This entry is going into two very different directions.
1) I picked up THE SATURDAYS recently, a childhood favorite by Elizabeth Enright. In it, the Melendy siblings pool their allowances, which allows one child to have a spectacular outing. But many of the chapters center on discovering a story about someone they might have not otherwise thought had a story. The same device is used to even greater effect in Enright’s SPIDERWEB FOR TWO. In writing “The Girl in the Green Raincoat,” I knew I owed a debt to novels such as Ann Hood’s THE KNITTING CIRCLE. But I see now that Enright, too, showed me how to use this framing device.
2) The Internet has been abuzz lately with reaction to a New York Times piece, an excerpt from a staffer’s forthcoming book, about a “regular” guy who found himself drowning in debt. The reporter did not disclose in the book that his wife had filed for bankruptcy twice before. Atlantic blogger Megan McArdle dug up the facts and theorized that it changes the story substantially. I agree. But I am fascinated by the tone of the <a href=”http://meganmcardle.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/05/edmund_andrews_has_responded_t.php”>discussion</a>, which is judgmental on many fronts. The most disturbing comments, for me, are inferences about the couple’s marriage. Who wears the pants, that kind of thing.
Money makes us weird. Or, perhaps I should change that to: We are weird about money. And because of that, I think, there isn’t really enough about money in mainstream literary fiction, unless the central subject is money. (BRIGHTNESS FALLS, a pretty good overview of how LBOs worked, or didn’t work as the case may be; MONEY, by Martin Amis; TURN OF THE CENTURY, a Kurt Andersen novel that, IMHO, didn’t get its full due because, IIRC, people couldn’t stop talking about how much money he got paid for it.) To be sure, mainstream literary fiction is usually explicit about where people are on the socio-economic ladder; we can quickly divide the characters into categories such as: Poor, Scraping By, Comfortable, Rich and Cool, Rich and Awful. (There’s also a subcategory, Comfortable But Feels Deprived. I see that in a lot of novels based in academia, faculty wives sulking about having to drink jug wine and use cheap glassware.) But unless the plot hinges on balancing the checkbook, no one ever balances the checkbook.
Crime fiction does better by money, I think. (Not as well as MADAME BOVARY, of course. Flaubert totally gets money.) First, it often places money at the center of human folly. Think Marcus Sakey’s GOOD PEOPLE or Scott Smith’s A SIMPLE PLAN, the new George Pelecanos, THE WAY HOME. Secondly, crime fiction isn’t afraid to deal in dollars and cents, literal balance sheets.
Here’s Mildred Pierce, in the novel by that name, trying to stretch a dollar:
“Of the three dollars she got from Mrs. Whitley, and the nine she got from the other [baking] orders, she still had a few dollars left. So she walked down to the gas company office and paid the bill, carefully saving the receipt. Then she counted her money and stopped by a market, where she bought a chicken, a quarter pound of hot dogs, some vegetables and a quart of milk. The chicken, first baked, then creamed, then made into three neat croquettes, would provision her over the weekend. The hot dogs were a luxury. She disapproved of them on principle, but the children loved them, and she always tried to have some around, for bites between meals. The milk was a sacred duty. No matter how gritty things got, Mildred always managed to have money for Veda’s piano lessons, and for all the milk the children could drink.”
I imagine if that detail were part of a news story in these times, a lot of people would be second-guessing those piano lessons. Meanwhile, the fuller context of Mildred’s story is that her husband’s money has disappeared in the stock market crash and he’s left her to go live with a woman who has a small income of her own.
Yesterday, in the comments section on a previous entry, I banned a topic: Families with multiple children whose surname begins in G. (Actually, I banned all discussions of any family with more than seven children, but I won’t stick to that. I’m sure some day I’ll want to discuss THE FAMILY NOBODY WANTED, or <a href=”http://jezebel.com/5048781/cheaper-by-the-dozen-belles-on-their-toes-mother-knows-best
“>CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN</a>.) I was happily oblivious to the G family until a few weeks ago, when they began appearing on magazine covers. Somewhere along the way, I saw someone online commenting along these lines: “I came from a big family, we didn’t have any money, but back then people pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.”
Actually, people still do, but our reliance on this American myth isn’t very helpful. It suggests that escaping poverty is a function of character. Debt, too, is seen as an issue of character. The implicit message is that there is a clear line between WANTS and NEEDS. (Suze Orman said as much on Oprah’s show.) Confuse your WANTS with NEEDS and you are a bad person.
But guess what? No one needs a book, if you really break it down. So I’m not going to judge anyone’s wants as, well, wanting. I’m in the WANTS business, producing something about as commercial as a hand-whittled clothespin, only not as essential. (A simile stolen from MILDRED PIERCE). I don’t urge anyone to go into debt for hardcover books, and I’m glad that the library system provides an alternative to buying books. But while I can second guess the Times’ reporter’s decision not to make full disclosure about his family’s finances, I’m not going to pile on about how they got to be such a mess. Real estate is seductive. Which leads us to the memory portion: How many houses have you owned in your life? What was the single most terrifying financial transaction into which you ever entered, if not real estate?
I bought my first house in 1990 and, in interest of full disclosure, did not understand how a house could ever be worth less than someone paid for it. My interest rate, which I shopped for quite aggressively, was a then-fabulous 9.75 percent. The previous owners had financed at 12-plus percent.