March 2011

Raphaela Weissman

fiction

A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism by Peter Mountford

Peter Mountford’s debut novel, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, provides refreshing insight into the seemingly clear-cut stories of unchecked corporate greed which have become ubiquitous in recent headlines. Mountford’s portrayal of Gabriel de Boya, a young hedge fund lackey who is seduced by the ethically sticky world of Big Finance, brings a much-needed human element to the pervasive theme of big-business avarice.

Gabriel is on assignment in La Paz, posing as a political journalist as he scouts for Calloway, a ruthless New York hedge fund. In exchange for sniffing out information about the newly-elected progressive President Evo Morales’s plans for oil distribution, Gabriel gets $19,500 a month. The impressive salary also comes at the expense of his having to lie to the Bolivians he meets about his true purposes, in order to survive at the company. At the outset of the novel, the stakes are clear, but as Gabriel becomes more involved in his assignment, the risks become less foreseeable, the ethics stickier. Love, inevitably, enters and complicates things, when Gabriel becomes involved with Lenka, Evo’s press secretary: the woman he cares for most is the person to whom revealing his secret would be most dangerous.

The very premise of A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism is a house of cards; we are aware of this as we clench our teeth and wait for Gabriel to make a false move, blow his cover, and the disaster which will inevitably follow. As the situation grows more immediate and more dire, so, too, do the emotional stakes; the climax approaches with the urgency of a political thriller, but their results resonate with the weight of a tragedy. This is Mountford’s triumph: he has created a commentary on contemporary economics that is as moving and genuine as it is biting and satirical.

As if the logistical demands of Gabriel’s assignment weren’t complicated enough, he must constantly wrestle with the morality of his chosen path. He is sworn to secrecy, for example, about the circumstances surrounding the fund’s unusually high profits following September 11, 2001, when his boss, fund manager Priya Singh, began setting up hedges against the subsequent crash as soon as the first plane hit. Gabriel does not quite share Priya’s indifference to the unfortunate intersection of moral irresponsibility and the business of making money, but he is awed by its power; his interpretation of such aggressive ambition is that “entire nations could, it turned out, be brought to their knee by the collective whim of a few dozen math whizzes in monochromatic cubicles in lower Manhattan.”

Gabriel’s complexity, and his relatability, lies in his resistance to simply aspiring to become one of those math whizzes. He is open about his attraction to money, but strives to rationalize it away. The real goal, he tells Lenka, is to make enough in a short amount of time that he doesn’t have to bother himself with the drudgery of work anymore and can focus on life’s more rewarding endeavors. Earlier, however, he laments the fate of being broke in New York, where “demonstrations, overt and implied, of the advantages of having heaps of money were so common that they ceased to register” -- this suggests a less pure motive, as does his discomfort with greed being the “most uniformly maligned” of the seven deadly sins. The more Gabriel defends his ambitions to himself, the more it seems that he is seeking forgiveness for them. Presumably, Mountford suggests, if the book were told from Priya’s point of view, we might find similar contradictions. Such in-depth analysis of the motives of six-figure earners seems like new territory; Mountford’s willingness to allow Gabriel to live in the gray area between what we would more commonly regard as pure altruism and pure evil is part of what makes us so invested in the decision he will ultimately make -- can he survive in the gray area, we wonder, or is he compelled to choose one path over the other?

The conundrum is illustrated quite literally in the form of Gabriel’s mother, a college professor and dyed-in-the-wool leftist who sees organizations like Calloway as the devil incarnate. When Gabriel deceives his mother, as with Lenka, there is more at stake than his professional future, and yet another layer of moral complexity is added to the mix: what are our duties to our loved ones, when they conflict with our political convictions? In the book’s heartbreaking final chapters, Mountford poses the question in a new way: is it a greater sin to side with evil, or to grow so impassioned against it that we ignore the responsibilities of unconditional love?

These questions are conspicuously absent from most modern fiction, and Mountford’s honest and carefully wrought meditation on the implications of wealth and those who pursue it fills that gap. A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism will be remembered as a touchstone work of the Era of Twenty-First Century Economic Crises.

A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism by Peter Mountford
Mariner Books
ISBN: 0547473354
304 Pages