“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.”



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 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • 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>