Essays

Paper Tiger: Irish Financial Fiction after the Bust

By posted at 6:00 am on October 11, 2013 2

Wall Street

Situated on the periphery of both the eurozone and the London-New York axis of Anglo-American finance, Ireland offers an intriguing vantage point on the global slump. Not so long ago, buoyed by booming technology and pharmaceutical sectors and juiced by neoliberal reforms, the Irish economy was feted as the Celtic Tiger, but a massively overinflated commercial and housing market left it dangerously exposed when the 2008 financial crisis hit. What started out as a meltdown in the mortgage market soon turned into a sovereign debt crisis as the government made the disastrous guarantee to fully backstop insolvent banks, driving the country itself into bankruptcy and, ultimately, the fiscal embrace of the European Union. Ireland, not Greece, proved to be the opening act in a tragedy that is still unfolding as the bonds holding together the single currency in Europe continue to fray. For the Irish, the consequences, including the imposition of International Monetary Fund discipline and harsh austerity policies, have been dire. Starved for opportunity, many fled the country in search of a better life elsewhere. So many, in fact, that officials from the Central Statistics Office suggest that emigration levels are comparable to the Great Famine years of the mid-19th century. Once again, a great pestilence stalks the land, but this time the contagion is virtual.

coverIrish writers have begun to take stock of the post-Tiger years in ways that attest to the global nature of the bust. Two in particular, Aifric Campbell and Alan Glynn, offer compelling if wildly divergent responses to the challenge of representing in fictional terms what Campbell calls “the closed world” of the financial industry. If anyone is familiar with this world, it is Campbell, whose literary career was preceded by over a decade spent as an investment banker. She rose to become the first female manager of Morgan Stanley’s London trading floor before trading in her Bloomberg terminal for Bloomsbury aspirations. Her third novel, just published in North America, was longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize and borrows liberally from Campbell’s banking years. Set in 1991, with the outbreak of hostilities in the first Gulf War looming in the background, On the Floor tells the story of Geri Malloy, a trader coasting on a reputation built on a single mammoth deal, but lately struggling to keep it all together. Reeling from a devastating romantic rejection, Geri finds herself buffeted on all sides by the demands of the men in her life.

Courting betrayal at every turn, Geri lurches from one crisis to another. She’s a hapless mark for those looking to use her for their own purposes because, when it comes right down to it, she doesn’t know what she wants; “my life story scripted by three men, and me the willing pawn.” In addition to her ex Stephen, there is also imperious client Felix Mann who threatens to take his substantial business elsewhere if Geri doesn’t relocate from London to Hong Kong, her noxious boss (nicknamed “the Grope”), not to mention the raucously bro-ish atmosphere of the trading floor. Deep in denial about an unhappy past she mistakenly thought was well behind her, Geri is forced to acknowledge that she will finally have to account for herself. On the Floor is a compelling psychological portrait of a woman whose professional success masks profound personal turmoil, documenting the precise moment when the blithe coping strategies employed since childhood begin to fail her. However, where Campbell’s work truly shines is in placing Geri’s struggles within the wider context of the changes sweeping through the world of finance.

Though she identifies wholeheartedly with the messy human drama of the trading floor, Geri also has an uncanny facility with numbers. What her fellow traders boozily dismiss as her “circus trick” is really a glimpse of the future, albeit one in which they hardly figure at all. For tomorrow belongs to the so-called rocket scientists in the back office, those quantitative analysts busily deriving the equations that will transform the market. As one exasperated boffin chides Geri and her mates: “Your kind of traders with your finger in the air, making up prices like you were on a fruit and veg stall. You think it’s all supply and demand and some sort of intuition, some sort of special touch. You don’t even understand the instruments you trade.” On the Floor dramatizes the crucial moment in our recent history when the bluff and bluster of the pit gives way to the impersonal operation of exquisitely crafted algorithms, the once-ferocious clamor of open outcry auctions echoing faintly in the miles of cabling and quiet whir of remote servers.

Geri, of course, has a foot in both worlds and a decision to make. Will she continue to obsess over the past or finally realize her losses, mourn them, and move on, thus opening herself to the prospect of future gains? Crucially, the pivotal moment comes only after the intervention of her client Felix, the man whose caprice made her career and could quite possibly break it. He reminds her that the story of her heartbreak is not the story. “I’m not interested in your grubby narrative,” he tells her, explaining that “background my dear, is not always essential to the development of the plot.” For Felix, plot is the epic corporate dealmaking that Geri’s frailties inadvertently catalyze rather than the myopic story of her suffering. By the end of a harrowing series of events, Geri starts to see things his way, admitting that she has been played, most egregiously by herself: “If I hadn’t been shitfaced, broken hearted, broken down, malfunctioning, I might have actually paid attention to what was really going on.”

On its face, Campbell’s novel has little to say about Ireland’s post-Tiger malaise — it is set in 1991, after all — but Geri’s sense of her own Irishness makes for a striking contrast with the confidence and optimism of the Tiger years, illustrating both how far Ireland has come, as well as how far it has recently fallen.

