x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Robert Harris: Inside the Machine

Robert Harris is no stranger to turning the high-concept thriller to literary ends.

Robert Harris is no stranger to turning the high-concept thriller to literary ends. The Ghost, his previous novel, featured a cipher for Tony Blair, chewing over his time in office with a biographer who soon finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy well out of his control. Politically astute and controversial, it was also a captivating yarn of intrigue and violently defended secrets, later adapted for the screen by Harris and Roman Polanski. You could imagine Blair himself reading it on holiday.

A quietly acknowledged aspect of satire is that it may be as enjoyable for its targets as its audience. We see this in such famous examples as Tsar Nicholas I's approval of Gogol's satirical farce, The Government Inspector: "Everyone gets it in the neck, and I most of all!"

Similarly it's hard to imagine Rupert Murdoch losing sleep over the media-tycoon Bond villain of The World is Not Enough in 1999. As received wisdom has it, it's important to laugh at yourself, and what better gift for the man who has everything than a sense of humour? Entertainment is the difference between a political protest and a work of art. The Fear Index is a novel that sharply combines the lately familiar white-collar crime narrative with neo-Gothic horror. It could be read with equal relish by the Wall Street traders and the protesters beneath their windows, were they not blinded with pepper spray. Harris acknowledges the assistance of numerous asset strippers and hedge fund managers who, one imagines, were only too happy to ensure the premise remained as technically plausible as it is fantastic.

Our protagonist is named Dr Alexander Hoffman, presumably in a nod to ETA Hoffman, the German writer from the turn of the 18th century, best known for The Nutcracker (although it is the less famous Sandman with its automatons and sinister doubles that carries the telling echo here). Hoffman is a sort of über-nerd: a lead physicist working on the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, the archetypal socially awkward genius. His pet project is artificial intelligence, an obsession that loses him his job, but gets him headhunted by charming toff Hugo Quarry, a City of London trader, who convinces him to turn his talents to high finance. Hoffman is already experimenting with an algorithm that trades based on the levels of fear and panic in the market at large. In Hoffman's publicity speech to potential shareholders, he points out that the Cold War, characterised by paranoia and mutually assured destruction, was also a time of relative market stability.

"The rise in market volatility, in our opinion, is a function of digitalisation, which is exaggerating human mood swings by the unprecedented dissemination of information via the internet." After eight years, a more advanced take on the fear index, an algorithm capable of undertaking research into human fears, VIXAL-4, is born and quickly makes Hoffman Investment Technologies an embarrassing amount of money.

Hoffman runs an eccentric ship: his employees - mathematical savants and their assistants - are fined for bringing any printed matter, paper or pens into the workplace, "a temple of mammon" emblazoned with the legend:

 

"THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE WILL HAVE NO PAPER / THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE WILL CARRY NO INVENTORY / THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE WILL BE ENTIRELY DIGITAL / THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE HAS ARRIVED".

 

There's a certain irony in Hoffman and his employees working on equations and algorithms that then go on to trade independently - they haven't cut any deals themselves in years "like some lazy driver who had become entirely reliant on parking sensors and satellite navigation to get him around town".

We first encounter Hoffman in his €60m mansion in Geneva. He ought to be celebrating his anniversary, but someone (not his wife) has sent him a first edition of Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and his colleagues (he has no friends) deny all knowledge. The book's slip marks the chapter on fear. Later that night he wakes hearing noises, creeps downstairs and, having encountered a light in the kitchen and a strange pair of boots by the door, goes outside to identify whoever has managed to breach the multiple levels of security, leaving his wife Gabrielle trapped inside. Hoffman only realises this once he's seen a haunted-looking man with long grey hair methodically sharpening their knives in the kitchen.

