Australian author Kate Jennings sets her short novel, Moral Hazard, in New York. My Text Classics edition states that Jennings moved to New York in 1979, married an artist and designer in 1987, but when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994, Jennings gave up her freelance work and began working as a corporate speechwriter. I didn’t read these details until after finishing the book, but this certainly explains why the novel feels like a memoir of a short period of the main character’s life.
This is 93-94, New York’s Wall Street before 9-11, before the dot-com bust, before the Madoff investment scandal, before the real estate madness that gripped America for the first part of the oughts. I’d like to think that we’ve all learned something about money and finances, but I know that we haven’t. As long as there is money, people will take risks, riding that theoretical elevator to wealth and success.
In Moral Hazard, Cath, our narrator, gives up her freelance writing job and takes a job as a speechwriter for the investment bank, Neidecker Benecke, “whose ethic was borrowed in equal parts from the Marines, the CIA, and Las Vegas.” It’s an unlikely job for someone who “disapproved of bankers on principle,” and who’d much rather be reading Sylvia Townsend Warner or Muriel Spark. But Cath needs money, so like many other people, she packs away her principles from 9-5 in exchange for a paycheck. Her husband, designer and collagist, Bailey, twenty-five years her senior, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and so this leaves Cath as the sole breadwinner, paying rent on an Upper East Side apartment, working and returning home to her rapidly disintegrating husband.
The plot follows two different paths–Cath’s care for her husband as his disease progresses and her job at Neidecker Benecke (“in the modern day equivalent of the court of Louis XVI,”) where she befriends Mike, the head of the risk-management unit, a man who’s fond of Frank O’Hara. This is a casual friendship with moments shared over cigarettes, and Cath asking questions, at first so that she better understand her job, and then, later, so that she can better understand Mike. Mike is a very intelligent man who understands the central paradox to the financial markets, and it’s driving him crazy.
Mike, though, was like a married man who falls in love with another woman and plots to kill his wife to gain freedom, when the obvious solution is to drive off down the road to another life.
There are two distinct worlds here: Cath’s dreary, surreal life in the corporate world, and her life with her husband. You come away from this book wondering how Cath kept her sanity. There’s a very definite corporate speak at Neidecker Benecke with exchanges that could very well be delivered by a dead pan Bill Murray as evidenced in a scene between Cath and her boss, Hanny:
“You can write, but you can’t handle complex arguments.”
Generous of him.
“Absolutely. You’re so right. Thank you for sharing that with me. My reasoning powers definitely need developing. I’ll work on it. I’ll work on it very hard,” I replied. Mike had taught me this trick. When someone says something preposterous, agree with them, even heighten the idiocy.
Cath initially tries to keep her husband at home, but as his disease progresses to diapers, temper tantrums and violence, she’s forced to place him in a home, and it’s here that her private misery becomes a matter for the American health system. Both Cath’s job at Neidecker Benecke and her husband’s continuing decline are madness in different forms. The madness of derivatives and the madness of Alzheimer’s–the corporate disease and the human decay.
“Once upon a time, it was commodities, then futures, now derivatives,” he’d opined, delicately shooting his cuffs. “It’s all structured finance. It’s all aimed at neutralizing risk by parceling it up, selling it to someone else.”
While this may sound all very depressing, author Kate Jennings manages to step outside her subject, looking with a wry, unsentimental eye at corporate eye and even Cath’s husband’s last months of life. Faced with corporate malfeasance and assisted suicide, Cath, who’s long since fallen down the rabbit hole, faces ‘moral hazard’ on both professional and personal fronts. Moral Hazard, by the way, has a very specific meaning in the world of finance (a rather ironic one, I’ll add) but the term has multiple instances of significance in the novel.
That first summer, after work, I took to wandering the aisles of Century 21, not shopping, only relieved to be where nothing was demanded of me. I was commuting, it seemed, between two forms of dementia, two circles of hell. Neither point nor meaning to Alzheimer’s, nor to corporate life, unless you counted the creation of shareholder’s value.
This is a lean, finely sculptured novel, crafted with twin strains of the surreal feeling of corporate life and the overwhelming melancholy of watching Bailey’s inevitable decline. Various corporate employees spring to life with venomous alacrity: “enthusiastic bigot,” Hanny and Horace, the unpopular yet powerful cipher “wreathed with gossip.” And on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the employees at the care home, hard-working caretakers with dreams of becoming middle class.