89 The Fear Index, Robert Harris
The Day Has Come To Make A Killing
Enter Harris’ fierce, volatile and confusing world at your peril. It’s a world where the forces of science, finance, fraud and fear all jostle for position. The Fear Index feels both satirical and prescient in its suggestions for the ramifications of contemporary society’s reliance on both computers and the finance sector. But it’s also a skilful thriller, the latest offering in Harris’ seemingly endless ability to write engaging, fast-paced narratives.
Brilliant scientist Alex Hoffmann has built an algorithmic hedge fund, VIXAL, which possesses its own artificial intelligence; it’s so fiendishly clever it has begun spying upon its own employees and it is unclear at the Hoffmann Investment Corporation who exactly the master of the company is; Hoffmann? The hedge fund? Anybody?
VIXAL is a merciless in its decisions. It both predicts and feeds off human fear. Like a shark in money waters, it picks up the scent in the markets and ruthlessly attacks its prey. The slightest tremor on the stock exchange- literal or figurative- sends VIXAL into action, initiating global meltdown for its own benefit.
Hoffmann’s in the middle of a murder scene. He’s been attacked at his home, he’s buying things he can’t account for, he losing his wife. Friend’s think he’s losing his mind; he is, but he might just have very good reasons to be paranoid.
Set on one tumultuous day of financial disorder, The Fear Index is a biting and brilliant portrayal of the interaction of men and money, robots and people. This is ultimately a most modern thriller of financial markets taken to the intellectual brink, where events spiral out of control at the speed of nanosecond. It’s a book about human confusion, a parody on the economic crisis befallen the West and an engrossing study of Fear as an emotive response to our surroundings. Almost insidiously contemporary, The Fear Index includes references to the Greek riots and toxic debts- its reads like a story plucked from this year’s scandal. Brilliant, and far more biting than the Ghost.
88 Austerlitz WG Sebald
Hamish Hamilton 2001
Austerlitzis positively Proustian in its depth and scope. Wildly ambitious and stunningly fresh, it’s a seamless, ethereal novel about time, history and human experience. Not that all that much happens in terms of plot, the narrative thrust largely concerned with the Nazi invasion ofPragueand an unlikely friendship between the eponymous main character and the narrator himself. But it’s the sheer characterisation and seamless monologues of the two characters which breathe such laconic life into the novel.
The narrator we learn has only a few social outlets. He is strongly academic, aloof and fiendishly bright, but he has been caught up in the whirlpool of fortune and worldly success has proved elusive. By turns, Austerlitz is fascinated with time and place, disruption and harmony, amazed by the symbolism of buildings and moments, with civilizations and the past. The two characters meet periodically in London, Antwerp and Paris and their friendship is, by turns, tragic, pitiful and beautiful.
Set against the gross discord sown by Nazism and the Holocaust, Austerlitz charts the disruption caused by this moment in history and the subsequent dislocation of the Jewish identity re-establishing itself in new places around the world; new lives, new challenges, new miseries in store.
Austerlitz, like The Rings of Saturn before, is longingly illustrated in a series of black and white photographs. They evoke a peculiar melancholia in the reader.Austerlitzis similarly typical of Sebald’s distinct prose, where long sentences meet the occasional comma, only to drift off elsewhere into the clouds of a character’s consciousness.
Austerlitz is utterly brilliant, a true masterpiece of the noughties. Had Sebald lived, (he died in 2001) he would surely have received a Nobel prize for it.
87 The Plot Against America; Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 2004
Building on the success of the widely-acclaimed The Human Stain, Roth’s novel brought forth to the world a piece of ’faction’, and an absorbing piece at that.
TPAA is a humorous take on the re-imagined presidential victory of aviator Charles Lindbergh, a known advocate for eugenics and a professed anti-semitic. Two years before his disappearance, his successor begins a national pogrom against minority groups until Roosevelt wins the election and restores order and, it seems, a unity to America’s disparate ethnic groups.
The excessive, megalomaniac Lindbergh boasts of America’s invulnerability to foreign attack. This establishes a witch-hunt for America’s enemies, both from within and without. The government is possessed by notions of security, of eugenics and purity of race.
Taking inspiration from the American experience of 9/11, the novel playfully and fallaciously reconstructs real historical events to uncover a deeper truth about America’s innate fears.
