Set in Bolivia amid the uncertainty of the weeks after Evo Morales’ election, Peter Mountford’s surprising 2011 debut novel A Young Man’s Guide To Late Capitalism was, among other things, a book about money, in which the most intimate details of people’s lives are shaped by the forces and flows of the global economy. His new book, The Dismal Science, published this spring, is both satire and elegy: tracing a few weeks in the life of a mildly disaffected World Bank economist, the novel reveals the fragility at the heart of most lives and enterprises. Mountford spoke to Chris Kraus on the phone from his home in Seattle.
Chris Kraus The protagonist of your new book, the newly resigned World Bank economist Vincenzo D’Orsi, appears for just a few seconds towards the end of A Young Man’s Guide, at Evo Morales’ victory party. D’Orsi has traveled all the way to Bolivia from the US to give an inexplicably disjointed, bumbling speech. Had you always planned to expand that moment into a novel?
Peter Mountford Initially, the two books were one – I wrote portions of what became the second book well before I wrote the majority of the first. But they didn’t work as one book. It was trying too hard. They’re just about different things, so I cleaved them apart.
CK In the new book, D’Orsi defies the Bush administration’s suggestion, passed through an annoying frat-boy-type colleague, to suspend World Bank aid to Bolivia. The gesture’s made on a whim, but it affects thousands. Both your books show the arbitrariness of macro-events that affect people’s lives. Did you consider working in one of these spheres – NGOs, economics – before you became a writer?
PM In fact, I got a degree in international affairs and economics, and then took a job at a shady right-wing think tank. I was a token liberal: they paid me almost nothing, but gave me a nice title – adjunct fellow – which made it possible for me to publish op-eds in nice newspapers. They let me write whatever I wanted, more or less, as I was only there to give the illusion of balance. It was exhilarating, in a way. I went to Ecuador for almost two years and wrote about their devastated economy. I was just a kid, of course. My previous job had been flipping burgers at an on-campus diner, yet here I was meeting with the Ecuadorian finance minister, asking him to let me see one of three copies of a highly classified report analysing the Ecuadorian economy. Surreal. But after a couple of years, I felt too much of a fraud and had to quit the job – the whole business. I’d always loved literature – that was by far my favourite thing in life – but here I was acting the part of this suit-wearing economist.
CK The Dismal Science reminds me in some ways of another wonderful novel I read recently, Matthew Specktor’s American Dream Machine, also published by Tin House. It gives this very intimate, detailed account of agenting and the Hollywood film industry at the end of the 20th century. Specktor’s father worked as an agent throughout his life, and I understand your father worked as an economist as well.
PM Yes, my dad was a lifelong economist at the IMF. That’s why I’m able to describe their cafeteria so accurately. I read Matthew’s book last summer and it’s incredible, so revealing of that community, but, yeah, he and I are clearly both working out our father issues. It’s embarrassing, but I personally can’t seem to find the energy to write all the way to the end of a book unless there’s quite a lot of fire between the lines, and that often means cannibalising or, to put it more nicely, reimagining some very important event or person in my life.
CK My favourite novels are the ones where not all that much is invented.
PM Ditto. If it’s totally outside your life, then you must in some way dig in very deep with the characters, or it’s all groaning contrivance. That’s why I can’t seem to read David Mitchell. I know people love him, but it all seems mind-bogglingly inauthentic to me.
CK There’s a funny scene in Dismal Science where this yobbo from Peru in a bad jacket has the temerity to question the “values” of gas-drilling in the Amazon basin, and its effect on the Indians. Vincenzo responds with an apology for capitalism, “the best option” available, which has brought medicine and modernity to these places. A classic, unresolvable debate. Both your books challenge an older leftist belief in causalities with a more contemporary sense of bottomless complication. Does that mean all action is futile – do you see any way out?
PM I love bottomless complication – if there’s moral certainty in a novel, it’s going to be dull, a 250-page op-ed. Milan Kundera said something to the effect of “the novel’s spirit is complexity. It says: Things aren’t as simple as they seem.” That’s one of the great things about economics as fodder for narrative – everything in economics is a trade-off, just like life. If something seems simple, you’re not thinking about it deeply enough, yet.
CK Oh, I agree – but often awareness of “complication” just affirms the natural will towards passivity. It’s … all … too … complicated. I have the greatest respect for people aware of the trade-offs and un-clarity, who are able to act anyway. You know?
PM Yes, not cool to be some version of Passivityman, the un-super superhero in Deborah Eisenberg’s story “Twilight of the Superheroes.”
CK Why do you think work is so absent from most contemporary fiction?
PM It’s bizarre to me that people in “serious” fiction don’t seem to have jobs, or it’s beside the point, whereas most people in real life spend a rather large amount of their time working. That Joshua Ferris novel that takes place in an office was seen as this astonishing foray into some rarefied zone – like, how on earth did he think of such a thing?
CK Yeah, like on TV and in movies, the lives of the people in most novels are mysteriously funded, giving them plenty of time to deal with their feelings.
PM In reality, workplaces are full of drama and conflict, the stakes are often quite urgent – and it’s the world we live in. My suspicion is that, in part, readers really just want escape, even in their so-called “serious” literature, and that’s what drives books away from the grim reality of the workplace. Even some harrowing novel of London being blitzed in 1940 will have people smoking cigarettes brazenly, and men in bowler hats; it’ll be a porthole out of your humdrum existence to a romantic something or other. Also, a lot of writers are intimidated by workplaces: they don’t necessarily understand what the job entails. If your character’s going to be a lawyer, you’re going to have to delve deeply into that world to understand what that would be like. Finally, workplaces usually have a lot to do with money, that’s kind of the point – even if it’s not the point, it is the point – and that is unattractive to people because money is so deeply taboo, especially among well-educated middle-class types who read books.
CK One of the criticisms of my last book, Summer of Hate, was that it read like a ledger, listing specific dollar amounts – which is something people without money think about constantly. Choire Sicha does this to an almost pataphysical degree in his book about debt, Very Recent History.
PM That’s funny about the ledger accusation, which could also be said of The House of Mirth, or most Victorian literature. Thackeray, Dickens, all those characters were obsessed with money. I’ve heard it said that Jane Austen wrote about money and sex, basically: should you choose the man who makes you blush because he’s dashing, or the man who makes you blush because he’s got £500 a year for life? Of course, she couldn’t really talk about the sex. Now, it’s perfectly fine to write about sex. But money’s iffy. We’ve traded taboos. I don’t know when it happened, but it did. Virginia Woolf said a woman has to have “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. Of course, the room is made available through money, so what she really needs is just money. But the title of the essay edits out the money, it’s too unseemly. Instead, it’s a room of one’s own. §