This Bleeding City
By Alex Preston
Faber £12.99, 304 pages
FT Bookshop price: £10.39
There have been several fine non-fiction books to address the nature and causes of the financial crisis of the last few years, but a paucity of effective novels to explore the issue. If, as Matthew Arnold said, the function of art is to hold up a mirror to society, then novelists have failed us during the financial maelstrom. Alex Preston, whose day job is global head of trading in the Carlyle Group’s leveraged finance division, is to be commended for offering us This Bleeding City, a novel that tells us a few warm emotional truths behind a cold news story, the human tale of how it can all go wrong.
Preston’s hero is Charlie Wales, a youthful outsider who enters alien worlds: university, finance, journalism, then finance again. Wales is offered the chance to lay his hands on big trophies: social prestige, love and material wealth – although, unhealthily, he seems to see these last two as conjoined twins, who can’t survive independently, and are together only for a short time.
Charlie is untouchable in many ways, and as a consequence difficult to find truly touching. He is a narcissist who tries to redeem the damage he does to others by offering them in return the benefit of his cognitive skills (his appreciation of Shakespeare, his way with words, his general knowingness). This endlessly self-forgiving, chillingly one-dimensional self-love requires constant affirmation in concrete expressions of love and respect from others.
At university, our hero is a lionised but poor artist, a bit like Charles Ryder from Brideshead Revisited, but with added cocaine and nookie. The chic French siren Vero dispenses sexual favours. But, when Vero later shares a London house with Charlie, she withholds sex. Her unfathomable reason is that he is unemployed.
So Charlie’s penis drives him to the City in search of money and further worship. A fit of moral rectitude sees him end up with the pretty young Jo, a former crack-den slut who has, rather improbably, become a charity worker. Sleeping with her affirms Charlie’s finer qualities. Unfortunately, their love (never stated as such by Charlie) is defeated by a combination of the hero’s intellectual vanity and the ancient hold that Vero has on him.
Charlie’s observation is acute, and we are giddily appalled by the self-destructive paths he follows. During a brief foray away from finance, Charlie gets a job in his friend Henry’s father’s media empire. There are echoes of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, of Salinger, and especially of Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, although the gay pointers are less explicit: a penchant for boyish girls, hero worship of the dominant Henry, an intense interest in male looks.
The angry rants to be found in recent works that deal with the financial crisis (such as the scatter-gun vitriol of Ben Elton’s Meltdown and the better-calibrated, angry-outsider narrative of Sebastian Faulks’s A Week In December) don’t tell the human story anywhere near as well as Preston does. But these established authors play safe by throwing rotten eggs at the system and everyone connected with it. Preston’s take is more nuanced, yet you tremble slightly for him: literary critics and the internet’s book-site vigilantes may not see past the money and the markets and dismiss this novel as an exercise in bourgeois self-pity, a kind of “Down and Out in Fulham [Charlie’s early London hangout] and Normandy” (Vero’s family home).
Though the book has a few flaws, it is enjoyable and worth reading for the narrative drive. Preston’s style is both spare and rich, brutal and deft. He conjures exquisitely desolated cityscapes, populated by hollowed-out citizens who feel like they’re escapees from an Edward Hopper painting. May he continue to shine a light on the giant, scary engine that is modern capitalism.
Martin Baker is the author of ‘Meltdown’ (Pan)