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Other People's Money: A fictional microcosm of the real financial crisis

In bright sensory detail, this sophisticated ensemble piece revolves around an English banking family struggling to keep the business afloat by any means necessary.
A financial district worker hurries away from the offices of the Barings Brothers Bank, Britain's oldest merchant bank that was put into administration in 1995 after reporting losses of more than US$850 million.
A financial district worker hurries away from the offices of the Barings Brothers Bank, Britain's oldest merchant bank that was put into administration in 1995 after reporting losses of more than US$850 million.

Tubal & Co, the oldest private bank in England, is in crisis. Its patriarch, Sir Harry, has suffered a severe stroke; his firstborn is playing the gentleman explorer, and his youngest son, Julian, has lost a lot of money through disastrous hedge funds, all part of his attempt to take the operation into the 21st century. Sir Harry's trophy wife Fleur, meanwhile, has abandoned him to the care of an assistant in their luxurious Antibes estate. Fleur is sleeping with her personal trainer, a former professional rugby player, while her playwright ex-husband, Artair McLeod, has had his funding cut.

Artair's strand of the novel brings the action to Cornwall, where he produces children's plays. In an interview with a young journalist, Melissa, he mentions his financial woes, and explains that the funding came not from the Arts Council but from the Tubals directly. Melissa's editor, Marcus Tredizzick, a hard-bitten former helmsman of The Mirror exiled to the provinces, takes this as a sign that all is not well with Tubal & Co and sees a last opportunity to bring down the bad guys. The pride of her parents for securing a full-time job at 22, Melissa is immediately fired and told to start a blog, ostensibly to talk about small-town issues such as the plight of local arts.

The novel is an ensemble piece, but Julian, the younger son left holding the reins, is more or less our protagonist. He hates banking, is aghast at the prospect of turning into his father, and dreams about talking ponies. His solution to Tubal & Co's difficulties is to use money from the family's trust (including the proceeds from paintings, properties and boats) to pay back what he lost and balance the books before selling the whole bank to an even richer American. Malpractice, certainly, but not exactly a Ponzi scheme.

Cartwright is of the same generation as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, but while he's no less acclaimed - Booker-shortlisted for his second novel In Every Face I Meet, while his fourth, Leading the Cheers, won the Whitbread in 1999 - he hasn't been as obvious a presence outside the literary scene. This is something of an advantage in dealing with something as topical and controversial as the financial crisis.

Other People's Money wears its learning lightly; it didn't bring this outsider much closer to understanding high finance, but neither did it reiterate the overfamiliar. We're given a terrifying looking equation that Tubal & Co used in their brochures to suggest the reliability of their investments, but all we need to grasp is that it doesn't work: the people richer than us are not only con artists, but stupid. So far, so comfortable. A lot of research has gone into this novel (from the acknowledgements: "I have taken advice on banking and how it works, but I have decided not to name any of those I have consulted"). Yet for the most part Cartwright gets on with the writer's job of making his characters sympathetic, and this is where we're less able to rely on our knee-jerk antipathy.

They are to an extent, and if you'll excuse the pun, stock figures. Then again, maybe the world of the super rich is a stock world; a formulaic projection of good taste designed to complement or justify immense wealth. It's to Cartwright's credit that he manages to humanise them. Sir Harry's decline is tenderly portrayed. Julian's children are delightful, his American wife, who undertakes numerous socially conscious projects, equally so. And nobody chooses the life they're born into. If Julian is perfectly miserable in his private jet, flying to Liechtenstein with a severe migraine, Cartwright makes sure that the reader is less inclined than usual to roll their eyes.

