A Week in December
By Sebastian Faulks
Hutchinson £18.99, 352 pages
FT Bookshop price: £15.19
The financial crisis and its fallout will spawn hundreds of bad novels. Some will be written by former bankers with time on their hands. One enterprising writer actually advertised in the FT last year, inviting City and Wall Street rejects to pay for guidance in fictionalising their tawdry tales. Surely if that raw material were presented to a real writer, such as Sebastian Faulks, with a record of transforming historical fact into engaging, moving fiction (Birdsong, Charlotte Gray), the result could be terrific.
But A Week in December – that’s December 2007, as the pressure built in the credit markets – falls short. At times it reads like a mixture of Martin Amis’s London Fields and Ian McEwan’s Saturday. But Faulks is neither as brutally funny as Amis, nor as subtle as McEwan. He sums up a self- and money-obsessed society ably. And the structure is familiar – multiple storylines that come together in the closing pages. This is signposted at the start by the guest list for a London dinner party. The summary of dramatis personae provides a reference as their stories interweave but is an early signal that a clunky exposition will mar this book.
Two plots underpin the novel – actual plots: one to bring down the world’s banking system, the other to bomb London. Unfortunately, this is an excuse for characters to regurgitate explanations of the subprime mortgage debacle or to engage in lengthy debates about the Koran and Islamist terrorism.
Gabriel Northwood, the sympathetic, intellectual barrister who is a central “anti-money” character, puts his finger on the novel’s flaw. Arguing for books over virtual reality, he says: “They explain the real world ... they’re based on what’s real, but with the boring bits stripped out. In good books anyway.”
Elsewhere, Faulks overcompensates for these lectures. The novel is pitted with strained allusions to real events and brands: the Café Bravo book award, YourPlace social networking site, the ailing Allied Royal Bank. By the time John Veals, the hedge fund manager who tries to enrich himself by humbling Allied Royal Bank, refers to Goldbag, Moregain, Bare Stern and Lemon Brothers, it’s hard to know whether he’s making a lame joke, or Faulks is.
This may be intentional. The book’s central idea is that we have grown confused about the boundaries between the actual and the virtual. So Faulks sets up the real economy against the financial one; gritty day-to-day work (teaching, driving a Tube train) versus virtual reality; Koranic injunctions versus actual moral dilemmas; and, yes, imaginative fiction versus real life. Not a bad idea. The problem is that Faulks is better at illustrating it through subtle, human interactions – finely drawn in the barrister’s life and loves, for instance – than through cartoonish rebranding of consumer society and high finance.
Take Veals. That a hedge fund manager should carry the fictional can for precipitating the crisis is, I suppose, inevitable. But Faulks has created a cardboard monster. It’s plausible that Veals is amoral and asocial – some hedgies are pretty odd. Veals is ahuman. He doesn’t read, can’t swim, won’t smile, let alone laugh (except, and this doesn’t give much away, at the end). Bond baddies have more dimensions, as Faulks-Fleming would know.
It obviously serves the world view behind the novel to portray money men as “functionally autistic”, in the words of Veals’ wife, but it makes for a predictable read.
Faulks does manipulate his cut-out characters to a satisfying conclusion. The dinner party where real and virtual worlds collide is a fine set-piece. But the real financial crisis was so deep, its impact so great, and some of its characters and events so vivid – as much recent non-fiction suggests. It deserves a more precise, more savage satire than this.
Andrew Hill is the FT’s City editor and editor of the Lombard column