As ever with Roth’s biting, vituperative prose, we get a subversive, mixed-up tour de force of what it means to be American, to be Jewish, to be caught up in notions of identity and community,
86 The Life of Pi Yann Martel
Knopf Canada, 2001
The winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize follows the story of Pi Patel, a young religious zealot who hasn’t quite identified which religion he wants to be zealous about.
Pi and his father are tired of an India ruled under Indira Gandhi, so they decide to travel to Canada to embark on a new life, a westernized life, a newly spiritualized life. They own a zoo and so take a few choice animals with them. But during their travails they are shipwrecked and Pi is the sole survivor. Alone on the ocean, except for a zebra, a hyena an orang-utan and a Bengali tiger named Richard Parker, Pi is forced to inquire deeply within himself his notions of God and Nature. The other animals being dispatched; Pi and old Dicky Parker the tiger remain on the high seas and must summon all their faith in religion, in faith, in spirituality and in humanity to stay alive. In the Life of Pi we travel not only the brazen Atlantic but also the life story of Pi Patel
So begins a desperate voyage of friendship and allegory, of religious representation and the layered meanings of faith where fact and fiction intermingle with one another until neither can be discerned. In retelling his escapade, Pi recounts various versions and hazy half-truths, leaving the reader utterly unsure about what, if anything, they have just read. Superb, evocative and brilliantly unique, The Life of Pi was released to instantaneous critical acclaim.
The novel is presented in bite-size, hundred-part turns. It’s almost mathematical, echoing the title’s reference to the famous equation. The novel explores various subjects, such as maths and science and religion. It does so in a way which draws the reader in to the kind of ideas a person would entertain when traversing the seas of faith.
Sadly, Martel’s novel was embroiled in controversy after its publication. A claim of infringement was made that it was too closely based on Max and the Cats, a novel by Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar.
85 Atonement; Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape, 2001
McEwan had to bring all guns blazing to match the success he’d had with Amsterdam. Match it he did, but out went the economic prose of Amsterdam and in came a stumbling, ephereal, almost un-dramatic novel. In came Atonement, and in blew the literary world away.
Following the fortunes of a rich, protected English family before, during and after the Second World War; Atonement is about sibling squabbles, about regretted pasts, false choices and the potential devastation wrought from little white lies which go horribly awry. It’s difficult to say who exactly is the most sympathetic character in the novel; all the characters pay a high price for a false accusation.
It’s similarly difficult not to shed a tear by the end of the novel as an aging Briony Tallis, revisiting her past through the novel’s narration, admits to her alleged guilt over Robbie’s incarceration. But so too Atonement leaves as many questions as answers, such as whose interpretation of events are we to believe?
Ultimately, Atonement is about placing the blame on its characters. What the book achieves is creating a tragic world where its cast are caught up in the difficulties of adolescence, where England itself is about to be broken by the external invasion of something nobody can understand.
The novel effectively takes place inside people’s heads; outwardly very little happens and there is a minimal plot whose reference frame is the duration of the war. The first half of the book is a slow-burning, scene-setting exercise where the character’ perhaps simmer but certainly don’t sizzle. There is also very little dialogue in the book. The second half is dedicated to Robbie’s horrendous experiences at Dunkirk, filled with pathos and stoicism.
The pacing of Atonement is supreme, it draws us in to the upper-middle-class world of England with its complication innocence and understated sexual besmirchment.
84 Freakonomics (2005), Steven D. Levitt and Steven J. Dubner
Levitt made economics both fun and accessible. That achievement alone is laudible. How he achieved it is praiseworthy indeed. Gone are those horrendous demand curves which plagued my A-levels; Good-riddance to all that classical theory of market mechanics. Out with the old; in with the new.
And what was the Freakonomical new? A wonderful, anecdote-based, empiric-led rollercoaster of contemporary stories with a fresh economic perspective of modern society. A startling book, and a forerunner to many in its mould.
Steven Levitt has changed social science fundamentally by opening up a wide range of social and individual behaviour to economic analysis. His key tool is understanding incentives. Levitt’s best-known insight arises from his attempts to explain crime but a whole range of insights can be found In Freakonomics-and its sequel SuperFreakonomics-, from prostitution to abortion to local funding.
A tremendous achievement.