Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Review: The Way We Live Now

I did not enjoy The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. Don't get me wrong--I read the whole thing, enjoy discussing it with my friends, and was curious to see how things turned out for some of the main characters. My disappointment is deeper and more substantial. I don't think that Trollope understands how the economy of the 1870s works. As a result, the book is shallow and opaque where it should be insightful and illuminating. I hope that this novel would be newly relevant in our troubled economic times. I was disappointed.

The action of the novel revolves around Augustus Melmotte, a foreign and social-climbing financier. He gets involved in floating stock in a trans-Mexican railway, tried to marry off his daughter to a titled Englishman, and generally runs all sorts of financial games. This is all well and good, but Trollope never gives us the details on exactly how these financial dealings go down. There is no discussion of the London stock market, of how banking and loans and credit worked, of the rules of the system could be bended or utilized and broken for gain. There are some hints, but no details. The inclusion of these wonkish details would have resulted in a much stronger novel.

I think that Trollope did not really know these details. Also, he did not really care. The title refers not to the complex workings of a financial system that allows a select few to reap imense profits from a speculative bubble and play lose with the rules for mortgaging property to further increase their position. This is a Victorian novel--the title refers to the social rules of the time, and the changing way people act towards money and relationships.

Even in terms of relationships and action the novel falls flat. Surprisingly, Trollope throws out major plot points seemingly at random. Instead of showing us an action as it happens, Trollope seemingly invents past events as needed. Events crucial to the plot (such as the supposed forgery) are referenced after the fact, instead of being included in the narrative while they were occurring. I don't know if this is poor style or if Trollope was just making it up as he went along. But it is not Good Writing.

Like many novels from the time, The Way We Live Now offers some interesting insights into the societal and mental norms of the time. The depiction of Americans is interesting. As are the conflicting feelings about Romantic Love vs a purely transactional marriage expressed by several of the characters. Sir Felix was annoying, but the indulged frat-boy type is not a character we usually hear about in Victorian times. Much can be written about these ideas, but such thoughts are not novel to Trollope, nor are they particularly well illustrated. The relevant thing for today's readers is the depiction of finance and the effects of speculation in 1870s England.

Maybe I have been reading too much about credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, leveraged investments, balance sheets, massive bonuses, socialized risk with privatized profits, and the politics of the bailout. Still, a novel about the social consequences of our most recent economic bubble and resulting destabilization would have to engage with these concepts in a realistic and meaningful way--both to be realistic, and to provide future readers a rooted sense of time and place and circumstance.

I am not demanding that novelists be technocrats, just that they be conversant in the underlying basis about which they write. I contend that a fully fleshed out structural picture would add depth and realism to the societal, moral, and emotional intricacies of the underlying story the writer is attempting to tell. Trollope's failure to do this is the main reason I did not like this novel.

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