Saturday, September 20, 2008

Credit Crunch Fictions

Economics is rarely the stuff of literature, more, I think, because very few writers have more than a basic understanding of economics, rather than there being something inherently unliterary about it. I say its rarely the stuff of literature, but I guess it depends on definition. George Eliot's novels were steeped in the socio-economics of the day, and even Jane Austen's novels were routed in the economics of her day (think of Rochester's history in the plantations, or the "entail" that is the cause of so much worry in "Pride and Prejudice.") Of course, Ezra Pound's attempts to leverage a particular economic theory into the cantos was doomed as much for literary reasons as for the dubious politics underpinning those economics; and Ayn Rand's mammoth "Atlas Shrugged" shows that though its possible to write a novel about capitalism, its possibly not that wise. Science fiction has often done it better of course - a particular favourite is "Monument" by Lloyd Biggle about a man who crash lands on a beautiful planet and gives them a plan for their development in preparation for the day when the planet gets found and exploited. Jim Crace's "Arcadia", is my favourite of his novels, telling the story of a multi-millionaire who begins with nothing.

But faced with the "credit crunch", the dissolution of investment banks, the merger of high street names, the nationalisation of financial institutions and the banning of "short selling", its no wonder that fiction holds up its hands. Merchant bankers make poor heroes, though Sherman McCoy in "Bonfire of the Vanities" is an honourable exception. Yet financial crises are classic pieces of real life plotting - "black swans" if you like, or unknown unknowns - that can turn the impossible to the inevitable with a speed that is breathtaking. It will have to be seen whether some future novelist finds a gem of a story in the current "credit crunch," but two very honourable mentions of past financial crises turned into art are Jay McInerney's stunning "Brightness Falls" and Michael Bracewell's English equivalent, "The Conclave." An enterprising publisher should bring the latter back into print.

Perhaps the next J.K. Rowling novel will be about economics - or politics. There's certainly some useful dramatic timing in her £1 million donation to the Labour Party being announced on the eve of the Labour Party Conference. I'll be popping into town later, to see what gridlock for Gordon is like this year. Last time the conference came to Manchester, it was nearly impossible to get into work, with half the city centre cordoned off for security purposes.

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