“Moral Hazard” by Kate Jennings

A liberal young woman is forced to take a job at a Wall Street firm and learns the truth about the masters of the financial world.

Topics: Books,

"Moral Hazard" by Kate Jennings

Sharp, spare, and utterly unsentimental, Kate Jennings’ “Moral Hazard” lays out, in its meticulously composed 175 pages, the definitive treatment of contemporary workplace alienation.

Jennings’ protagonist, Cath, is a freelance writer whose artist husband, 25 years her senior, is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. To pay for his care, Cath takes a job as a financial speechwriter at a Wall Street firm. Out of place not just by virtue of her temperament but also because of her sex and her politics, Cath finds herself in a world in which everything — language, demeanor, worldview — feels foreign. At the same time, she’s deprived of the reassuring comforts of home where, at the end of each workday, she is witness to her beloved husband’s further disintegration.

Among her liberal values, Cath cherishes “civility and a sense of humor” and is against “anyone who had stopped listening, receiving, changing. People who had no give.” She can be as tough on herself as she is on her co-workers: “Of course, I disapproved of bankers on principle. Not that I knew any. Until this job, I had worked and made friends with people who shared my views. Mostly moral, mostly kind.”

The predictable route for Cath would be for her to see the naivete of her views once she’s been exposed to this world. That’s what her boss assumes will happen. Jennings does something more difficult. Confident and grounded, Cath chooses instead to navigate this new, tricky moral territory (whose ethic, she says, was borrowed in equal parts from the Marines, the CIA and Las Vegas) without abandoning her bedrock sense of who she is. Her guide is Mike, head of the firm’s risk-management unit, a former student radical who has joined the financial world with something like an anthropologist’s curiosity. He acknowledges the bigotry in the profession, and can’t help feeling bedeviled by the sense that he’s sleeping with the enemy, but he also admires the financial world because it makes a place for eccentrics.

Jennings strikes exactly the right balance between satire and compassion, seeing her characters as flawed human beings and yet rendering them with scalpel-like precision. Cath is in a strange position, privy to those in power but not an insider, a writer working for people “deeply suspicious of metaphors and words of more than two syllables … There were some inexplicable exceptions … ‘fungible’ or, a more recent example, ‘granular,’ which, having gained acceptance against all odds, were clutched as tenaciously as a child might a favorite toy.”

You Might Also Like

If I may be permitted a digression: In the mid-’90s I worked in the advertising firm of Fidelity Investments. Nowhere near as high on the totem pole as Cath, I nonetheless recognize Jennings’ portrait of the peculiar mixture of dependence and suspicion with which writers and copy editors were treated. One of my jobs was to proof newsletters in which interviews with fund managers would be ghostwritten into columns bearing their byline. When I tried to explain, for example, that “opportunistic” was not the same thing as “opportune,” I was assured that the readers would understood what was meant.

And that was probably right. The wittiest stroke of “Moral Hazard” is that Jennings understands the insularity of an industry that commands so much money, power and influence. For all of their scoffing at society’s do-gooders — who they feel lack an appreciation of reality — it’s the denizens of high finance, Cath realizes, who when it comes to free markets, have the unreasoning zeal of true believers. (Why else do so many Marxists wind up as Republicans?)

It wasn’t until after I finished “Moral Hazard” that I discovered that the story Jennings tells is autobiographical. She has worked as a financial speechwriter, and her older husband did die of Alzheimer’s a few years ago. It’s a great compliment to her to say that the book has the vividness of something richly imagined as well as that of something keenly felt. The sections on Cath’s dealing with her husband’s disease — attending the survivor’s groups, absorbing his sudden flashes of rage, committing him to a nursing home where, visiting him every evening after work, she finds him with his bags packed, unable to understand why he can’t return home — imprint themselves on your mind with the clarity and depth of an indelible hurt. Along with Doris Lessing’s “The Sweetest Dream,” this is the finest novel I’ve read this year. The gift of both books is that they are deeply personal and yet transcend the personal, elucidating a moral vision of the world. Don’t let its brevity fool you. “Moral Hazard” is a big book in the truest sense of the word.

Our next pick: A smart novel about the folly of second-guessing the unexpected probes the minds and lives of Secret Service agents and computer programmers.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>