This all unfolds within the first 15 pages and, while it sounds action-movie-quick, there's actually plenty of room to ponder in-depth the finer points of Darwin's theories, as well as the interesting minutiae of hedge fund trading. We learn, for instance, that in the age of digitised trading, shares and options can be "owned" for fractions of a second before being sold on, faster than thought; that more can be traded in one day than in previous decades; and also that the "fear index" actually exists, a tool that measures and predicts market volatility. Harris has merely extended this argument and the proximity of this fictional world to our own is chilling.

Every detail resonates. The novel is as elegantly structured as one of the VIXAL-4 equations. The unexplained gift of the Darwin book and the break-in are the first of many increasingly dark intrusions into Hoffman's life, and they raise a classically satisfying literary puzzle: is someone framing him or is he mad? Is it all the work of the initial intruder or is even he a figment of Hoffman's imagination? He is after all, eerily similar to a photo in the Darwin book of an old man in a state of terror. The plot is exacerbated by VIXAL-4 taking increasing risks with less and less collateral. This comes to a head when the algorithm short-sells millions of shares in a budget airline moments before a horrendous plane crash. It is as if it knew of the impending disaster, or, worse, somehow caused it. Of course, the idea of a string of numbers being capable of "knowing" is the book's central paradox: the possibility of machine reasoning, Hoffman's obsession.

Set in the present day, it all unfolds against a backdrop of financial meltdown, the reportage of which has become a daily reality. "Bankers are not especially popular these days, even in Switzerland," says Leclerc, the ageing detective investigating his valedictory case, before telling Hoffman that after a lifetime serving in its police force, he can no longer afford to live in his native city.

Political subtext aside, nobody can write action sequences quite like Harris and The Fear Index is never less than filmic, direct and sensory. Here's Hoffman receiving what we later discover is a blow to the back of the head with a fire extinguisher: "Halfway across the marble floor [...] the house seemed to explode around him, the stairs tumbling, the floor tiles rising, the walls shooting away from him into the night." The sight of the sinister intruder sharpening the knives in his kitchen is brilliantly tense - as edge of the seat as any moviegoing experience. The suspense is maintained, at times, by as little as a clause, "At 12.08, according to the minutes, the meeting broke up", placing us in the role of the detective, piecing the tragedy together from the evidence; the sense of foreboding prevails.

This isn't to say The Fear Index eschews humour; it often arrives through the medium of Hugo, who, after a particularly successful deal, "was smiling so much the facial-recognition scanner failed to match his geometry to its database and he had to try a second time when he had composed himself." In a particularly deft flashback, Hugo at once explains to Hoffman the concept of the hedge fund and arouses his interest in his future wife by placing a hedged bet on the colour of her underwear.

At a time when thrillers and literary fiction tend to polarise between commercially successful and critically respectable, Robert Harris is like a latterday Graham Greene. He is a fine writer, imbuing his analogies with a sense of menace that only heightens their visual accuracy, as when "A tram rattled to a halt and opened its doors, spilling out passengers along its entire length, as if a knife had been passed from end to end". This quality animates even the stock characters; Leclerc is self-consciously dismissed by one character as "Inspector Clouseau", but it's hard to resist the charm of "His stomach flopping over his trouser belt" reminding Gabrielle "of one of Dali's melting watches". The entire novel is alive with this humanising wit.

Gabrielle herself is a contemporary artist, but unlike the vulgar caricature one is accustomed to encountering in fiction, her work is convincing. She works in multiple sheets of glass, etched with images taken from CT scans of her subjects, sometimes herself, creating eerie, floating 3D images. In fact her work is that of a real artist, Angela Palmer.

The most wrenching scene of the novel takes place at her exhibition opening in which a mysterious buyer (she suspects her husband) purchases every piece. The palpable humiliation reflects both the uneasy relationship between commerce and art, and the unavoidable crassness of extreme wealth: as Hugo says, "every day I'm getting richer but I'm not sure how". It's this insistence on accuracy and subtlety over received wisdom, down to the smallest detail, that sets Harris apart and which here makes for such a terrifying and complete denouement that ties up the loose ends while offering no easy answers.

 

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