Literary Inspiration: Too Big to Fail

Too Big Collage

So this manicure isn’t exactly subtle, but then again, neither was the wholesale grifting and complete abdication of fiduciary duty by the wankers of Wall Street and the ghouls of government that led to the 2008 collapse of the American financial system, the narrative retelling of which, Too Big to Fail by Aaron Ross Sorkin, is the inspiration for these nails.

Some months on, I’ve no idea why I chose this book to satisfy the theme of historical fiction in my friends’ reading challenge.  A decade removed from the events that shook the financial industry to its core (without un-mooring it, heavens no, because see above re: the title) it can now fairly be classified as a historical work, and the structure of the book (a fleshed-out retelling of the ultimately fruitless attempts by the best and, um, brightest of the industry to circumvent a financial atom bomb, culled from thousands of hours of journalistic work and reassembled into a spritely narrative) satisfies the fictional aspect, although the entire thing is still appallingly, maddeningly rooted in real life baddies doing bad things and being richly rewarded for it.  It was an incredibly frustrating read.

But also a GREAT read.  Presented as a sort of in-the-moment recounting of the events that immediately preceded the $700 billion bailout of the financial system by the American taxpayers, Sorkin introduces the key players and the massive web of conflicts of interest that should have disqualified every single one of them from participating in the PATRIOTIC RESCUE OF THE AMERICAN FINANCIAL SYSTEM, let alone give them a seat at the table where they were allowed to drive actual legislation and policy.  It was, after all, their greed, their wanton disregard for the rules and their disdainful, near-criminal immorality that led in large part – the largest part – to the collapse and subsequent bailout of the system.

After gathering the cast of fools (the description of these men – they’re nearly all men, 35 to 65 years of age – reads like WASP Mad Libs: Raised in (Vermont/New York City/Washington/Connecticut), educated at (Harvard/Yale), handed a cushy internship straight out of college by (grandfather/father/uncle/other male mentor), CEO within five years (of some big banking concern, doesn’t really matter which one, lining those three letters up behind the Esquires in their name is really all they care about), divorce within 10, lather, rinse, repeat with a new company, a new wife) Sorkin attempts to lay out the labyrinthine, grossly leveraged financial system as it existed in the mid-aughts.

It’s here that Sorkin really shows his work, breaking free from the buzzwords, jargon and purposefully obfuscating technical terms to expose a deeply flawed, virtually incomprehensible system that even the major players were loathe to understand.  Sorkin doesn’t concern himself too much with apportioning blame for the state of the industry pre-bailout; nobody knew what they were talking about, everyone quite willingly kept themselves in the dark, and no one was willing to comprehend of a future in which they weren’t making billions of golden parachute’d dollars hand over fist.  By the end of the book I had a slightly better understanding of the situation, but I’m still utterly clueless as to how things got to a state where the only reasonable course correction was to funnel a trillion dollars of taxpayer funds into the financial system to save those businesses (just a handful of ultra powerful banks, lenders and brokerage houses) deemed worthy.

The bulk of the book deals with the final frantic week leading up to the bailout in which the mettle of these titans of financial industry is put to the test when the feds summon them all to non-optional emergency meetings to save themselves SAVE THE AMERICAN FINANCIAL SYSTEM.  That this doesn’t go the way the government had hoped is hardly surprising – with virtually no oversight to the process (an actual directive from the secretary treasurer, himself a former executive of Goldman Sachs, was to gather all of the major players in one room and simply tell them to “just fix it”) the financial types just broke off into little groups to advocate for their own best interests, civic duties be damned.  Also because they had no effin’ clue what they were doing.

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Sorkin does a rather incredible job at not explicitly highlighting the many and varied shortcomings of the people involved in this process.  He actually doesn’t need to – the craven ghouls haunting this tale are quite visible, and Sorkin exposes them for what they are, no hyperbole necessary.  I did chuckle a few times at his flattering descriptions of these men – “a hale and hearty 65; boyish good looks that belied his 50 years; a penis the length and width of a fire log” (joking about that last one.)  It’s actually a very smart journalistic gambit – you’re a better bee for using honey rather than the stinger, and it can’t hurt to sweeten up your sources a bit, especially when they’re as fragile as these ones.

Which was my real, genuine aggravation with this entire situation – that “fixing” the entire global economy had been handed to a lot of weak, ludicrously privileged, upwardly failing asshats I wouldn’t trust to deposit my paycheque.  These were (and are – mergers may have changed the legal names of these businesses, but the players are the same) dim, shallow, crassly selfish people whose only real talent was smoke and mirrors.  I took a lot of schadenfreude-laced joy in the many passages of self-important CEOs being denied audience with other self-important CEOs, phone calls between self-impressed jerkoffs apparently being the REAL currency that powered the American financial system in the late 2000s.

So a frustrating read, no doubt, but frustration born entirely out of the situation Sorkin is writing about, as opposed to the writing itself.  Too Big to Fail is a wonderful book, ambitious in scope, but still limited to a recitation of the facts, and just the horrible facts.  It should be mandatory reading for anyone still curious about the events surrounding the bailout.  That goes double for the actual subject matters themselves; if ever there was a lot that needed educating. 😦

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Literary Inspiration: Christine

Christine Collage

I’m a huge Stephen King fan (Pet Sematary is my favourite novel, although I think I like his shorts best) but I haven’t read many of his earliest works – Carrie, Cujo, Firestarter, and until very recently, Christine.  Never been much of a car person, so I think I was a little frightened off by the subject matter.

