By Lisa Zeidner
Saturday, July 10, 2010; C03
By Martha McPhee
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 346 pp. $25
The conceit of Martha McPhee's fourth novel, "Dear Money," is simple and alluring: Take an artsy, cash-poor Manhattan couple. Allow them to befriend a mega-rich Wall Street couple. Then switch 'em up. Will Chapman, an old-money financial type, quits his job to write fiction. And India Palmer, a mid-list novelist weary of living hand-to-mouth with her sculptor-husband, quits writing fiction to take a high-powered job as a bond trader.
India is actually hired on a bet, as in the old Eddie Murphy vehicle "Trading Places": A legendary trader brags to the head of his investment firm that, in 18 months, he can teach the clueless novelist to penetrate the secrets of the market. "You're a storyteller -- that's why I wanted you," the fittingly named Win (private plane, sailboat, ski lodge) assures India (credit card debt). "Most people are driven by consensus, but . . . you're going to be reading, perceiving the larger story, and that's why we're going to win this bet."
India isn't a fish out of water; she's a fish tossed into the shark tank. It's 2004, and the mortgage-backed securities that she's learning to trade will eventually bring down the economy. "My world, down here among the masses, had never collided with the intricacies of high finance," India admits, but, as predicted, she's a quick study. Soon she's able to understand how "the restructuring of the mortgage pools came [with] an explosion of other mortgage-backed security products -- PACs and TACs and Z bonds and IOs and POs and floating-rate bonds and stripped MBS bonds and countless other derivative products that only the creators truly understood and that the politicians had allowed to become deregulated."
McPhee does a competent job of explaining what a bond trader actually does, but the material proves pretty dry. In fairness, it's hard to make poetry out of the stock market (though another recent novel that addresses the financial crisis, Jess Walter's "The Financial Lives of the Poets," does exactly that). Still, India Palmer is meant to have a particularly penetrating outsiders' view of Wall Street -- an artist's clarity of vision -- and McPhee doesn't deliver it. McPhee did her homework, but it still feels like homework.
Two other recent novels -- Jonathan Dee's "The Privileges" and Adam Haslett's "Union Atlantic" -- consider the moral compass of the Wall Street type, the secret soul of the filthy rich. Not a bad subject, in the era of Madoff. As a narrator, India is refreshingly frank in admitting that jealousy is her main emotion. She craves her rich friends' picturesque lives -- their beach houses and fancy tables at benefits. Chatty and confiding, she reveals the price of her dress ($775), the exact amount in her Vanguard account ($1,927.58), and the nationality of her masseuse (Korean). Unfortunately, apart from the jealousy, she doesn't let us much into her psyche.
While India claims to be crazy about her husband, she barely pays any attention to him. He doesn't so much as pout when she suddenly starts working 60-hour weeks. Her two girls -- whose private-school tuition was her primary motivation for ditching the artistic dream -- are ciphers, not to mention the least demanding children in the history of civilization. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too.
Of course, McPhee isn't aiming for strict realism. After all, "Dear Money" is a fourth novel about a fourth novelist who quits writing novels to be a trader. McPhee herself, though offered training by a real-life bond trader, has obviously chosen to stick with fiction. But this satire implies that the differences between the novelist and the money man are not quite as great as you might think.
Zeidner's last novel was "Layover." She directs the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden.