April 2011

Raphaela Weissman

features

An Interview with Peter Mountford

Ten years ago, when Peter Mountford was fresh out of college and working as the “token liberal” at a think tank where he was assigned to live in Ecuador and report on the economy, he may not have been consciously researching for his first novel, which is about a young man working for a similarly unsavory organization and reporting on the economy in Bolivia. I was not surprised to learn that he'd had been in his protagonist's shoes; it explains the striking honesty with which he describes this unsavoriness, particularly in regard to the allure of money. Mountford's effort paid off: the result, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, is a much-needed addition to the modern canon; as he points out, fiction about the mega-wealthy are conspicuously absent from an era when we spend so much time fixated on that particular population. It's also a gripping read -- an adventure story for the twenty-first century. Originally from Washington, D.C., Peter Mountford now lives in Seattle.


How did this book come about?

After college, I spent a couple years working for this shady right-wing think tank as one of their token liberals. I made eight bucks an hour, but thanks to some vigorous title inflation I was referred to as an “adjunct fellow” on my later bylines. My previous job had been flipping burgers. Thanks to the title, my work ended up in Christian Science Monitor and other lofty venues that would have ignored me if they’d known I was a 22-year-old fry cook. I knew a very pretty girl in Ecuador and wanted to get back in touch with her, so I took the job to Quito and wrote for the think tank about Ecuador’s ailing economy for a year-plus. After that I quit. Back in the US, I started writing fiction because it seemed like the only sensible thing to do.

I was not one of those savants you hear about, who barf out an immaculate novel on their first attempt. I wrote a ton of awful stuff for five years and then got an MFA at the University of Washington, and that’s when my fiction finally started improving, pretty palpably and abruptly. By the time I graduated, at age 30, in 2006, I’d started winning some awards and getting published, and things kind of moved along, at last.

I’ve long sought ways of exploring my experiences with finance and economics with my writing. Because not only was I a hack economist, but my father worked for the IMF for ages, and my sister is an economist for the OECD. This book was, basically, an attempt to synthesize my fascination with money and international economics with my love of vivid, lyrical, and character-driven fiction.

The allure of money is a major theme. You write about it in straightforward terms: Gabriel has no illusions about his unpretentious, almost pure desire to be rich. He sees greed as the “most uniformly maligned” of the seven deadly sins, and likens himself to Hernán Cortéz, who is thought to have said, “I and my companions have a disease of the heart, which only gold can cure.”

There are a couple possible explanations for Gabriel’s own “disease of the heart”: he tells one character that he wants to make enough money to be able to enjoy life without worrying about work; another is the need for money in Gabriel’s home of New York, where “demonstrations, overt and implied, of the advantages of having heaps of money were so common that they ceased to register.”

How did you conceptualize Gabriel’s relationship with money? Do you view it differently now than when you started the book?

Initially, I thought Gabriel would turn his selfish ploy around and set his sights on destroying the hedge fund from the inside -- he’d lay waste to them and emerge morally pristine, if financially diminished. And we would all be proud of him. We’d be relieved. I guess that’s usually how it goes with Faust stories: the misguided hero sees the error of his ways, at the end of the second act, and he… blah blah.

But then I tried to imagine myself, in my mid-20s, presented with the opportunity to make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and travel the globe, in style, and my job would be to write mini-essays about the political situations I encountered as I traveled. And I’d probably be able to retire young, or at least be forever free of that fear of true financial hardship. And I thought about how I’d really view that opportunity. Maybe I’m very base, but I’d never have the balls to reject it. And as far as blowing up such a place from the inside -- only in Disney movies are people so altruistic.

Now, I know that having a strong hunger for money is, as character traits go, generally deemed unseemly. It’s down there with abusing adorable pets, I think. In contemporary literary fiction, an unhealthy fascination with money is normally presented as comically base, perhaps in an effort to distance such loathsome appetites from the author. But if you read Jude the Obscure, or much of the most celebrated Victorian literature, money is the centerpiece of the characters’ existence -- it’s their primary motivation, their primary obstacle. Jude counts his money constantly.

Still, finance itself, especially the lives of those obsessed with finance, or those who work in finance, remains startlingly absent from the canon of recent fiction -- and this is, of course, especially weird considering our recent history. Films and visual art and music -- everyone else is grappling with this stuff, but we’re still celebrating these Updike-esque tales of well-off suburbanites and their neuroses, their family reunions and infidelities and conflicted feelings about the Bible, or whatever. Some of the writing is experimental, some is realistic, but so little of it demonstrates any recognition of the world we actually live in.

In terms of viewing Gabriel’s relationship with money differently now than when I started -- no, I don’t. What Cortéz said is important because he identifies the source of his sickness in his heart. He suffers from and for his hunger. It’s not abstract, and it’s not trite.

A few months ago, Bernie Madoff’s son put his toddler to sleep -- it was just the two of them in the apartment that night -- and then went through to the next room and tried to hang himself. But his homemade wire noose broke. So, he picked himself up off the floor and scoured the apartment until he found a stronger implement, something that would hold his weight better, but the second one broke, too. Finally, he found a sturdy enough object, a dog leash. And that’s how he killed himself: broken nooses scattered around the apartment, his child sleeping 20 feet away. It’s like slapstick, almost, except that it’s breathtakingly horrific if you can bear to really think about it.

Gabriel is half-white and half-Latino; how do you see the significance of his race and ethnicity? Do you think his situation in Bolivia would have been different if he were white, or not white at all?

Gabriel is amphibious, as he puts it, as a result of him being bilingual and ethnically vague. This trait is central to the book, because he sort of tries to use this, his position in limbo, to have his cake and eat it, too. He adopts personae consciously and deliberately as part of a strategy to manipulate people, even those he truly loves. But he’s not always very good at this manipulation, at first he’s quite clumsy about it, actually.

Even his name, Gabriel, goes Anglophone or Latinate, depending on how you pronounce it. It’s innocuous in either culture, if he wants it that way, or he can use it to make a deliberate statement about how he identifies himself, or how he wants to be identified by that particular person. In Bolivia, he wants to be one of the white journalists, but he also wants to fit in with his Bolivian girlfriend’s family. Finally, because of how he handles himself, it’s hard to do either. Instead of being a person multiplied, he’s bisected, divided.

So, yes, his situation in Bolivia would have absolutely been different if he were fully white, or fully non-white. It’s hard to imagine what his experience would have been like if he’s occupied a different hued skin. In a way, he’s perfectly positioned -- ethnically, and otherwise -- for his ploy. In another way he couldn’t be positioned worse.

There’s a tangible suspense to this book: Gabriel is perched atop a delicate tower of lies as soon as he arrives in Bolivia, which only continues to grow as he meets more people and becomes more involved in his assignment. One wrong move on his part, and everything could collapse. I imagine that writing Gabriel’s situation must have required careful maneuvering, almost a reenactment of Gabriel’s own restrictions in completing his assignment. How did you manage to move the story forward while working within those restrictions, and continue to build suspense at the same time?

Yeah, you’re right that I had to kind of act it out, and repeatedly, in my head. There were times when it got quite difficult. I also consulted with a phenomenal international securities lawyer, Andrea Corcoran, who helped me fix some errors of fact, and my extraordinary editor Adrienne Brodeur caught some very subtle and delicately balanced plot inconsistencies -- things I had to spend quite a while thinking about before I even comprehended her meaning.

In terms of the graft he commits at the finale, a version of that fell into place early. So I knew that I was working toward that, which helped write the preceding scenes. Still, it was a bit of a logic game assembling the book. That logic game itself seemed appropriate, considering what happens, and the kind of person that Gabriel is.

