Martha McPhee‘s forthcoming novel, Dear Money, is about a novelist in her late 30s who starts working as a Wall Street trader in the mid-aughts, when the housing bubble was at its most expansive. I have a review of the book scheduled to run soon, so I’ll hold off on registering an opinion here. But McPhee’s essay for Bloomberg Businessweek on how she came to write the book is interesting reading: Like the main character in the book, McPhee’s a novelist who was told by a trader that he could train her to do his job in 18 months. (McPhee declined; her character doesn’t.)
I’ve written a couple of times about what the fiction writer’s “job” is, and it’s a question McPhee had to wrestle with as the markets collapsed and her novel stalled. “What happened on Wall Street has happened before; it will happen again,” she writes. “My story isn’t an attempt to make tidy sense of the global financial system. That, of course, is not the novelist’s job.” What is? Well:
Having more—a bigger house, more deals, greater profits—had become an American right, a belief. I’ve come to understand how staggeringly much we know about the world of finance, manipulating numbers, creating products—derivatives, CDOs, and so forth—yet how little we know. As with medicine and deep-water oil exploration, we know so much and not enough. In between the extremes is our own hubris, to which, it seems, we will always be vulnerable. Locating that hubris, however, is a novelist’s job.
McPhee’s essay has a sidebar on the best novels about banking culture—though I don’t recall American Psycho teaching me a whole lot about banking.