My review of Martha McPhee‘s new novel, Dear Money, is in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The element of the book I was most struck by, and one I wish I’d had more space to discuss, is McPhee’s skill at describing the push and pull between art and commerce, the way money both bolsters and corrodes India, her heroine. McPhee has India write exquisitely about what she gains when she becomes a successful mortgage trader, but also understands how her character’s success chips away at her. As I put it in the review, “McPhee’s prose has a subtle edge to it: She luxuriates in describing the things India obsesses over, and those deep descriptions are part of the novel’s charm. All the while, though, McPhee is signaling how fleeting it all is.”
India is a novelist who’s tired of scraping together enough money between her teaching, her well-received-but-weak-selling books, and her husband’s erratic art commissions to live well in New York City. It’s a tale of old-fashioned greed, but India’s greed has a more literary affect than most such stories. She keeps a tally of writers, past and present, who have done better than her, and that fixation starts to play havoc with the novelistic part of India’s brain, the one attuned to subtlety. Early on, just as her frustrations about money begin to overwhelm her, she teaches a passage from An American Tragedy in which poor Clyde Griffiths is browbeaten into buying an expensive coat for his girlfriend, Hortense. She winds up getting it, thanks to a mix of flirtation and threat, and those chapters are an essay on how willingly people degrade themselves for the sake of a bauble. But India sees it differently:
For twenty pages she schemes and manipulates and bribes, coming up with strategies until the coat is hers—twenty riveting pages that pursue a coat.
The things about a writer is that want is part of the job description. Without want, a writer is nothing. A writer must want to sit alone at a desk for days on end. A writer must close out the world and wait. The reward is the chuckle, the quiet laugh that only the writer hears alone at her desk. She is laughing at her own work, her own imagination nailing a particular phrase because she knows, as one just knows some things, that the phrase, the scene, the story will make others laugh. Who among us, no matter her trade, has not made something bigger, at some point simply by virtue of sticking with it? She must want this even while know that few others will care.
That’s part of what I meant by the subtle edge in McPhee’s writing. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with India’s perspective on writing in the paragraph above. But it’s a perspective run through a prism of greed—it presents India as a writer who can talk artfully about craft but who identifies not with a novel’s protagonist, but with his predator.
At the risk of overgeneralizing, novels about high finance tend not to dwell on this stuff—they spend less time on how their Masters of the Universe got where they were than on the trappings of where they are. Think of Sherman McCoy’s $1,800 British suit and $48,000 Mercedes in The Bonfire of the Vanities, or the array of entrees, toiletries, and accessories that Patrick Bateman describes in absurd detail in American Psycho. The interesting thing about Dear Money is how well McPhee inhabits the process of becoming such a person, from the devious streak that India displays as a teenager to the way her focus shifts toward houses and clothes as she grows more talented as a trader. At her most craven, she turns fiction into something to trade on: She steals the plot of an obscure novel to give her background a little extra pathos during her first meeting with the trading firm’s chief. And the value of art soon shifts depending on her fortunes: At the her firm, it becomes reduced to things hung on walls, and she looks at her former competitiveness with other writers as an amusement. She was once consumed with jealousy when a banker friend passed along his manuscript of a well-written novel, but when the book is finally published, she’s rich, and all she can notice is the release party: “champagne and canapes and men in tuxedos with gloved hands serving with silver trays, a mixture of artists and bankers who blended well, having ascended to the same plateau.”
All of which is to say that McPhee has an eye for the way art diminishes in the face of cash—and how art regains its esteem when money means less. Dear Money ends just before the mortgage bubble burst, and it’s not giving too much away to say that India becomes, let’s say, more reflective about the value of art and its relationship with money in the final pages. But Dear Money isn’t a didactic morality tale about money-bad-art-good, but a story about what happens when either lays too much of a claim on one’s identity. In the final pages, India calls herself “the rough stone for another’s design and love.” That’s a pretty good way to making a living, apparently, but an unsustainable way to live.