Wealth: a novel idea

June 21, 2013: 11:15 AM ET

Money and luxury are back in vogue for popular literary fiction. We take a look at two new novels about wealth—and what they suggest about its pursuit.

By Daniel Roberts, writer-reporter

Halfway through Jonathan Dee's 2010 novel The Privileges, the married protagonist Adam Morey, a private equity hotshot, asks a waitress for her phone number. When she looks at his wedding ring, he says, "Oh, this… this comes right off." She writes the number on his hand, he leaves the bar, and on his walk home, he promptly washes the number off in a playground fountain.

The whole thing is just a momentary diversion, something that offers him fleeting fun. Dee explains, "He'd never cheated on Cynthia and never would… But sometimes there was a thrill in walking right up to that line, and in charming the other person into stepping over it. He figured it was probably all downhill after that moment anyway." Doug Fanning, the rich young banker being closely watched by the New York Federal Reserve in Adam Haslett's 2011 novel Union Atlantic, seems similarly bored. He builds an ostentatious mansion in a Massachusetts town and begins an illicit sex affair with a high-school boy. It feels like a similar moment when, in the opening story of Joan Wickersham's recent collection The News from Spain, the character Barnaby (who inhabits a world similar to that of Adam and Doug) sneaks off to an upstairs bathroom at his own engagement party on Long Island to smoke a cigarette. He knows it's pathetic: "Bad behavior. He knew this. He was forty-seven. He was an executive vice president in charge of corporate communications for a mid-size financial services company."

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The suggestion of these stories about rich men is that managing large amounts of money, your own and that of others, leaves room only for brief moments of solitary fun—that, in fact, these breaks are the only fun thing left once you're rich and bored.

crazy-rich-asians-book-coverThe characters in two new novels about wealth don't have time to be bored; they get very few of these little moments—for different reasons. Kevin Kwan's debut novel Crazy Rich Asians, out last week, depicts the social burdens that come with outrageous opulence. The three Chinese families of Kwan's raucous satire have already made their money when the book begins—it is old money, so old that it stifles the young protagonist Nicholas Young, a Singapore-born New Yorker who faces sneering criticism from the pompous elder women of his family when he brings his plain, American-born girlfriend Rachel Chu home to Singapore.

Young is a modern man struggling under the weight of his family's crusty customs and its adoration of diamonds, designer clothing, and gargantuan mansions. The super-wealthy in the world Kwan has painted don't get much time to enjoy their riches. They are too busy working to show it off, attending dinner parties, galas, fundraisers, and balls to remind everyone else they have it. They face decisions like whether to borrow a famous friend's personal plane for a trip. (One particularly grating brat, Eddie Cheng, rails to his mother, "Why are you always like this, Mummy? Why do you always behave so provincial? You are filthy rich! … Squeeze into economy on China Airlines for all I care. My family and I are taking Leo's plane. And it's a Bombardier Global Express. It's huge, state-of-the-art. There's even a Matisse in the cabin.") Being rich, it appears, can be such a burden.

Although Crazy Rich Asians is not a story of obtaining wealth, it still serves up—albeit using a light, slapstick tone—a warning as to its perils. Its pursuit, as well as its unmitigated enjoyment, can change a human being, usually for the worse. ("If the neighbors have five bedrooms, give me six… Make the envying types envious," Doug tells his broker in Union Atlantic.) Dee and Haslett, in their books, seem to say the same, though one author allows his pompous rich man to go unharmed, while the other ultimately sentences his to prison.

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Mohsin Hamid's faux self-help guide How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, published in March, arrives at similar conclusions. The unnamed hero begins his disciplined journey to wealth as a child, the moment that a simple "yes" (to the question of whether he'd be okay moving) convinces his father to relocate the family from a poor village into the city. The country is not named, though one could safely imagine it is Pakistan, where Hamid is from. The story is told in second person ("you") using clear, utilitarian prose. Getting rich is treated as the ultimate, obvious goal: "A young jaundiced village boy, radish juice dribbling from the corner of your lips… it must seem that getting filthy rich is beyond your reach. But have faith… Your moment is about to come."  The narrative tone seems to ask, Is there any other purpose in life?

how-to-get-filthy-rich-in-rising-asia-book-coverTo escape his constrained circumstances, Hamid's character must toil methodically, entrepreneurially, and ruthlessly. In school, he boldly corrects the teacher, whom he quickly surpasses in knowledge. He sells pirated DVDs and then joins a local criminal organization. All the while he pines for a girl from his village; she, too, is working toward a dream (in the modeling world). But he doesn't have time for her, can't take his eyes off the prize. The narrator even asks him (and thus the reader), like a coach, "Is getting filthy rich still your goal above all goals, your be-all and end-all, the mist-shrouded high-altitude spawning pond to your inner salmon? In your case, fortunately, it seems to be."