The very first time I came to Hong Kong five years ago and stood down there at the water’s edge, I was struck by the thought that only the British could do something so crazily grandiose as transform a huge rock in the South China Sea into a magnificent power base. I stood transfixed by the Peak in a gaping neck-arch and years of myopic schoolbook history unraveled—a continuous loop of embittered bleating about Cromwell and disemboweling and famine, the coffin ships, the martyrs, the faces of The Six Men, the agony and the ecstasy of dying for your country—all collapsed into the astonishing revelation that The Enemy had in fact, Bigger Fish to Fry. That all the time we were crawling in and out of hedge schools and mustering futile insurrections, the British Empire was gripped by the tentacles of a dizzying ambition that explained the stunning irrelevance of Ireland. Even after Home Rule and a bellyful of potatoes and Rural Electrification, the story of Ireland was still about the same thing: a Self as defined by the Other, an island clinging onto the victim psychology of an identity crisis, trailing a stone-age language through the jostling visa queue of emigrants, licking our own sores as we clutched our one-way tickets in a stampede for the next plane out of there.

On the Floor gestures at a new era of confidence and optimism for both its protagonist and Ireland itself. However, the novel ends on a deliberately ambiguous note because it’s not really clear whether Geri’s identity crisis has been resolved or merely deferred. Similarly, it remains to be seen whether the Irish will revert to what Geri describes as victim psychology after the all-too-brief age of affluence came to a sputtering halt amidst the global turmoil of 2008 and after. For a time the Irish — and everyone else! — were too busy making money to worry about inequality, but as the pace of economic growth slowed and even reversed, discord became harder and harder to outrun. Today, the specter of an oppressive Other once again captivates the popular imagination, albeit this time in the form of policymakers from the IMF or European Central Bank rather than representatives of Her Majesty’s Government. The accents may be different, but the underlying psychological dynamic appears worryingly familiar.

covercovercoverWhat happened to Ireland during the age of easy money is Alan Glynn’s great theme. In contrast to Aifric Campbell, who reports on the closed world of finance with the ease and familiarity of a consummate insider, Glynn is a gatecrasher. Working in the thriller mode, he treats the world of finance as a conspiracy, the ultimate goal of which is to conceal the truth about the unsavory and often criminal origins of great wealth and power. His latest novel Graveland continues in the same vein of international intrigue that informs Winterland (2009) and Bloodland (2011), the previous two entries in a trilogy loosely organized around the shadowy figure of James Vaughn, the reclusive and incredibly well-connected head of the private equity firm Oberon Capital. Winterland opens with a nicely Hitchcockian twist when two men named Noel Rafferty, one a gangster and the other an architect, are murdered on the same evening. Which one was the actual target? Convinced that the police have closed the case too early, a grieving family member launches her own investigation, one that reveals a sordid underbelly of crony capitalism and political corruption that reaches all the way from a controversial property development in Dublin to the highest office in the land.

Winterland is very much a product of the boom, a novel about the overly cozy relationship between politicians and their patrons, as well as the go-along-to-get-along mentality that flourishes so long as no one is looking too closely. Bloodland takes place barely two years later, but in the interim, the game has changed. The global bust has left everyone scrambling, from a down-on-his-luck journalist struggling to make the rent to an overextended tycoon whose empire is coming apart for want of a loan. Recently laid off, Jimmy Gilroy reluctantly accepts a freelance assignment to write the biography of Susie Monaghan, a reality star whose legend only grows after she perishes along with five others in a helicopter crash off the coast of Ireland. Almost immediately, he’s approached by a fixer who warns him not to look too closely into the murky circumstances of the accident — a request that makes him suspect his project may be more than tabloid fodder after all. The ensuing action stretches from Dublin to New York and the Congo where an obscure mining concession is at the center of scandal implicating, among others, an ambitious United States senator, a private military company, and the big money backing the next step in drone technology. Glynn is working with a much broader canvas here because in Bloodland corruption is globalized. Ireland’s bent political and business elite remain our entry point into the narrative, but they are merely local symptoms of a spreading sickness.

coverGraveland, the final entry in the Vaughn trilogy, traces this illness back to its source in New York, the financial epicenter of both the 2008 meltdown as well as the new gilded age that preceded it. (Gotham, incidentally, also serves as the backdrop to Glynn’s debut, 2001’s The Dark Fields, which received the Hollywood treatment and was released as a hit film in 2011 under a new title: Limitless.) Opening with the assassination of two Wall Street figures and seemingly unrelated disappearance of a college student, Graveland alternates between three main narrative perspectives. Ellen Dorsey, who plays a minor role in Bloodland, is an investigative journalist with a hunch that these events may be linked. Frank Bishop is a laid-off architect struggling to keep himself afloat, and is increasingly distraught over the fact he can’t get in touch with his daughter. Meanwhile Craig Howley, the number two at the secretive Oberon Capital, is champing at the bit to replace his boss while wondering if he has a target on his back, too. Glynn expertly generates suspense by deftly building up and then subverting our expectations, leaving us uncertain as to the nature of the plot. Is this a kill-the-bankers revenge fantasy? A right-wing myth about the sinister aims motivating the Occupy movement? A grim parable of corporate ambition? Or is it entirely personal, rooted in one family’s responsibility for a Madoff-style ponzi scheme?