But continuing to play along with my friends’ reading challenge, and with the theme of a library find or a gifted book calling out to me (indeed, Christine is a book I gifted to myself out of my condo’s library!) I thought it was time to pull Christine out of the garage and really see what she could do out on the open road.

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Without giving too much away regarding the plot of this 35-year-old novel, I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t strictly geared towards gearheads.  The events of the novel actually surround 17-year-old Arnie Cunningham.  Arnie’s smart, bright and funny, a hard worker and a great student, but he’s also tragically unpopular and run over roughshod by every single person in his life – his teachers, his overbearing mother and father, even his everydude best friend, Dennis.  That all changes the day he meets Christine, a rundown hunk of Plymouth junk rusting to death on a nasty old man’s lawn.  Arnie HAS to have her, won’t actually listen to a word of Dennis’s reasonable counsel regarding her poor condition, her vile, greedy owner or the total shit fit his parents are sure to have if he attempts to bring her home.  But bring her home he does, wildly overpaying for the red and white, 1958 Fury that will come to tear his tidy suburban life – as well as a good number of people! – to bits.

Thirty-five-year-old spoilers or no, we all know by now what Christine does – she’s the murder car!  I think it’s one of those terms that just might be part of the pop culture lexicon by now.  Even the back of the book jacket hammers home the elegantly horrific nightmare fuel that “Christine is no lady.  She is Stephen King’s ultimate, blackly evil vehicle of horror.”

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But Christine is about so much more than a homicidal car.  I think it’s really a story about growing up, whether you’re an unpopular 17-year-old dork, that dork’s parents or the wretched old bastard who sold the dork a murder car.  It’s a quest for independence, a love story, a tale of obsession.  I liked it, even if I think King whiffed the ending.  Good to know that literary quirk of his started early. 😉

If you’ve been following along with this Literary Inspiration series, you know I like to do a manicure to accompany whatever book I’ve recently finished reading.  Here I was inspired by Petunia, a hot pink sanitation truck (her name is spelled out in giant gothic letters across her potbellied side) who gives Christine a run for her money.  That’ll do, Petunia. 🙂

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Literary Inspiration: Duma Key

Duma Key Main Collage

Or Pet Sematary II: The Golden Years: But not Maine this time; Florida.  ‘Twas too weighty a title, however, so Duma Key it was. 😉

So for those curious as to how I’m doing on my friend Julie’s reading challenge – terribly! I am doing terribly. I’m not even 10 books through the 24-strong list of challenge themes, and that’s in part because I keep picking gigantic tomes like this one, another 700-page Stephen King bruiser that takes you from Minnesota to Florida and back again, with stops at Insanity Isle and It’s Raining Frogs Junction in between.  I think Duma Key nicely satisfies the “Cover art that draws you in” test Julie laid down for the challenge – I particularly like the partially submerged, holographic lettering of King’s name.

Duma Key Cover Collage

The basics: Duma Key is about – and told from the perspective of – 50-something Edgar Freemantle, construction company president, formerly of Minnesota, now of Duma Key, Florida. There are a lot of “formerlies” in Edgar’s life at the beginning of the novel – former job, former marriage, former body, the latter down one right arm following a gruesome workplace accident.  But it’s not so much the physical afflictions – the amputated arm, the pulverized ribs – that trouble Edgar’s mind, it’s Edgar’s mind itself, which, damaged just as badly as his physical body, turns toward anger, confusion and random, violent outbursts in the wake of his terrible accident.  Most of the people in Edgar’s life stand by him during this upsetting time, but many do not.

After his wife leaves him, one of Edgar’s therapists asks him if he ever enjoyed any kind of creative outlet as a younger man.  Edgar replies that before he devoted his life to the construction company that made him a millionaire many times over, he liked to draw, had even once entertained the notion of going to art school. Agreeing that art is an important part of both physical and mental therapies, the doctor suggests Edgar take up drawing once again, and maybe seek out a major change in location while he’s at it.

And so Edgar moves to Duma Key, Florida, a rather runty, overgrown spit of land clinging desperately to the Gulf Coast, taking up residence at a gigantic, rose-hued house-on-stilts he affectionately dubs Big Pink. Inspired by the gorgeously lurid Gulf sunsets, Edgar begins to paint.  At night the creeping tide makes the shells that build up beneath the house clatter together, and they sound like bones.  Or voices.

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And I won’t go any further than that, because to do so would ruin the Kingsian journey and that aggravatingly persistent – but still enjoyable – feeling that you, the reader, are being inexorably driven toward something you’re not entirely sure you want to discover. It actually reminded me very much of Pet Sematary in that way – another story of family, those we’re bound to by blood and those by choice, and the grim decisions we’re forced to make to preserve those bonds.  Also ghosts, the discovery of a late-in-life mentor type, middle-of-the-night visits from should-be-dead people, a sassy, prescient old person, and endless marches through claustrophobic underbrush.

Also a lot of Surrealism – of the artistic variety, although I think that’s a pretty apt descriptor for the entirety of Duma Key.  I definitely felt like my head had been messed with a trifle after I finished the book, a comfortably uncomfortable feeling that lets you know you’ve really discovered something special.  Very enjoyable, even if I “Whuuuuuuu?”‘d the ending hard.  Wouldn’t be a Stephen King novel if the final pages didn’t leave you deeply perplexed, I suppose.