The first chapter of Aifric Campbell’s US debut, “On the Floor,” is the literary equivalent of a movie filmed with a hand-held camera. The action is choppy, it’s hard to get your bearings and you’re left with the uncomfortable sensation of having missed something important.
But the setup is clear — and, ultimately, hard to resist. Whip-smart 20-something Geri Molloy is an investment banker at Steiner’s, a fictional but realistically cutthroat firm based in London. It’s 1991, and the traders are bracing for the effects of the war looming in the Middle East. Geri’s boss dispatches her on a high-stakes reconnaissance mission to Hong Kong, where she will meet with Felix Mann, a Machiavellian hedge-fund manager and Steiner’s biggest client. Mann refuses to do business with anyone but Geri, and her future at the firm rests on the information she collects during this rendezvous. The stress is palpable as she tries to strike a balance between maintaining his trust and getting the results she needs for her team at home. Even finance-phobic readers will find themselves drawn into the intrigue and high-stakes wheeling and dealing.
“On the Floor” is a tense, highly stylized, sometimes funny/sometimes cruel novel about being an outsider. As one of the few women among the semi-Neanderthals in her office, Geri is well-qualified to co-author a “Rule Book for Wannabe Female Bankers,” including such gems such as “Never get period pains in the office. Adjust your contraceptive pill cycle so that you menstruate at weekends,” and “Always remember that two women standing together on a trading floor can only be gossiping; therefore treat all female colleagues with total contempt.”
A former managing director at Morgan Stanley, Campbell delivers a “Back to the Future” tour of a workplace long before Sheryl Sandberg was telling women how to lean in at the office. She also gives readers a window into the challenge of being Irish in England in the early 1990s. This dynamic of being “a Self as defined by the Other,” as she describes it, is a powerful metaphor for Geri’s untenable situation at Steiner’s.
But even when Geri is playing right into Mann’s greedy hands or pining for her former boyfriend Stephen, we know this young woman is a survivor. Not in the sassy, “Oh, snap!” way of so many fictional women who take on the chauvinists and beat them at their own game, but with a depth of self-awareness that makes you wonder what, exactly, forged her drive and ambition. This question is what elevates “On the Floor” from a “work novel” to a mystery — and even, at times, a thriller. Little by little, as Campbell lifts the curtain on Geri’s isolated girlhood and her strained relationship with her parents, we begin to understand what makes her both lonely and limber enough to endure the contortions demanded by Mann and this industry. Suddenly, it makes perfect sense that Geri’s primary relationship is with her dog, Rex.
While obsessively revisiting the implosion of her four-year relationship with Stephen, Geri wonders if maybe “there is a hidden code in the final act that will transform the story and reveal its true meaning.”
This is the case with “On the Floor”: The slow-motion, heartfelt denouement puts its early frantic, coldbloodedness in context. Once you’ve had a peek at the bigger picture, you might find it hard to resist the urge to return to the first chapter and begin again — this time knowing the price Geri has paid to be here.
Egan is a freelance writer and editor whose book reviews have appeared in the Star-Ledger of New Jersey and the New York Times.
ON THE FLOOR
By Aifric Campbell
Picador. 250 pp. $26