There are places in the world where confessing to be journalist could put your life in danger or make you, in the least, a social pariah. To know that Gabriel, the main character of Peter Mountford’s novel A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism finds it safer to pose as a journalist than admit he is surreptitiously investigating opportunities for a hedge fund gives new perspective to the furtive financial sector.
Mountford’s book follows Gabriel’s first assignment with the opportunistic Fallon Group, as the young man navigates La Paz during Bolivia’s historic 2005 elections while simultaneously trying to sort out his competing devotions to family, love and money.
While there are no official translations of A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, there is a black market edition in Russia, which Mountford hilariously explores in a November 2012 Atlantic Monthly piece, “Steal my Book.”
Mountford is a writer in residence at the Richard Hugo House and the a recent winner of the 2012 Washington State Book Award (for A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism). His next novel, The Dismal Science, was just signed with Tin House Books and is slated for release in Spring 2014.
We met at Elliott Bay Book Company to discuss A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, Evo Morales, Bolivia, why novels should tackle geo-political events and his new novel, which I had the pleasure to read in part in a writing group we shared. —Kristianne Huntsberger
KH: I must admit, I know nothing about economics. Reading your book was in some ways an education about the workings of hedge funds and international trade. There is a lot of specialized information that is woven into the narrative. How did you draw it all in?
PM: I expected that almost none of my audience would know anything about, nor would they care, actually, about finance. I figured people don’t want to read about finance. That is my understanding of the average voracious reader of literary fiction. But I feel that these forces are so crucial to our world and there are very few books in which somebody is actually wrestling with these issues. The vast majority of books look at a version of American existence in which finance was not the primary driver of our historical circumstances.
I wanted to write a book that deals with these big issues, but in a way that feels absolutely character driven. It involves love and family relations and the kinds of questions that are very personal and very intimate, but those big issues are at play at the same time. And I knew that at times I’d have to explain things to the reader and I tried to do it as painlessly as possible.
I was pleased to hear from a lot of book group readers who found it is actually a book about a young guy who is trying to live his life and he’s falling in love with this woman and he’s making difficult decisions. It’s a book about people struggling with their lives.
KH: Struggling with their lives and also struggling with that economic presence in their lives. It’s interesting that your book was published in 2011, with Occupy Wall Street and the crash . . .
PM: I started writing it in 2007, before anything had happened. You know the Dow was at some amazing number; everyone was just thrilled to pieces. They thought real estate was just going to keep rising, indefinably, exponentially. At the time I felt like I really had to spell out these issues. And then history intervened on my behalf and soon enough Katie Couric was out there on the TV explaining all these issues to the reader for me, so I got to really cut back on a lot of the plumbing, as they say, because it was so much a part of the daily news.
KH: In the book Gabriel says international workers are pulled out of a country after three years because otherwise there’s this risk of them going native. He teeters, but doesn’t actually go native. I don’t know if that’s a spoiler.
PM: There is a tension in the book between him being in this hotel room on the tenth floor, looking down on the people and being literally, physically separated from the world beneath him and then wanting also to go down and enter that world. I think it plays out most with his relationship with Lenka. But his job is a complicated one—working for the hedge fund—because he has to be separated from the world and see it from a distance and have no emotional attachment to it and make decisions that might harm Bolivia.
There is a great W.H. Auden quote which is, “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” I feel like that is so much what I want to write about; ,things that I have deep ambivalence about and I want that to be expressed by this character, who also feels this deep ambivalence about his position in relation to money, his position in relation to north-south relations, third world—first world, you know? He’s got to be really struggling with these questions and there have to be really good arguments on both sides of the question. That’s why the book felt alive to me, because it had that tension within it, within him.
KH: You talked about Gabriel standing above things, looking down and being physically separated from Bolivia. It is the opening scene when he is describing the callers in the streets, calling out their products, which was so familiar to me, from living in Myanmar. Of course, I wondered how much of Gabriel’s life that you are describing is influenced by your own international residency.
PM: I lived in South America for two years, in Ecuador, and I had a kind of experience that informs his experience. I fell in love with a country, very madly in love with it, on first meeting and over time I kind of grew to hate the country, which I think he does as well, after that dark part in the middle of the book. The feeling of being so alien—he is sort of oddly alien, where I was more frankly alien—is deeply alienating. After that moment of anger, you kind of tack back to a more blank view of the place, in theory. That is what happened with me.
In general, what I have experienced living in, so-called, third world countries is the experience of looking different and being viewed by the locals as somebody who is sort of an avatar for American capitalism and wealth. I’m broke and living in Ecuador and they assume that I am coming at them with lots of money and privilege. And, in a way I am. It is a complicated situation, emotionally.
The book is a lot about ambition as well. It is complicated being from the United States. For a long time I fantasized about abandoning the United States and going and living rather cheaply in Latin American. I think he flirts with that as well. But, ultimately, if you’ve grow up in the United States and you are reasonably well-educated, you are kind of infected with a very powerful form of ambition and you feel like you have to do something with your life in this kind of boring way, you have to become something. And the most obvious evidence of that is in your bank account.
Gabriel is a person at war with these influences. I tried to write a version of it where he is this knight in shining armor who rejects this whole western paradigm of material and career ambition and runs off with Lenka. But, I had to ask myself, when I was his age would I have had the strength of character to say, I just want to be a good person, or would I actually succumb to the temptation of an $18,000 a month paycheck? Let’s be honest, I would succumb to that pressure.
KH: How do you consciously deal with the responsibility of—you say you don’t want to do polemical work, but you’re bringing in history, or current events . . .
PM: Weighted issues . . . Right. I think that’s why I need ambivalence myself. Evo Morales for me is an interesting person because, at that time especially, and even to this day, he is a very complicated guy. He’s not corrupt, I know he’s not corrupt, but it’s not obvious that he is a great leader. He has a lot of weird and somewhat bad policies. He has a lot of great policies too. He’s a complicated guy. And if he was just a simple guy, if he was a bad guy or a great guy, the book would become much flatter.
I think I am constantly looking for that in these characters—for them to be capable of making terrible decisions and noble decisions. All of the characters are capable of doing something terrible and selfish and also capable of striving for goodness.
KH: About the character of Vincenzo D’Orsi, is he a historic figure or is he yours? I was curious about him here because I have actually met him in another project.
PM: Vincenzo is my creation. There is a book that is exclusively about him, which I recently finished, and is called The Dismal Science. It is largely through his perspective. He is a late middle-aged Italian vice president of the World Bank, in charge of Latin America. He is a widower. His life is sort of falling apart, but it just so happens that if he has a bad day it affects the lives of millions of people because of his job and so it has geo-political elements. But it’s a deeply personal book about the fragility of identity and the insanity of trying to plot a course through life.
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.