Last week I read Stephen Amidon, Human Capital. Ostensibly a novel about a hedge fund manager. The pace and plot are fun and easy, no challenge but then nothing else at all – I read through it all in a few days and it was fun. But then what? Tell me about hedge funds, use the language, spend time in these words that don’t actually have any meaning to me, use this language of finance and do something: give it meaning. But he never really gets into the hedge fund world, the complex stuff. And a week later, there’s nothing left. I don’t feel as though I read anything at all. (He also does this horrible thing where he lists off the bands that the teenagers are into, and the movies that the film society is discussing and it’s awful. It’s just namedropping, a hip crutch and it embarrassed me to read it, every time. And he kept doing it. The problem is that specific cultural artifacts have no fixed meaning – it shifts from person to person and over time. Show, don’t tell – just say “movie,” “local band,” and let me fill in the blank.) I really liked reading it but what a missed opportunity. ‘Hedge fund’ was nothing more than a headline rip, a cheap hook that had no bearing on the actual story and that leaves me feeling a bit cheated.
I remember my last two political science courses at SFU, both 300-level globalization courses. I did most of the readings but not for the subject – for the language. Most of these articles are covering very simple, basic concepts and most of them have vague conclusions. So I would sit down for an hour with Governance in a Globalising World or The Global Transformations Reader and just enjoy the sheer language of it all, sometimes even reading a sentence or two out loud. Over the past two decades the world has experienced problems with heavy transborder debt burdens, major disruptive swings in foreign exchange values, a perpetual rollercoaster in the securities markets of global financial centres, and a string of crashes among global derivatives players.
Players is a novel written by Don DeLillo in 1977. “It’s this system that we believe is their secret power… It all goes floating across that floor. Currents of invisible life. This is the centre of their existence. The electronic system. The waves and charges. The green numbers on the board… Not the bulk of all that money. The system itself, the current… ‘Financiers are more spiritually advanced than monks on an island.’ It was this secret of theirs that we wanted to destroy, this invisible power. It’s all in that system, bip-bip-bip-bip, the flow of electric current that unites moneys, plural, from all over the world.”
In Cosmopolis the hedge fund employs a Chief of Theory whose dialogue is taken right out of these PoliSci textbooks, new words and old words and the thrill is in the language itself. And reading Cosmopolis now, for just the second time, it fills in exactly what was missing in Human Capital: a sense of and perspective on language, in style and in subject. “These were three tiers of data running concurrently and swiftly about a hundred feet above the street. Financial news, stock prices, currency markets. The action was unflagging. The hellbent sprint of numbers and symbols, the fractions, decimals, stylized dollar signs, the streaming release of words, of multinational news, all to fleet to be absorbed.”
And now, in sequence, I am reading about rats – specifically, Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. It is a history of New York City as much as it is a story about rats and it is also a story of New York City in 2001, before and after the World Trade Centre collapsed. The epigraph of Cosmopolis is from a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, “Report from the Besieged City:” and a rat became the unit of currency.
This dude writing for Esquire suggests that Don DeLillo is better equipped than anyone to figure out this never-ending “underwater toxic event” in the Gulf of Mexico; not in the sense of James Cameron and Kevin Costner riding to the rescue but in the sense of simply figuring out how to name it all.