Hamid's novel is strict and tightly structured as it carries its man forcefully from poverty to wealth (though, in the end, not necessarily to happiness—in that regard, the book is like Union Atlantic and The Privileges). His mother gets sick and dies painfully, his relationships crumble, and he abandons ethics.

None of that should suggest that it isn't an enjoyable read. The narrative voice is so authoritative that, as we come along on this Horatio Alger tale, we share the character's frustration when he has to bribe an official and feel his exhaustion when he deals with a rival trying to intimidate him (he must sleep with a gun under his pillow; there are people who want him dead). Hamid's hero sacrifices nearly everything for wealth; he doesn't afford himself much time for his children or wife (he divorces her). In order to create the top bottled water company during a time of sweeping socioeconomic transformation in the region, his focus must be unsparingly narrow.

Many of these characters see moneymaking as a pleasant pastime—at least, until they end up spiraling down in their own unique way. Adam Morey leaves Morgan Stanley for private equity firm Perini Capital, "an outfit with a shitload of money behind it" where he can apply "his vision of what a man's work should be: a tight group of friends pushing themselves to make one another rich." The "millionaire thing hadn't interested" the young man in Peter Mountford's 2011 novel A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism when he was younger, but once he has lived modestly in New York for five years, "the feeling of wanting matured until what had been straightforward professional ambition became tinged by a hint of avarice… Money, in general—the plain and unassailable acts of acquiring and spending it—had turned out to occupy a more important role in adulthood than he had expected."

For the characters in Hamid's and Kwan's books, money isn't just "important," it is everything, and it is the characters' life's work to both make and spend it. But Hamid and Kwan suggest there may be at least partial redemption in love. Hamid's "you" certainly makes a long line of mistakes, but in the end, the reward for his toil is to enjoy old age with someone he truly loves (that doesn't give much away because it isn't the kind of book that relies on plot twists; its joy is in the telling). That redeeming romance and the happiness it brings him in old age does not come thanks to his wealth. It has nothing to do with the money he worked so furiously to obtain. Kwan's Nicholas, meanwhile, finds that he loves Rachel enough to choose her company over the grand perks that come with being in his family's good graces.

The New York Times this month included Crazy Rich Asians in a roundup of "beach reads," and it is indeed a laugh-out-loud, bawdy, oftentimes-silly 400-page breeze, but to pigeonhole Kwan's book that way is to overlook the legitimate statement it makes about what decades and decades of absurd wealth can do to a family—it can corrode its ties, rot the relationships. Very few of the characters are redeeming beyond Nicholas and his cousin Astrid Leong. And in Kwan's book, that's all right since the comedy comes from laughing at the horrible behavior and attitudes of the cast. The "you" of Hamid's novel may not be very likeable either, but it doesn't matter, and the same is true of Haslett's and Dee's protagonists. These writers aim to depict one version of the path to wealth. There are other paths, but theirs are certainly plausible (perhaps Dee's and Hamid's more than Kwan's).

Crazy Rich and Filthy Rich are also set apart because they focus on Asia, where, if their stories are to be believed, a shift is taking place among the upper echelons. Kwan is interested in the spoiled rich Asians, the Eastern equivalent of the "ugly American," whereas Hamid's book is more interested in the grueling task of getting, rather than flaunting, riches. But both novels find less moral ambiguity in the Asian pursuit of wealth. In this "rising" part of the globe, the pursuit of money for money's sake carries no negative baggage.

The success of all these books—each one is entertaining, lucidly written, and never feels too didactic or moralistic—suggests a rising tide in this group once again. In the years just after the financial crisis, most novels that dealt with wealth did so in an indirect manner. People didn't want to read about the super-rich unless bad things were happening to them. In Alexandra Lebenthal's 2010 novel The Recessionistas, a socialite gets comeuppance when her banker husband makes some bad bets. Eric Puchner's 2010 novel Model Home is also about a rich man whose financial mistakes send his family down a few income brackets.

During the depths of the recession, novels like The Privileges and Union Atlantic laid the groundwork for Crazy Rich Asians and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. As the U.S. climbs out of its recession, as jobs return and big business thrives again, the reading public appears ready again for stories about fabulous wealth.

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