Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America

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A Year in Reading: Ed Champion (The 13 Most Underrated Books of 2010)

Critics who produce the same tired titles for these infernal end-of-the-year lists are as useless as austere accountants who refuse to fox trot on the dance floor.  They are stiff, unimaginative, uncultured, incurious, and, quite possibly, lousy in bed.  They are the literary equivalent of unadventurous tourists who cling to tired maps and who are hopeless with a Swiss Army knife.

The authors who are afforded predictable laurels are not to blame for this.  Don’t get me wrong.  These folks know how to cut the rug. Paul Murray (Skippy Dies), Yiyun Li (Gold Boy, Emerald Girl), Tom McCarthy (C), Cynthia Ozick (Foreign Bodies), David Rakoff (Half Empty), Adam Ross (Mr. Peanut), David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), Matt Taibbi (Griftopia), Paul Auster (Sunset Park) and Marilynne Robinson (Absence of Mind) hardly need any help from me.  Chances are that you’re already familiar with these fine titles.  As for some “masterpieces,” well, you don’t really need me to tell you that the emperor wears no clothes.

But who needs such unpleasantness!  2010 was a great year in books!  This was a hard list to assemble!  There were only two books this year that almost made me consider suicide!

The following list represents an effort to identify books that were completely marginalized, modestly outside the radar, or needlessly condemened by certain hatchet wielders who lacked the grace and/or the intelligence to embrace a peculiar magic.

Allison Amend, Stations West – Jewish cowboys, vagabonds, 19th century multiculturalism, and an elaborate storyline covering a good fifty years.  It isn’t often when a novelist crams so much enjoyable story into a taut 250 page container.  In addition to the book’s telling but unobtrusive historical details (“inexpensive porcelain dishes” delicately placed inside a glass case for a quiet dignity, the newspapers taking so long to deliver the news, et al.), Amend is very careful in giving the reader much to infer.  Garfield, for example, is an indolent trainhopper who becomes something of a politco.  The reasons behind this unlikely ascent are skillfully delivered: “As the country entered a new century, so did Garfield.  He was tired of the raised eyebrows, the barely polite refusals, tired of fighting just to get the same food or service everyone else did.  Just because he had a Jewish surname.”  Yet remarkably, this book has received scant notice from the book reviewing outlets.  Perhaps because it’s too readable to be true.

Toby Ball, The Vaults –  “So he leaned against a thick timber that had at one time served as a post for a jetty and with his collar up and hat down inhaled the sweet, moist smoke and felt the cold become a more-interesting-than-uncomfortable sensation on his skin.”  That’s probably the type of hyperspecific pulp prose style that’s going to infuriate the Millions readership.  The time has come to loosen up.  From a worldbuilding standpoint, why shouldn’t we know the origin point of the post?  Why shouldn’t we know how someone faces the cold or contends with competing dermal sensations?  These may seem flippant questions.  But if we can accept this level of detail in William Gibson or Nicholson Baker, then surely we can offer some wiggle room for an engaging novel that somehow manages to squeeze such intriguing sentences into brisk chapters (did I mention that this book moves?) for a high-octane, multiple character story that involves a parallel dystopian America in the 1930s.

Robin Black, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This – Forget Wells Tower. Robin Black’s marvelous short story collection, which was needlessly ignored by The New York Times and The Washington Post, is very much on the level: far truer to human existence than anything written by that lumbering Young Turk. These subtle and mature stories avoid belabored metaphors and neat conclusions, revealing numerous nuances about the human condition in its careful use of understated language   Black knows “the heavy lifting when the conversation sags.”  In “A Country Where You Once Lived,” cybersex involves “gasps from behind a curtain of shimmering color blocks.” The striking possibility that humans can surrender to their baser instincts is suggested by “Harriet Elliott”’s narrator sleeping in a bedroom filled with stuffed animals.  Some stories are interrupted by terrible accidents, often of the car crashing variety.  But these stories don’t just tell the truth; like much great literature, they make a quiet case for perseverance.

Paula Bomer, Baby – These darkly hilarious tales are somewhat reminiscent of Kate Christensen, Iris Owens, and Maggie Estep.  Yet Bomer is more willing to investigate that uncomfortable territory between extreme behavior and insanity. In a Bomer story, you’ll find a perverse passage (“She didn’t know what to do. But that was how it was. Babies screamed, you tried all sorts of things, and sometimes, they just kept screaming anyway.”) that makes you ponder why the character hasn’t been arrested for outright neglect.  (What “things” did this mother try?  And why is her partner so complicit?)   Unfortunately, mainstream publishers don’t have the stones to publish such material anymore.  Fortunately, Word Riot Press is there to cover the gap.