As Ellen and Frank work through various theories as to who is responsible for the violence and why, their investigation serves as a proxy for a much broader inquiry, one that characterizes the trilogy as a whole. Working within the conventions of the suspense thriller, Glynn attempts to visualize something that remains frustratingly opaque and out of reach: the financial system itself. As recent events have shown, it proves remarkably hard to see. At a time when transactions are increasingly found off-balance-sheet and bankers hide in the unregulated shadows, there is no overarching perspective capable of providing a full and proper accounting, to make the facts as they stand cohere into a lucid narrative (that is, if there ever was…). The “closed world” of finance quite literally resists oversight. For Frank, “the financial crisis of 2008 — its origins stretching back over decades, its aftermath unfolding into the foreseeable future — is a huge, unwieldy subject, a web of interconnecting narratives that cannot be contained in an single text or contemplated in a single glance.” Ellen is similarly confounded:

Each new post she reads, or thread she follows, seems to hold out the promise of something, an insight, an angle, a revelation even. In discussing stuff like fractional reserve banking, the creation of the Fed, the Glass-Steagall Act, Keynes, the Chicago School, subprime, securitization, the bailouts, there’ll be an initial hint of reasonableness, a striving for clarity — for the holy grail of a coherent point — but sooner or later, and without fail, each contribution will descend into ambiguity, internal contradiction, and ultimately gibberish.

Glynn’s solution to this interpretive dilemma is, quite simply, James Vaughn, the head of Oberon Capital and personification of the revolving door between the private sector and government. “Without once being elected or appointed to public office, the man has exerted enormous influence, and mainly by operating in the interstices between federal agencies, private contractors, consulting firms, lobbyists, think tanks, and policy institutes.” Although Glynn grants him a legendary backstory (including offhand references to his role in the Kennedy administration, even the swaggering admission that he walked in on JFK bedding his soon-to-be-replaced wife), the octogenarian yet still strangely vital Vaughn is less a fully rounded character than an avatar of global capital: “He’s one of those extraordinary guys, and there aren’t that many of them, who somehow float between [business and politics], and it’s not that he’s both — businessman and politician — it’s that actually he’s neither. He’s something else again, something more evolved than that,” marvels a character from Bloodland. “It’s like he’s the very embodiment of money.”

Vaughn appears in every volume of Glynn’s trilogy, the only character to do so, and thus serves as its main source of continuity. However, from his first appearance as an outside investor in the Dublin property scheme detailed in Winterland to his apparent retirement lap in Graveland, the publicity-shy Vaughn lingers discreetly in the background, visible only in glimpses as the author keeps us otherwise entertained with the tightly wound and frenetic plotting of his conspiratorially-minded tales. As the trilogy moves farther and farther away from its parochial origins in order to situate Ireland’s experience in a global context, Vaughn and his outsize role come into sharp focus. Indeed, by the end of Graveland, the pursuit of the Wall Street killers turns into a searching examination of those who made a killing in the markets. Rather than getting caught up in what Frank calls “an ever-widening gyre of speculation and paranoia,” Glynn substitutes the story of the secret origins of Vaughn’s wealth and power for the frustratingly incomplete and unsatisfying nonfictional narratives of the crash.

Five years removed from the collapse of Lehman Brothers, our tentative economic recovery is marred by the nagging sense that nothing has really changed, that the same people who got us into this mess are still running the show, that no one has been held accountable and, as the shock wears off, that we are back to business as usual. Worryingly, while there is no shortage of answers — journalistic accounts of the financial crisis are one of the few growth areas in publishing — it remains to be seen whether we are asking the right questions. In the face of such uncertainty, it falls to writers like Aifric Campbell and Alan Glynn to take up the challenge of representing the world of finance by reducing it to human scale. Wearing her hard-earned expertise in the banking industry ever so lightly, Campbell grounds her story of Geri’s heartbreak in the customs and routines of the trading floor, the workplace rituals that Geri clings to even as they are on the verge of disappearing. Glynn, meanwhile, harnesses the conventions of the popular thriller to the task of rendering transparent a world that otherwise remains abstract and inaccessible, compressing and dramatizing the dance of contemporary capital flows in the figure of James Vaughn.

Image Credit: Flickr/thetaxhaven





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2 Responses to “Paper Tiger: Irish Financial Fiction after the Bust”

  1. Judy Krueger
    at 12:13 pm on October 15, 2013

    Great overview on this topic. Thank you for yet another reading list to add to my endless collection. I just finished Broken Harbor by Tana French, in which she embeds the rise and fall of the real estate boom by means of what happens to one young family who fell for it. You can add it to your list!

  2. Matt Kavanagh
    at 3:23 pm on October 15, 2013

    Thanks, Judy. I’ll be sure to check that title out.

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