Monday, May 25, 2015

The Best Little Whorehouse On Wall Street

Michelle Miller, The Underwriting

This book's pre-release literature compares it to recent films like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Social Network, but I'd prefer another parallel. Edith Wharton's 1905 classic The House of Mirth had moments of hilarity without ever resorting to jokes, episodes of tragedy without ever descending into despondency. Throughout this debut novel, I repeatedly recognized Miller and Wharton as kindred spirits. I also cringed to realize, in 110 years, how little Manhattan has changed.

Todd Kent has ambitions. He wants a managing directorship at historic investment bank L.Cecil before he turns thirty, and he needs one cream assignment to accomplish this. When a wildly successful dating app offers Todd a no-bid contract on its lucrative IPO, he thinks his toast is buttered for life. But managerial interference, manipulative colleagues, and shady internal dealings jeopardize Todd’s high-rise fantasies. When it appears this app was involved in murder, everything goes south.

Miller worked a brief Wall Street hitch before deciding her real love was words. I struggle to decide which character in Miller’s satirical roman à clef represents herself. Tara, the financial whiz granted a VP title, but no autonomy, at the absurd age of 27? Amanda, the jilted lover whose attempts to remake herself inadvertently uncover festering corporate rot? Kelly, the idealistic English major who accepts an L.Cecil job offer—then dies under mysterious circumstances?

I wonder because Miller clearly has real people in mind. Her characters’ motivations, and their flaws, reflect a world where early achievement isn’t just common, it’s mandatory. Her milieu reeks of privilege, steadfastly immune to the lessons of 2007. Todd and Tara work aggressively, sleep at their workplace, manhandle fortunes larger than some city budgets, and make paper billionaires at their computers. But only one successfully squelches their conscience; a brutal awakening awaits the other.

Michelle Miller
Given an impossibly short two-month window on their IPO, Todd and Tara begin a marathon journey from Manhattan, to Palo Alto, to London and beyond, turning digital promises into real money. Miller’s telling of this odyssey is educational. She demonstrates how financial rainmakers spin facts, skirt the law, and anchor massive monetary promises on foundations that don’t yet exist. People who play nice don’t last. Before long, the ambiguity becomes too much for one player.

Hook, the startup app, combines Tinder’s sexual abstemiousness with Über’s gender equity and regard for safety. Boasting 500 million users, it secretly collates users’ data, contra its own security agreement, granting one ethically conflicted engineer unique insight into an open murder investigation. Hook’s founding CEO, a computer engineer who places dollar values on every interaction, spotlights his app’s social aspects, yet his dispassionately forward conversations leave everyone feeling like they’ve been groped by a Vulcan.

Meanwhile, Juan, Hook’s lead programmer, makes a discovery. Hook is stockpiling user data which it specifically denies even exists. A secret database which only the privileged few can even find contains quantities of information on half a billion people worldwide, information that can be used for super-advertizing… or for blackmail. When Juan realizes Hook has invaluable evidence in Kelly’s murder, which shouldn’t even exist, all his dreams of benevolence, funded by startup millions, become poisonous.

Though Miller never resorts to jokes, her satire often stings of cutting hilarity, because she succinctly spotlights the absurdities her characters blithely accept. Manhattan finance requires ambition and egotism enough to make Donald Trump blush, because billions turn on single deals, and reputations live or die by one day’s work. The Defense Department would blanch at these numbers. I’d think Miller’s fast-paced style was mere slapstick exaggeration, if my 401(k) balance sheet didn’t say otherwise.

Admittedly, this book isn’t for everyone. The press material describes Miller’s story as “sexy,” but maybe they mean something I don’t. These characters have sex to mark time, blowing through other people like leftover goulash; the “romantic” encounters, which begin as a Fifty Shades-ish turn-on, quickly become anti-erotic. Ordinary practices of everyday life—sex, conversation, work—become a destructive narcotic for these characters. Children, the easily offended, and aspiring Rockefellers will find this book imposing.

Okay, so Miller’s style isn’t for blue-hairs. But her story, of a financial sector willfully blind to its own consequences, matters because it’s familiar. Miller, like her characters, worked Wall Street after the collapse, and saw firsthand how big-shots refuse to learn. The conditions that imploded America eight years ago still exist. And in Miller’s capable hands, the story of characters completely immune to basic self-reflection becomes a madcap farce, when it isn’t painfully sobering.

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