Peter Mountford gives human form to the volatile science of Economics in his second novel, The Dismal Science, which follows Vincenzo d’Orsi’s purgative transformation as he learns to cope with loss and living. Mountford is embarking on a whirlwind tour, including his Seattle book launch party at Richard Hugo House, February 13 at 7 pm, and in Portland at Powell’s World of Books, February 16 at 7:30 pm. Mountford and nwbooklovers’ Kristianne Huntsberger caught up at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle to talk about mid-life crises, Machiavelli and economic models for life.
PM: There is a ready-made metaphor, actually, a lot of them. Economics is trying to study human behavior and fiction is trying to study human behavior. There are interesting ways in which an economist’s job animates his private life. If you have, say, someone who is interested in Game Theory and he is having a conversation with his daughter, like in this book, there is a way those concepts that are in play in his professional life are also in play in his difficult conversation with his daughter about why she doesn’t want to hang out with him on Christmas.
The other part, maybe a bigger part, is that Economics is a very important subject that has a lot of power in our lives. It is a huge force in our world, and it is weirdly ignored by a lot of literary fiction writers.
KH: Why do you feel it is ignored? It is a subject that comes up constantly. Everyone has been talking about the Wall Street bonuses and the 1% and the 99%. It comes up a lot in popular discourse, why isn’t fiction touching it?
PM: Yes, it is also very popular in film and in visual art and in TV as a subject. There is an aversion to work-place fiction. Not limited to economics. Writers and publishers are wary of doing something that isn’t escapist. Readers crave escape from the monotony of their lives, and books that explore the work place are sometimes viewed as problematic, from a marketing standpoint. Yet we spend most of our lives at work, and if it’s interesting and emotionally potent and dramatic then it is good—people will want to read it. That’s why it is so successful in film and in TV. People are endlessly fascinated in these parts of their lives.
KH: As you said, economics does offer great metaphors and this wonderful framing, for instance, of the relationship of Vincenzo and his daughter. You have the Bank and the protesters, you have the wealthy and the poor, and they are kind of posed in this way. How do you see this parallel playing out in your characters?
PM: It’s funny because my father was an executive at the IMF, so this has been my experience. We used to call ourselves WBGKs, World Bank Group Kids. [There are] the kids who did not like [their] parents’ politics, who would go to protests or would argue about it at the dinner table and would also end up not making a lot of money, much like myself. They’re very common types of relationships in the real world. And, of course, they are, as you pointed out, a metaphor. Vincenzo in particular envies the warmth and community that the protesters share; he wants access to that antidote to loneliness. But he is also deeply suspicious of it. He feels like their ideology flattens reality. They are like religious fundamentalists who believe in anti-capitalist ideas, but don’t even really understand the basis of capitalism. So, he says, “Do your homework, and then come argue with me.” And he meets that young protestor, Jonathan Paris, who has done his homework and comes and argues with him, and it is quite bracing for him.
KH: Do you think that Vincenzo’s conversation with Paris is pivotal in his decision to leave the World Bank?
PM: I think it is, oddly, because Paris puts a much sharper point on the issues that Vincenzo’s daughter has been batting around idly. He is still, of course, a professional, so he is able to “win” the argument, but, he wins by a slight of hand. Ultimately, he has to acknowledge that a lot of what Paris is saying is really true, and he is feeling it that day particularly as this representative of the United States State Department is leaning on him to make a decision involving Bolivia. I think he is feeling the fissures of his own ideology, his own theology.
KH: The book is structurally about economics and the World Bank, but it is also about these big themes of loss and grief and family and relationships. Vincenzo seems like a stable man who has capability and understanding, much like the structure he works in, and then, all of a sudden, he becomes completely self-destructive.
PM: There are boom-bust cycles in economics and in life. This book is set in 2005 and, you know, two years later there was this huge economic calamity. …That financial crisis was [also] a personal calamity for hundreds of millions of people—it still is. This presages that in a way. He is having his own calamity. He quits his job and is reeling with his complicated and messy personal life.