Gabriel encounters physical danger in Bolivia; you write, “the shadow of death was implied, somehow, in the beggars’ diseased eyes, and in the vintage equipment at the clinic; it was there, too, in a lurid old bus’s shaky rear wheel, and in the lack of expiration dates on perishable food.” His own encounter is especially jarring because, while he is fascinated with the imminent fear of death, he also considers himself immune from it. Gabriel says he’s fallen in love with Bolivia; as an American who is so fond of material comforts and safety, do you think he could ever become a Bolivian, or would that love disappear without the context of his money and his job?

I think he could absolutely become a Bolivian, in a way. Definitely. He could get used to what frightens him and then it would not be a problem.

And that’s what’s most painful about his story, for me, that his sacrifice is so unnecessary -- because if he just stayed in La Paz, his anxiety, his terror of the Third World mayhem he encounters, that would all subside, eventually. That fear is itself a symptom, one of the major symptoms, of how deeply embedded he is within the American or Western view. You know, that he pines after warnings on fireworks, expiration dates on meat, and other safety structures that are so ubiquitous in rich countries, but generally absent in poor countries. It’s an illusion of safety, of course, but is so convincing, too. I have a baby and we follow, religiously, this complex series of instructions about babyproofing the house, about what we can feed her. Last time I was in Bolivia, I saw people weaving through traffic with toddlers -- no helmet! -- on their mopeds.

This is all part of the insidiousness of our hunger for money -- that money seems, by implication, not just to offer greater purchasing power, but also more fundamental powers, even superpowers -- to the point of giving protection or at least a reprieve from death, itself.

You’ve heard about those rich people who hire someone to put their brains on dry ice for the next hundred years, just in case some scientist figures out how to salvage their consciousness. Already, money buys immortality, or at least indulges the dream of immortality wholly. No wonder people sing lovingly of what they’ll do when they’re a billionaire on our radio stations.

Political beliefs, financial success and emotional happiness are at odds with each other in this book. Characters make explicit decisions to favor one over the other. Do you see the book as a kind of allegory about the perils of investing too much, or too little, in one of these areas?

I love that reading. Monomania is the problem, rather than greed or whatever. The blunt reading of the book heroizes his girlfriend Lenka and demonizes him, because she’s not greedy, per se, but really they’re not nearly so different as we’d like to imagine. His goal, ostensibly, is money, and hers is the success of this politician Evo Morales, but the way it shakes out, they’re both the same animal, or they’re playing the same game in the same way. By the end, they’ve each been hardened and they’re playing at the top of their game -- that is, they’ve been subjugated to their own ambitions and their monomanias.

One character tells Gabriel, “You are worse than you think you are.” Do you agree? In the end, is Gabriel a bad guy, or is he a good guy trapped in a bad guy’s job?

No, he’s not a bad guy, at all, but he’s also not a good guy. That kind of simple moral clarity doesn’t illuminate the world, I fear. I wish it did. That kind of straightforwardness would be wonderful. But from what I’ve seen, real life is too savage and arbitrary to let us have good guys and bad guys. There are bad behaviors, of course, and Gabriel does a lot of bad things. Some of them he does unknowingly, some he does hoping that it’ll all blow over without hurting anyone, some he does aware that it might hurt people, but not horribly. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone.

And by the time that guy says that to him, Gabriel has no illusions. Really, by that point, he knows exactly what he’s done. But the action is underway -- the consequences and the rewards of his behavior are unfolding, and there’s nothing he can do to stop them, even if he wanted to.

What are you working on next?

A novel called Demolition, I’m almost done with a draft. It’s set in the same fictional time and space as A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism and tells of this middle-aged Italian named Vincenzo D’Orsi, who’s a minor character in A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism. Vincenzo starts off the book as a vice president in charge of Latin America for the World Bank, but then torpedoes his career very publicly, causing a giant scandal. Afterward, he has to try to rebuild his life, but he’s a very impulsive and weirdly self-destructive person. It’s another book that investigates the decision-making process, and the comically flawed architecture of people’s strategy-making designs, such as they are. It’s also very much about the illusory nature of identity, how such a fundamental construct can be dismantled. It’s been a lot of fun to write.