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The 2008 Financial Crisis in Literature & Culture

I am looking for examples of literary treatment of our current financial crisis. I’ve always liked the notion of “treatments.” Joyce’s “treatment” of The Odyssey. O’Brien’s treatment of Vietnam. The various treatments of 9/11 (from Falling Man to Saturday to Netherland to A Gate at the Stairs to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, etc.) Or even general thematic “treatment” of fathers & sons or of the journey narrative or of star-crossed lovers. Or treatment of that moment in the heroic narrative when the hero balks at pursuing his own destiny… Everything in a way is a treatment since we’ll perpetually telling the same stories over and over again.

That’s why new material, such as the Great Recession, intrigues me. But on the current financial quagmire, particularly the 2008 mortgage-security crisis, I haven’t found much.

There are, though, two fine treatments out there. First, there is J.C. Chandor’s Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay-nominated Margin Call, an excellent, Shakespearean approach to the misdeeds and eventual collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. The script uses no names (no “Lehman Brothers”) and no hard finance math. Rather, its emphasis is on character: the Darwinian, impeccably-dressed capitalist played convincingly by Jeremy Irons battles the company soldier with a conscience played humbly and gracefully by Kevin Spacey. Naturally, in the script, Chandor and his literary impulse moralize the story, making the major players face the consequences of their actions. We watch them play out all their greed and guilt. (Perhaps, most crucially, in a way that we never saw happen in real life.)

Then there’s DeLillo’s performance piece-like “Hammer and Sickle” from his 2011 short story collection The Angel Esmeralda. Here we have Jerold Bradway in a minimum security prison for crimes only vaguely referred to—he “ran a company for a man who acquired companies. Information got passed back and forth. Money changed hands.” Meanwhile, in a George Saunders-like move, Jerold’s two daughters broadcast a financial news show for kids. The whole thing is choreographed by his ex-wife who may be turning the old screw on poor Jerold. In this story, DeLillo focuses his lens on the incomprehensibility of the financial system. The kid’s show works as a metaphor: in terms of the extent of our knowledge of global economics, we are all children. In this way, watching two girls make performance art out of our ignorance and confusion and anxiety makes perfect sense.

Here they riff on Dubai’s influence on the market:

“The word is Dubai.”
“This debt-ridden city-state is asking banks to grant six months’ freedom from debt repayments.”
“Dubai,” Laurie said.
“The cost of insuring Dubai’s debt against default has increased one, two, three, four times.”
“Do we know what that means?”
“That means the Dow Jones Industrial Average is down, down, down.”

The girls, Kate and Laurie, hold their audience—both the felons and us, the readers—in thrall. But perhaps DeLillo’s real fantasy here is that actual children would watch such a show so that they might become more financially literate. The show is rife with a kind of who’s-on-first banter of the I-don’t-know, you-don’t-know reality of our collective financial ignorance. The tone is at once jokey and ominous: “‘What is credit default swap? What is sovereign default? What is special-purpose entity?’ ‘We don’t know. Do you know? Do you care?’” So these are the names we need to know. These are DeLillo’s new aglets and grommets, the names of the boot parts from Underworld that Father Paulus so wanted Nick Shay to know: credit default swap, sovereign debt, special-purpose entity, fat-finger trade, naked short sale, etc.

Anyhow, if Kate and Laurie are right, this stuff is prime stuff, Revelations-type material.

 “This could be bad,” Kate said.
“How bad?”
“Very bad.”
“How bad?”
“End-of-the-world bad.”

Who else is out there writing fiction about the crisis? What have you read or seen? I’m sure there’s lots I’ve missed…

  • Paul Griffin writes fiction, book reviews and literary criticism. His work has appeared or will soon appear in Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Brooklyn Rail, The Common Review, Open Letters Monthly, Publisher's Weekly, and the NY Press, among other places. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and daughter.

3 thoughts on “The 2008 Financial Crisis in Literature & Culture

  1. Paul, excellent question, & I’m afraid my initial answer won’t be quite what you’re looking for. Still, I must point out that William Gaddis’ uproarious & tragic masterwork from 1975, JR, moves towards a collapse very much like what we suffered under Bush II, & fueled by just the same sort of childish ignorance of the consequences, in pursuit of numbers for their own sake. Like most great novels, Gaddis’ rises to prophecy.

    That said, everyone ought to run out & read Jess Walter’s FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS, 2009, a work of terrific poignance for all its hilarity, & bristling w/ insight into the ever-icier gamesmanship of the big-money players.

  2. Thanks, John. Yes, of course, JR. It’s on my to-read list. Thank you also for the Jess Walter recommendation. I’m actually putting together a mini-class on the subject (including many non-fiction titles), so every suggestion is a huge help.

    1. You’re welcome. Come to think, earlier this year there was a more soapy commercial thing called THE DARLINGS, I believe that was it. A novel written by a woman who used to be pretty high up at Goldman-Sachs. Wealthy Manhattan family loses it all, or almost? Haven’t read it; just saw that it got a number of newspaper reviews.

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