I am interested, as any writer of fiction probably is, in trying to understand the human animal and the crazy decisions we make and the ways in which we try to live well. This guy is embroiled in major personal problems. He is a relatively recent widower with a semi-estranged daughter and no real friendships to speak of. His obliteration of his career is a radical attempt to fix his personal problems.
KH: You mentioned Game Theory and there are a lot of philosophical and theoretical concepts at play with strategy, and chess is a recurrent image. I wanted to bring up Machiavelli, who you draw through the book.
PM: Vincenzo’s interest in Machiavelli is the science of strategy. Economics offers a false religion for us: these are the orderly ways in which we interact with one another, these are the policies that will result in happy people. And Machiavelli is, similarly, promising these very basic rules of the road for leaders, which are laughably false, actually, and so reductive of the human experience. Still The Prince is, in a weird way, a self-help book, saying: “Here is a way through your problems, dear Prince.” Machiavelli was the Dr. Phil of tyrants in medieval Italy. Vincenzo understands that a lot of this is flawed and, none the less, he is interested in the ways it is flawed and the ways we embrace and reject these kinds of belief systems.
KH: He is kind of rejecting the Machiavellian concept by leaving the bank.
PM: Exactly, yeah, the orderly perception of life. He wants people to accept the complexity of these systems. The World Bank is not evil and it’s not great, it’s this flawed institution. It is flawed in many ways. And Evo Morales is no an angel and he’s not a devil, he is, instead, a human being who has wonderful attributes and failings, and it is a complex mixture. All these people who want to clean it all out and make it nice, black and white imagery, very morally clear, don’t see that clarity only comes at sacrificing a true understanding and acceptance of life the way it really is.
That is true of life itself, not just in politics. That is what Vincenzo struggles with as well. What is the best way to be a father to my daughter? It’s not a black and white question. He has to let her go, and he has to hold her close at the same time, and he has to respect her opinions and her autonomy, but he also has to offer guidance. There is a chaos to the landscape that you have to accept, or else you’re trying to jam square pegs into round holes.
KH: There are also a number of times when this decision between self or society comes in. At one point Walter asks Vincenzo, “Do you want to save the world or do you want to save yourself?” He doesn’t really seem to be trying to save himself through much of this.
PM: No, he does not. He’s very self-destructive. It is a very weird strategy to that. It’s classic mid-life crisis where you have to obliterate what stands in your existence in order to refashion your life and find a way to shake up the status quo and embrace risk. He’s trying to, and admirably he is succeeding in, embracing risk at this point in his life.
KH: And this where Dante’s Purgatorio comes in?
PM: Yeah, you have to pass through this bizarre but real obstacle course. You must cross through and do your time for your sins. He’s a person that has a lot of guilt for a variety of reasons. Paradise is only achievable through these lashings. So he is trying to get through to the other phase of his existence. In the meantime he is stuck in limbo; in this non-life.
KH: There is a lot of heavy weight in the book with loss and self-destruction. You can see Vincenzo as this everyman, traveling this path that perhaps we all will follow. Do you see it having a positive outcome for him?
PM: I think he’s going to be fine, actually. He is headed for good things—there’s a promising existence ahead. For all of its darkness, there is a lot of levity in the book. Even though Vincenzo is in a tough way he is a person who seeks out pleasure and joy in the moments as they happen and really tries to make the most of his existence. Nancy Pearl talked about it as a comedic book, and so did Sam Lipsyte. It is inevitable that you have to go toward the light if you’re going to write this kind of material, it requires a counterbalance or else it’s too grim, so when I was writing it I was often struck by the possibilities for laughter and humor. That’s life, too. At Vincenzo’s wife’s funeral, her friend makes a scene, by accident, and is mortified, but Vincenzo is tickled by the outburst, and admires her for this incident in the ensuing years—he’s grateful to her.
Kristianne Huntsberger is a writer, performer and educator who, when not roaming the world, makes her home in Seattle. She has worked with the Elliott Bay Book Company in various capacities over the past ten years.