Writers are always thinking about money. If you get a bunch of novelists in one place for a panel discussion or a workshop retreat, the first three common points of discussion they'll find are what they're getting paid, what they're paying their agents, and real estate. So it follows that, after sex, money comes up more than any other subject (even religion) in novels and memoirs. From Cervantes to Dickens to Updike, money concerns have greased plots and inspired characters to action, although the money talk is usually cloaked in the slightly more polite guise of "class." Actual salary figures or prices are almost always daintily stepped over, as though they're something excrementitious, to be avoided at all costs. As our economy still sits in shambles around us, though, something strange has happened: Our novelists are looking closely at money and reporting back about what they find.
Local author Maria Semple's debut novel, This One Is Mine (released in paperback last month), is a dark comedy that uses money as a blunt object to batter its characters—and its readers—into an uncomfortable awareness of class issues. A former television writer named Violet, now a housewife and mother in Los Angeles, doesn't have anything to do with her days (the house and child are tended by a nanny), so instead she shops, getting involved in complicated emotional connections with salespeople and retail organizations. She buys ridiculously expensive chocolates to thank salesmen at ridiculously expensive retail stores for calling her and letting her know that the latest ridiculously expensive style of hat is in. Even though she's not really interested, she buys the hat, too.
Violet meets a poor bass player named Teddy Reyes. Teddy revels in his own skankiness: He seems prideful when discussing his hepatitis C, his long history of drug and alcohol abuse, and his casual racism. Violet is enthralled by Teddy's covetousness. She pays for his car repair, and they begin seducing each other by clearly delineating the line between have and have-not, like this exchange, after Teddy realizes Violet was a Deadhead:
"I feel less guilty accepting your money knowing you have such shitty taste in music."
"I'll call our car service to pick you up," she said. "The mechanic will take care of you."
"Do you think one day I'll ever say, Our car service?"
"Most likely no."
"Man, as hippie chicks go, you have one hell of a mean streak."
"The best ones always do."
While Violet goes slumming, her sister-in-law, Sally, is trying to marry her way up from financial destitution, with hilarious, awkward results. These class transgressions (the poor fucking the rich for money, the rich fucking the poor for kicks) inspire much of the humor of the book—a meditation on how strippers aren't that different from "yoga chicks," a sequence that could be the most ineptly one-sided seduction scene in modern literature, and Violet's stymied attempt to run away from home, with nanny and child in tow, to a luxury hotel—but the class struggles ultimately end in tragedy. A nightmarish wedding reception (class always comes together at fancy weddings; somebody has to pour the champagne) leads to a heartbreaking conclusion.
Mine was originally published in 2008, which means that it was written before the financial collapse. Its honesty was a precursor to the flood that will come. Due to the glacial speed of the publishing industry, we are just now beginning to see novels that have been written since the beginning of the Great Recession.
Gabrielle Zevin's latest novel, The Hole We're In, isn't a class comedy; it's a financial tragedy about the Pomeroys, a normal American family in almost every way—unabashedly Christian, floating on a sea of credit, living in a house that's way too expensive for them. They're not tithing to their church because they're too busy swapping credit lines to keep up appearances.
It's not spoiling anything to say that the credit manipulation goes sour, and the family's 18-year-old daughter, Patsy, is forced to join the army and go to Iraq rather than face the annihilation of her credit. On her return, she gets a job at a "Slickmart," where the owner tries to manipulate Patsy's veteran status to create a patriotic aura for the store. (Zevin's one major misstep is to have much of the second act take place in a large and independently owned store; the rest of the book is so open and blunt about finances and the American economy that to not have the Slickmart scenes take place in a Wal-Mart feels like a too-coy attempt at masquerade and a failed attempt at satire.)
Hole is a story of financial lives, and it makes plain that the financial life of a family is just as important as, if not more important than, its religious life. Even more surprising: It's just as compelling as a novel that is primarily concerned with the emotional life of an American family. Hole feels current, like fresh journalism, a mirror held to modern times.
Novelist Meghan Daum takes the idea of writing about money a step further with her new memoir, Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House. It's an autobiography told in real estate, Daum's story as related by the shabby apartments and enormous Nebraska farmhouses she's rented. Further, it's a love story between Daum and the house that she eventually buys (a house that is literally falling apart in her hands in the first few pages of the book). She doesn't pull any punches: We are told exactly what she spent for rent and mortgage along the way, the prices of all the houses she coveted and tried to buy before winding up in the house in which she currently lives, and the approximate amount of the debt that drives her from New York City ($80,000).
It's a gutsy move to write a tell-all-style recovery memoir about housing and money. Americans still get twitchy when you speak about exact figures (especially large exact figures), and Daum's obsession coincides with our real-estate boom, bubble, and bust almost exactly, so the discomfort is more personal than schadenfreudey. House lingers too long in some places—in a strange twist for a memoir, you want Daum to quit relating her fuzzy recollections about an aggravating roommate and move on to her witty observations about the next complicated rental situation—but Daum is a clear-eyed observer, and her candor can elicit the occasional shocked gasp from a reader.
These new, money-minded books are a long way from the conspicuous consumption of Reagan-era novels by Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis. Like real-life dilettantes, those books clothed themselves in the brands and trappings of wealth, but they never deigned to do anything so gauche as mention the price on the tag; the author just assumed that the reader would understand the social meaning behind the label. Unlike Ellis and McInerney, today's authors are explicit about the costs of items, and they're even clearer about the prices we have to pay. Now that the messy processes of credit and bankruptcy and mortgages have been incorporated into our literature in frank detail, maybe a much-needed honest national discussion about money can really begin.
Meghan Daum reads Tues May 25, Elliott Bay Book Company, 7 pm, free.