Sunday, January 20, 2013

Romp through world of subprime morals

  • by: Peter Pierce
  • From: The Australian
  • January 19, 2013 

  • TO recent alarming and brilliant analyses of the global financial crisis we can now add Risk by New Zealand author CK Stead, who has celebrated entering his ninth decade with another accomplished addition to his long career.
The GFC was a series of events reckless in their preparation, disastrous once in motion. It has been chronicled with distinction by Michael Lewis (The Big Short, Boomerang) and in fact and fiction by John Lanchester (Whoops!, the novel Capital).
Stead's novel begins elsewhere and earlier, with a disaster on a local scale: "It was September 2002, and south-west France had been struck by storms and floods." By the time Risk concludes, Stead's amiable and fortunate hero Sam Nola, a corporate lawyer in London working for Interbank America, will have responded to shocks of war and economics (alike mismanaged) at the same time as his personal life undergoes radical and unexpected changes. One of life's accommodators, Sam survives them.
The prologue introduces him and Letty, "his recently acquired French daughter", who is the unsuspected result of an affair with a Frenchwoman when he was in Europe for the essential late 1970s expatriate experience and before he returned to New Zealand to the law, a new family and their respective duties.
Escaping the deluge, Sam and Letty take an AirEire flight from Nice to Luton, on a plane that "looked as though it might have been bought from the asset-stripped airline of a failed East African state". The aircraft lands safely in England but its passengers are abandoned in a cow-filled field by their suddenly enraged bus driver.
This is a hilarious beginning and a sign of the standard that Stead has set himself. Artfully he fills in the story of Sam's life - not chronologically, but in the sequence of recollection. Sam is of Croatian descent and immigrants from that country helped to establish the New Zealand wine industry. It is a place and family to which fatefully he returns. His marriage over, "two whole decades of his adult life had been lopped off", Sam has come back to London to start something that he never calls a new life but that nonetheless affords "a certain thin thread of exhilaration".
Consolations are at hand. There are old friends in North Oxford; the possibility of an affair with the enticingly named actress, Elvira Gamble; the deepening bonds with his "new" daughter (of course she was brought up a Catholic - "We're not Zulus or British").

The war in Iraq, and especially Tony Blair's prosecution of it, divides Sam's friends. The spectre of financial collapse - in the Argentinean manner - is confronted and denied with misguided British aplomb: "It can't happen here. The Government would step in." Reuben Leveson, who hired Sam at Interbank, sends him to a conference in Zagreb, where Sam disquietingly decides that "the sub-prime mortgage-market pie" is dodgy, "a game of pass the parcel".
There is a private commission from Reuben as well, which leads Sam to meet Hawkeye the Hungarian, AKA the banker Andre Kraznahorkai, who is keen to give him access to millions in a Credit Suisse account. In turn (as Stead thickens the plot), this involves Sam with Reuben's sister, Lady Ruth Vogel, with whom be becomes "more than friends".
Inventively, Stead gives us one vivid vignette after another. The cheekiest of them takes place in a first-class airline cabin where Blair is informed that "Walter Mitty's topped himself". That is, David Kelly, UN weapons inspector, has committed suicide after being pilloried for his scepticism about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Stead keeps injecting his narrative with fresh bursts of energy as though sensing that this long haul through the first decade of the century might flag. One strategy is an announcement that abruptly breaks narrative news. For instance, "It was early in May that Tom Roland's heart failed". Tom is a colleague of Sam's and a poet. The final poem the devil delivers him in a dream (with Stead's help) is one of the novel's most successful touches.
Meanwhile, Sam struggles with "the credit default swaps, the collateralised debt obligations", but has time for "a dazed salacious interlude, a lubricious romp", with a colleague from work.
"Time's winged chariot" is, however, about to carry them both away, or at least out of Interbank America. They are among the victims of 2008, which Stead christens (no doubt with his characters' wholehearted endorsement) "the year of the clusterf . . k".

Risk is playful in its narrative whims (Stead is surely old enough to please himself) and in disgusted earnest about the management of political and economic affairs. If there is one twist too many at the end, this is still a work of urbanity, intelligence and Stead's long-cultivated concern for his readers at home and across the world.

By CK Stead
Maclehose Press, 269pp, A$29.99 NZ$29.99

Peter Pierce edited the Cambridge History of Australian Literature. 

And earlier review by John McCrystal  in The New Zealand Listener

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