Title: A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism
Author: Peter Mountford
Publisher: Mariner Books
Genre: Literary Fiction
Where I got it: From the publisher via NetGalley, but I finished it as a paper copy from the public library.
[...]Despite being one of the safest and most prosperous countries in human history, the United States was actually a very bizarre place. Elsewhere in the world, the unattainability of great fame and fortune was more readily accepted, and so life was less driven by grandiose fantasies. Elsewhere, people wouldn't tell their children that they could achieve anything, because, of course, they couldn't.
I saw Peter Mountford's book while browsing through NetGalley and was intrigued by the title. Then I basically let it sit on my I-pad for a while, and had to download it again after it expired. One day, I was leafing through my college alumni magazine, and saw in the alumni updates, that Peter Mountford went to college with me, at the same time I did. This would be incredibly unremarkable, except for the fact that I went to a college with only 850 people and I'm the type of person that gets excited when I know someone that does something. So, I bumped the book up the queue, and boy am I happy that I did.
Mountford's novel takes place mostly over a few days in the life of Gabriel Francisco de Boya, the novel's protagonist, and a freelance journalist turned "researcher" for a predatory hedge fund. He has been sent to Bolivia by his new boss to investigate any potential impact that societies' politics and economy might have on the US markets. Gabriel pretends to be a journalist as he tries to get close to the "higher ups," both foreign and local, to find the information that will essentially keep him his brand new job: a job that he supposes will earn him enough money for early retirement after only a few years. Gabriel, as the son of a single mother who is a liberal professor, struggles with his identity as henchman for the dark specter of capitalism, but also with his tenuous position as a member of the New York elite with whom he graduated from Brown.
Mountford studied international relations and his father worked for the IMF (according to an interview at the Millions), and his book is heavy on the academics. The book contains lengthy discussion of South American economic policy, Bolivian history, the behavior of markets, game theory, and other things that I've never personally been super interested in (except for game theory, which is pretty cool). And yet, these mini-lectures flow seamlessly with the other aspects of the novel: the suspense of Gabriel's precarious situation, the romance between Gabriel and a member of the newly elected president of Bolivia's staff, and the internal struggles that Gabriel faces concerning his own family, his own economic and moral quandary, and his relationship with the culture of Bolivia and his own mixed ethnicity. The internal ruminations on his race and on his desire are some of the most interesting and provocative in the book. For example:
Growing up, he never considered the possibility that his identity might be a fixed thing, that it might not be something that could or should be adjusted for each situation. He had been born with multiple identities, after all: Californian, Chilean, Soviet, bourgeois, only child of a single mother, Latino, Caucasian. In these, he saw options.or
Not that Gabriel was, or ever, had been, a greedy person; but 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'd expected. The issue finally wasn't that he wanted to be rich, per se, but that he wanted to be done with so much wanting. It was a feedback loop, and the only way out was deeper in: he needed to have enough money to be done with the issue of money forever.In the end, it is these internal struggles that lie at the heart of the book. Near the end of the book, a member of the hotel staff where Gabriel is staying tells him that he is a "sh***y person" and that he, Alejo, "[is] not like [Gabriel]." In response Gabriel "envied the purity of that perspective, the tender idea that the world was place where good people and bad people were locked in an epic struggle -- what a gorgeous notion!" It is ambiguity that in the end forces some of the most difficult decisions for Gabriel in the book, and the decisions that he makes remain shrouded in the same ambiguity. There is something to say here about human nature and our paradoxical relationship to certainty and desire. In desiring to stop desiring, we still desire. In our quest for certainty, we find ambiguity.
Mountford is masterful at interweaving all of the elements that make this book educational, thoughtful and also really readable. Not much about this book disappointed me as a reader (maybe a couple moments where the dialogue was a little too clever), and I hope to see more from this promising debut novelist. I would highly recommend this book; it's one of my favorites of the year so far.