‘Everybody knows the fight was fixed/ The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/ That’s how it goes, everybody knows’Leonard Cohen
Books about business and Wall Street in particular tend to be big, epic affairs in the vein of The Bonfire of the Vanities and most concern the world of men. Australian author Kate Jennings has drawn from her own life experiences and upended these expectations with this short, lyrical novella featuring a woman working at the heart of the financial system.
Moral Hazard’s middle-aged heroine, Cath, works as a speechwriter for a Wall Street investment bank that isn’t one of the big firms, but is big enough. Cath’s job is to make the abstruse language of global business communications digestible, a job made harder by the fact that she doesn’t understand it herself. A self-confessed ‘1960s leftie’ who is ostensibly opposed to greed and privilege, finance is not her background. However Cath doesn’t have the luxury of choosing a job in the arts as she would like because her beloved husband Bailey, 25 years her senior, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Cath must do what pays in order to cover the costs for his specialist care.
When she begins the job, she is appalled at the behaviour of her company and Wall Street as a whole and she has difficulty keeping her feelings in check.
I had gained a whole different view of New York’s skyscrapers. I looked at them and didn’t see architecture. I saw infestations of middle managers, tortuous chains of command, stupor-inducing meetings, ever-widening gyres of e-mail. I saw people scratching up dust like chickens and calling it work. I saw the devil whooping it up.
But needs must, and as Cath strikes up a friendship with a smoking buddy called Mike, a risk manager and avowed Marxist, and Horace, a manager with a more unusual outlook, she begins to learn more about the industry and succumbs somewhat to the seduction of the trading floor – ‘the tangible heart of a place that dealt in intangibles.’
As Cath becomes more reluctantly involved in her work, Bailey’s condition deteriorates and Jennings writes with a clear-eyed honest about the ugly decline from living at home to hospitalisation and finally to care home. She eschews sentimentality and as her financial institution skirts with imminent collapse, so too does the life that she and Bailey have built together. Cath must make a decision on two fronts – should she assist Bailey to end his life and should she tell her superiors that Mike has predicted an imminent collapse?
A moral hazard is an idea that a party protected from risk in some way will act differently than if they didn’t have that protection. While this is clearly evident in the behaviour of Cath’s employers, it also works as a metaphor for Bailey’s illness and the decisions Cath has to make in relation to it. When faced with crisis is it better to leave things to fate or step in to bring a resolution, no matter how painful?
The book is written in short chapters which move from Cath’s work life to her personal life and the emotional pull on Cath is vividly depicted. Some of the chapters involving Bailey’s illness and, more importantly, his awareness of his illness, are heart-breaking and must surely have been inspired by Jennings husband Bob Cato, who died from the complications of Alzheimer’s in 1999. Sometimes the genuine pathos of these passages sits a bit uneasily aside the sarcastic depiction of the financial sector, but overall, Moral Hazard is a moving and honest book about the challenge of chronic illness, financial stability and our personal moral compass.
Actually I did learn something. The dailiness of life – that’s what gets you through hard times. Putting on your pantyhose, eating breakfast, catching the subway. That’s what stops your heart from breaking.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!