Heather Mallick: Moral failure, writ large and small
As stock markets bounce, recall 2008. It was the year of the economic crash, the year Sarah Palin you-betcha-ed her way into the Republican campaign, the year your savings cut and ran. In the 10 years since, what have we learned? Better catch up on your reading before the next crisis comes. Psst, it involves the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Climate change will smash our homes, just like an over-ambitious mortgage in 2008.
For those who want to understand the mess we’re in, I suggest two books. One is a massive analysis of the causes of the crash and 10 years of global consequences. British historian Adam Tooze’s Crashed relates the causes and effects: the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis; the deregulation and globalization of finance; the European credit bubble and the parlous state of EU banking; imposed austerity — Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine”; and, worst of all, the rise of totalitarian governments and the extreme right worldwide.
In other words, Trump writ large. When the crash happened, structures were in charge, however parlous. Now no one’s in charge and monsters are at play. Putin poisons, Saudis dismember, Assad gasses, Trump kidnaps small children and itches for big war; economic and military alliances hang fire; Nazis return, not neo but retro; misogyny explodes as women are violently punished for asserting rights only briefly held; racism knows no borders.
The most fearful thing Tooze uncovers is the dirty work done bank-to-bank, much of it beyond the reach of national governments or EU regulators. Global finance is bigger than nations. In 2007, he writes, the three biggest banks, all European, had combined balance sheets of 17% of global GDP. One has the impression of huge dark forms passing in the night. We wake up hopefully for another precarious day. What saps.
It has been a decade of loss and pain, with more to come.
At this point, Tooze’s facts are so painful that aggrieved readers will need fiction to do its magic. At a time when most novels — career-minded writers are MFA-trained not to be timid — are about small thoughts in small rooms, Russian-born Gary Shteyngart is one of the few novelists to write wildly and weirdly about our dangerous new world. The man has no fear.
His new novel, Lake Success, is about Barry Cohen, an absurd hedge-funder going through an emotional crisis, who sets out to discover “real” Americans on a real Greyhound bus. A money monster among his impoverished victims, this childish man desperately wants to be liked, to make friends. It doesn’t go well.
Shteyngart has basically taken slices of economic fallout from Crashed and fictionalized them into a novel about how Americans reap what they sow. When the national ethos is to pursue happiness — for some reason, Americans think this means getting rich and famous — only one-percenters achieve that. Yet they are not happy in their multitudes of echoing homes, private planes and empty off-leash people parks.
Cohen’s American dream is this: a heavy-set woman with so many homespun yarns to tell. She brings him “a plate of vinegary beans and pulled pork” and says, “Hush, child. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Everyone gets to start over again. This America, hon. One dream dies, you get another.”
Yes, the rich will move from dream to dream, each one better than the last. But most Americans won’t. Their best hope at this point is to be used as an ethanol-like human mash in fuel. Trump has no other use for the poor. Wilbur Ross, Jared Kushner and other Trump cronies will be richer than ever but your dream died in 2008.
Cohen is dirt-riding through flyover USA because he has left his wife to cope with the discovery that their young son has severe autism. Unable to speak, he will never fulfil his father’s grand dreams or explain his own. In American terms, far beyond superficial sentimentality, he is a financial loss, a bad debt.
Cohen’s hedge fund has lost billions in client money, but clients are rich enough not to care. They still have hope. Cohen has no hope. What is that like? (Note: Shteyngart has never written a novel about success. For one thing, it’s not interesting. He’s Russian. He takes the dark view that beyond love, all of life is failure.)
Similarly, Crashed is a 700-page book about global failure. At the end, Tooze notes that the questions we ask about 1914 and 2008 are the same. “How does a great moderation end? How do huge risks build up that are little understood and barely controllable? How do the ‘railway timetables’ of giant technical systems combine to create disaster? Who is to blame for the ensuing human-induced man-made disaster?”
I’ve left out some of his other questions — “questions that haunt the great crises of modernity” — lest you lose the will to live, or indeed to buy these two books.
Tooze is showing us monstrousness in aggregate, catastrophe in macrocosm. But Shteyngart is painting a tiny portrait: the human alone confronting not just failure, but moral failure, which is all that matters.
Heather Mallick is a columnist based in Toronto covering current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @HeatherMallick