Critically, Julian is a perceptive and likeable character. Away on business, he feels embarrassed after texting his wife. "The intimacies between men and women are not for publication, he thinks. They are often innocently obscene or infantile. Nobody, anyway, really knows what goes on between other men and women. Couples who are a delightful and charming double-act in public can be shockingly vicious to each other when they think they are not observed." Julian may be immensely privileged, but his (inevitable) complacency rarely shades into callousness; he is neither a coward nor a bully. He isn't the localised tyrant of the above observation (a description which might fit his father). If anything, his migraines represent a kind of self-knowledge, which is never less than painful; he knows what he is becoming and can't stand it.

That said, Cartwright is canny at depicting a certain kind of English passive aggression. Julian performs a lethal double act with his vicious lawyer Amanda, whose rants and insults Julian follows up with a soothing phone call, apologising for her behaviour and making the victim feel that they're winning simply by doing what he wanted in the first place. By the second time this happens we realise just how calculated it is. Nevertheless, while Tredizzick, the thwarted editor fighting the good fight against the City fat cats, ought to be our hero, we're in the unfamiliar position of rooting for Julian, hoping he gets away with it even as he's calling in favours from the home secretary. This may have as much to do with the nature of narrative suspense as anything else. Yet his isolation seems no less stark for its refinement: there's no buying your way out of mortality, depression and pain.

The consolation is art: the family's vast private collection of paintings - Matisse and Hodgkin in particular - is one of the few things anyone takes any joy in throughout the novel. But the arts are also represented by Artair, alcoholic, deshabille, embittered by his failed potential, at once a ludicrous poltroon and genuine talent. Since his money was cut off by the Tubals, he lives off boxes of pasties donated by the Binsters, sponsors of his children's plays. He flounces out of the local bank calling the manager an "intellectual pigmy", yet we never doubt his commitment to his project, a screenplay about the life of Flann O'Brien which, critically, he actually writes. Artair is a kind of hero who will starve half to death or accept a lifetime endowment from his ex-wife's husband without a moment's hesitation. The principle is irrelevant: it is all in the service of his writing, which is all he lives for.

Artair's financial salvation arrives in the form of his ex, Fleur, a failed actress who self-identifies as Sir Harry's "bit of fluff". Fleur is a finely drawn character, plagued by received wisdom and stock phrases - at drama school her contemporaries talk constantly about "living the dream" - which have gradually proven less and less reliable. Perceptive and ultimately wise ("She long ago realised that everyone has in the mind an ideal world which they think is their due") she is given the last word about Sir Harry, whose every action was designed to demonstrate his superior taste: "He was a monster."

Cartwright's feeling for sensory detail is frequently convincing. Sparrows are "chipper little Edith Piafs"; in an evening taxi the light "has a preserved fruit quality, lightly coloured and refracted by a syrup; Sir Harry's adapted downstairs room is "gloomily scented by his many medicines". There's a great juxtaposition of place, too, from the vast, thriving industrial metropolis of Chicago to the foggy moors of Cornwall above the Jamaica Inn, and the novel's consistent present-tense narration keeps the pace.

Melissa, the young journalist, is a useful character for leaking information. Her observations tend to flow recognisably from her Sociology degree from the University of Exeter; Cartwright uses her to demonstrate the extent to which we take our visions from our disciplines. Her blog, titled It's All Out There Somewhere, is mostly cupcakes and faux-naif sexual innuendo. It's a little irritating, as is her observation that all anyone wants these days is to become a celebrity, but maybe that's the point. If she's less convincing than the other characters, that reads as a judgement on a generation eating boutique macaroons while Rome burns.

It is our very familiarity with these stories that leads us to expect, or indeed gleefully anticipate, disaster at every turn. Jail is always a real threat for Julian, which gives the novel narrative energy, and Cartwright makes great sport of our expectations. He refuses to let us look down on the Tubals, but we do come to understand that they are cursed with a grotesque limitation. Again, it is Fleur who diagnoses the problem: "They make polite, inherited conversation, but deep down they are disdainful and contemptuous." That's not an enviable way to be.

Luke Kennard's third poetry collection, The Migraine Hotel, is published by Salt.

Updated: April 8, 2011 04:00 AM

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