Jane Brox, Brilliant – In The Journal of American History, Jill Lepore unfurled a Bummer Bertha, suggesting that microhistories, by way of auctorial passion, have little to offer the serious minded.  Such a distressingly humorless attitude can be handily answered by Jane Brox’s fascinating book, emerging from a straightforward examination of how artificial light has permanently altered human existence.  Before reading this book, I had no idea how difficult it was for astronomers to locate dark patches of the sky.  I knew that the end of the curfew had augmented nightlife, but I hadn’t fully considered how swiftly gaslight had superceded candlelight, making such items as theatrical makeup more garish.  The common electricity that we now take for granted is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Imagine that you’re a farmer in the 1930s who has recently received rural electrification.  Now imagine that you’re given the sudden ability to see beyond the circumference of the kitchen table and how this alters your everyday family life.  Brox’s book is loaded with such examples.  And I include it on this list, with the proviso that you may become as intoxicated by the subject matter as I was: so much so  that you will find yourself flocking to the library, seeking the many sources and pondering the vantage point of someone illuminated in 1849.

Andrew Ervin, Extraordinary Renditions – Ervin’s debut novel is one of two Hungary-themed books on this list. I don’t know what it is about Hungary, but maybe the Budapest Tourist Office will explain this obsession to me one day. Extraordinary Renditions was one of those novels (or three interconnected novellas; pick your category!)  that made it into my backpack at BEA (I have no recollection of acquiring it; so perhaps it was a plant!) and which I very much enjoyed.    Like the Amend and Bomer books, it’s very much the kind of book you don’t see published by a major house anymore.  No coverage in The New York Times, nothing in The Washington Post, some coverage in some newspapers.  See a trend?  Anyway, this book’s about national identity and expatriates running around Hungary.  It’s funny, alarming, evocative, and, very often with its internal description, defies its apparent historical setting.  It echoes political texts while presenting political folly (and youthful folly).  Said folly even extends to the naivete of a celebrated composer of some years, who shuffles the Budapest streets like a young man.

James Hynes, Next – Knowing of my needless difficulties in obtaining review copies from Little Brown, a good friend placed this novel in my hands and urged me to read it.  Not only did I finish this tome in one sitting, but I plunged into Hynes’s backlist, discovering the wonderfully twisted book, Kings of Infinite Space.  I don’t say this lightly, but James Hynes is very much the real deal.  He is as worthy a literary satirist as Sam Lipsyte, Lydia Millet, George Saunders, Jess Walter, and countless others.  But you won’t see him in The New Yorker anytime soon.  And that is because, from his homebase in Austin, he understands the human condition too well.  Hynes knows that what occurs on your way to a job interview is often just as important as whether or not you get the job.  The result here is a novel that is both hilarious and revealingly introspective.

Charlie Huston, Sleepless – The prolific and highly enjoyable Charlie Huston has given us some gleefully brutal moments, vampirism afflicting the marginalized, and comic capers involving a crime scene cleanup. But Sleepless signaled an unexpected gravitas and several ambitious steps forward. With its plot set in the daringly recent future (six months from now), with 10% of the population suffering from permanent insomnia and addicted to a massively multiplayer game called Chasm Tide, Huston portrays an increasingly more persuasive world in which life is dictated by the cultural dregs that remain. Where Gary Shteyngart offered little more than expansive (yet enjoyable) detachment with his dystopian epic, Super Sad True Love Story, Huston wants to get at the manner people carry on.  Does it come from fatherhood?  Some larger sense of responsibility?  The ability to withstand horrific torture or loved ones disappearing?  Manhood’s certainly part of the game, but the chessboard’s much larger.  And Huston only gets better.

Julie Orringer, The Invisible Bridge – This sweeping epic was, at 624 pages, perhaps too much for some critics to take in.  One snarky scribbler condemned this book for “feel[ing] birfurcated” without bothering to cite a reason.  (Perhaps the events of the Holocaust?  Known to unsettle populations and disorder romantic harmony?  Just a few wild stabs in the dark.)  Such foolish snaps don’t even begin to approximate what Orringer’s magnificent debut novel does.  Using beautiful language to depict the near disappearance of an idyllic paradise (“He entered through a floriated wrought-iron gate between two stern figures carved in stone, and crossed a sculpture garden packed with perfect marble specimens of kore and kouros, straight from his art history textbook, staring into the distance with empty almond-shaped eyes.”), this powerful novel is equally unflinching in ilustrating how its colorful cast of characters (including an acrobatic family member) “might grow up without the gravity…without the sense of tragedy that seemed to hang in the air like the brown dust of bituminous coal.”  This is a book that approaches unspeakable barbarism with a rare ebullience, feeling neither inappropriate nor unconsidered.  It is a call for hope and small acts of resistance.  It may be set in the past, but this is very much a novel for our times.

