrative most effectively at the periphery, a cold dousing of our obsessions, offering the example of Don Quixote never considering the need to pay his squire until it is requested of him, or Ishmael only entering the whaling industry in the first place because he needs a living.

Yes, these summaries are off, but are they really so off? Part of what makes those fictions literature, instead of just varieties of chivalric fantasies, is that they do not participate in the appealing fiction that money is inconsequential and can be blithely ignored — an exceptionally popular fiction in real life, especially among the more moneyed, the original and abiding reading population.

I would propose that money is underutilized as an element in fiction because it is too banal a means of conflict to be a source of inspiration. For most, debt is too readily accepted as a fact of life to carry any sense of wonder. With rare exceptions (Fitzgerald), money does not take the reader on an emotional journey. It is also sloppy in its measure of human capacity. (Mitt Romney would tell you it is the only way to keep score.) It breeds complacency in a medium that is most effective when it portrays upheaval and lets character be revealed in tense moments of moral choice. If narrative fiction should ultimately be concerned with humankind’s journey toward happiness, money is too constant an element to offer any insight into why humans think and act the way they do.

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