Gary Rivlin, Broke USA – Many flocked to Matt Taibbi’s excellent Griftopia as the high finance expose of the year.  But Gary Rivlin’s understated look at predatory lending is also worth a look.  The book collects perspectives from every end of the spectrum.  There’s Chris Browning, the former manager of a Check ‘n’ Go in Ohio, who was fired because she was required by the higher ups to upsell and lend money to anybody who walked through the door; Martin Eakes, the man behind the Center for Responsible Lending offering a more reasonable APR through his credit union.  And then there’s the sordid history of the rapacious corporations that built up their businesses with the refund anticipation loan, disguising the hidden costs of tax preparation.  Like Howard Karger’s Shortchanged and John Lanchester’s IOU, Rivlin’s book is vital in understanding some of this nation’s most underreported issues.

Matthew Sharpe, You Were Wrong – Lips are “two fat garden slugs making love.”  There is “no worse violation of a soul than hope.” We’re told that “tones can be tough for everyone and were extratough for Karl, who was lately an avid pupil in the urgent remedial project of tones.”  Sometimes the reader is subtly addressed.  Sometimes not.  There is a curious precision to the description in the way the “midafternoon sunbeam entered the house through a bedroom window to the right.”  These are just some of the many nonsequitur joys (or planned pleasures?) to be found within Matthew Sharpe’s extremely goofy and very enjoyable novel, which seems to be channeling Flann O’Brien’s madcap spirit.

Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas’s subtle efforts to examine the relationship  between narrative and life – to say nothing of the omega point – were drastically misunderstood by those who expected another The End of Mr. Y.  For this masterful novel — defiantly plotless after the success of Thomas’s previous pageturners — is very much interested in how narrative must rely upon contrivances in order to present life. Beyond this, it dares to portray Meg Carpenter, an intelligent woman whose identity is occluded by the driftless mumbling of her flaccid partner.  By offering a protagonist brazenly defiant of reader expectations, Thomas subtly channels Henry James’s Isabel Archer (with Meg, like Isabel, even running into some money), while also demonstrating that the quest for the new often leads to the same old cycles.

Donald E. Westlake, Memory – This lost novel in a drawer, published by Hard Case Crime after four decades of dutiful dust collection, revealed that  Westlake was far more than a mystery master.  The book’s taut and fatalistic narrative arguably aligns itself with Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.  And had Westlake pursued more solitary outcasts like protagonist Paul Cole, he may very well have pursued John Banville’s trajectory (ironically, with Banville finding his alter ego, Benjamin Black, in the end).  Which isn’t to take away from Westlake’s Dortmunder books or Westlake’s wonderful Parker novels (written under Richard Stark) – all very deserving of praise.  Memory confirms that “inferior” genres must be reconsidered by the seemingly discriminating.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

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Matt Taibbi’s Class Warfare is Truthy and Depressing

In his new book, Griftopia, Matt Taibbi tries to portray America as a thieve’s paradise, where foreign and domestic moneyed interests fleece the rest of us in the open and we are powerless to resist.  Taibbi covers politics and, more recently, the financial crisis for Rolling Stone, and Griftopia is primarily a compilation of his recent feature stories.  It’s an entertaining but ultimately frustrating and unsatisfying read, long on adjectives and invective but sorely lacking depth of analysis or reporting.  Ultimately, Taibbi undermines himself: his assertions of fact, even regarding core points, often are colored past reality and occasionally are simply, provably wrong, discrediting the wild-eyed conclusions he reaches based on them.

Prior to the financial crisis, some of Taibbi’s best-known work, collected in previous books, involved politics and campaigns.  This work, in tone as much as subject matter, implicitly invokes that of Hunter S. Thompson, who famously covered politics for Rolling Stone during the Nixon years, although Taibbi’s book on the 2004 campaign, Spanking the Donkey, pales in comparison to Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, probably the high point of Thompson’s career.  Thompson’s stories often were filled with foul-mouthed, fractured and impossibly weird or vile allegations regarding its subjects, expanding or exploding reality to reflect some otherwise-inaccessible greater Truth.  There doesn’t seem to be any greater Truth beyond the paranoia of Taibbi’s furious language, but in these Glenn Beck and Stephen Colbert days, what does it matter?  Fear sells.

The emotional core of the book lies in a rant that closes a chapter describing the creation and progression of the mortgage crisis:

At the tail end of all this frantic lying, cheating, and scamming on all sides, … the final result is that we all ended up picking up the tab, subsidizing all this crime and dishonesty and pessimism as a matter of national policy.

We paid for this instead of a generation of health insurance, or an alternative energy grid, or a brand-new system of roads and highways. With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, we could not only have bought and paid off every single subprime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country — and still have had enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one.

But we didn’t do that, and we didn’t spend the money on anything else useful, either. Why? For a very good reason. Because we’re no good any more at building bridges and highways or coming up with brilliant innovations in energy or medicine. We’re shit now at finishing massive public works projects or launching brilliant fairy-tale public policy ventures like the moon landing.

What are we good at? Robbing what’s left. When it comes to that, we Americans have no peer.

Well, if he’s right, then America is truly Fucked.  Time to hit the road, bub.  Luckily for us, however, Taibbi is dead wrong about the $13 trillion figure, and, as a result, America may not be hopeless after all.

Sure, it’s been reported that the total potential cost of the bailouts is $12.8 trillion, true, but the crucial word there is “potential.”  $12.8 trillion is the potential total cost if every dollar the government pledged or loaned were actually paid out and never paid back.

But that’s not what’s happening.  Much of the money loaned already has been repaid, and on some of the constituent “bailouts,” the government actually may make a profit.  And, likewise, much of the money used to guarantee assets will never be tapped.  This is a good thing for America.  And it’s also a distinction that a professional reporter who has been knee-deep in the financial crisis should have recognized before proclaiming the moral bankruptcy of the country.  It would be a devastating passage if it weren’t fundamentally untrue.

Look, I agree with Taibbi, at least in spirit, on some issues he raises, but if you’re going to be caustic and depressing and a brutal buzzkill I think you have a responsibility to make sure your facts are correct, especially a fact that forms the crux of both the chapter it ends and of the central depressing accusations of the entire book.  And because the subjects Taibbi covers – securitized mortgage instruments, the commodity markets, etc., — are hyper-complex, I had trouble putting any faith in Taibbi’s understanding and descriptions of the details once I noticed that he whiffed on a few of those that I already understood.

Taibbi carries his populist flag throughout the book, and in the final chapter acknowledges proudly that class warfare is one of his goals while asserting that those who panned his Goldman Sachs article were with Them in this great battle, and not Us, claiming that the criticisms of his piece amounted to nothing more than a defense of “class privilege.”  Like so much else in Griftopia, this is fun and entertaining, sure, but lazy.  Had Taibbi’s article been about “class privilege” and seriously wrestled with the structure and institutions of the American economy that led to the problems he identified, it explicitly or implicitly would have suggested solutions.  Instead, Taibbi aims for the fattened ducks operating the levers of power rather than the levers themselves: he seems quite proud, for example, of publicly calling Goldman chief Lloyd Blankfein a “motherfucker.”

Griftopia portrays America as a ghetto being looted by evil drug lords, but a simpler explanation of the financial crisis, to me at least, seems to be the economics of laziness and arrogance.  Laziness in entering a trade that is working (here, seemingly safe mortgage bonds) not because it makes sense but because it is easy and arrogance in assuming that you will know precisely when to get out.  And the evidence from the last bubble (and the tech bubble before that) seems to be that as good as these Wall Street folks may have been at riding a massive wave to shore, few knew how to pull off before the wave broke.

On Griftopia’s back cover, Taibbi’s publishers praise him via pull quote as supplanting Michael Lewis as the “King Writer of Wall Street.”  Not so fast.  Lewis’s most recent book, The Big Short, walks the reader through the last few years of economic crisis with a level head and enough detail to allow a reader to understand how decisions that almost brought down the world could have seemed so common sense at the time to those who made them.  Lewis’s book handles the complexity of the financial world with both grace and precision.  Taibbi’s approach is closer to a drunken swagger: seemingly smooth, but not necessarily precise.

To be fair, Griftopia and The Big Short serve different audiences.  Taibbi’s book will be of greatest utility to those who know exactly what they think but aren’t quite sure why.  Lewis’s book well serves everyone else.

Bonus Link: Stockholm Syndrome: Two Books on High Finance

Tuesday New Release Day

Already on shelves ahead of its “official” release date is Mark Twain’s long embargoed Autobiography. Also new this week are The Petting Zoo, a posthumously published novel by punk poet Jim Carroll; a new collection of Selected Stories from master of the form William Trevor; Cynthia Ozick’s “retelling” of of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, Foreign Bodies; and, in time for election day today, Matt Taibbi’s collection of biting political journalism, Griftopia.

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