Of all the characters Sebastian Faulks introduces in “A Week in December,” his ambitious, entertaining and often scathingly angry new novel, two merit special attention: a young Muslim plotting to attack a London hospital, and a hedge fund manager betting that England’s staunchest bank is about to fail. Guess which one is the villain? If you said the billionaire, give yourself a gold star — assuming you can still afford one. (Have you seen the price of gold lately?) It tells you everything you need to know about the politics of this book, and the reflexive populism of our time, that the capitalist is more reliably loathsome than the jihadist.
“Somehow money had become the only thing that mattered,” a struggling lawyer thinks late in the novel, during the dinner party that brings most of the principal characters together. “When had this happened? When had educated people stopped looking down on money and its acquisition? When had the civilized man stopped viewing money as a means to various enjoyable ends and started to view it as the end itself? When had respectable people given themselves over full time to counting zeroes? And, when this defining moment came, why had nobody bloody well told him?”
To which the reader might reply with a question of his own: Educated people used to look down on money? I suppose it’s true that education is no guarantee of intelligence.
“A Week in December” is set in London in the days before Christmas 2007. As such it’s something of a departure for Faulks, who made his reputation with a series of historical romances (including “Birdsong” and “Charlotte Gray”) before reviving the James Bond franchise a couple of years ago with the best-selling “Devil May Care.” Those books were comfortably retro, but his latest is as contemporary and jittery as a stock chart — a Tom Wolfe-style social satire that follows its characters through a range of modern pathologies. And why not? What with terrorism and financial panic and the joyful stupidities of reality TV, the zeit has plenty of geist for a novelist to exploit.
Not that Faulks’s characters notice it: willful ignorance is a major theme of “A Week in December.” One character shuts out the world with drugs, another with an alternate-reality computer game and a third — the jihadist, Hassan — with religious devotion. But Faulks reserves his greatest contempt for John Veals, the “unsmiling” hedge fund manager who lives for money alone: “Beyond the thoughts of wife, children, daily living, carnal urges, beyond the scar tissue of experience and loss, there was a creature whose heart beat only to market movements.”
“Veals,” with its hint of villainy and venality, is the perfect name for this cold slab of meat, who in his way is as much a fundamentalist as Hassan — a “breed of fanatic,” as his wife calls the new money men. Much of the novel is taken up with the intricacies of the huge trade Veals is setting up, and readers may learn more than they want about commodities futures and credit default swaps. But anyone who’s paid attention to newspapers will have no trouble following along; and by interrupting the business school lecture now and then to check in on his other characters — among them a Tube driver, a soccer player and a dyspeptic book reviewer — Faulks manages to invest the financial arcana with more drama than you might expect. When a novelist tells multiple stories, it’s common to describe him as a weaver, knotting threads into a tapestry. Faulks, though, is more like a bomb-maker, twisting wires; we keep reading not so much because we want to see the big picture but because we’re pretty sure something is going to blow up.
All of this might have been good anti-bourgeois fun, along the lines of recent novels by Jonathan Dee (“The Privileges”) and Adam Haslett (“Union Atlantic”) that also feature criminal financiers, if Faulks hadn’t confused the moral calculus by introducing terrorism into the story. It’s hard to take Veals seriously as a supervillain — Dr. Evil with an M.B.A. — when Hassan is commuting to France to buy explosives. One man hopes to profit from a bank’s self-inflicted wounds, the other hopes to murder psychiatric patients, and the investor is the bad guy? Yet Faulks would have us understand that Hassan is just a confused kid eager to fit in. It’s as if he flinched, determined to show us the human side of a figure we would otherwise judge harshly. That’s a generous impulse, and an admirable one for most novelists. But it makes for an oddly muddled satire, and it’s not a courtesy he extends to the vile Veals.
“The misdemeanors of the bankers will be paid for by millions of people in the real economy losing their jobs,” a drunk announces with prosecutorial zeal at the climactic dinner party. “In paper money, the trillion will be repaid in higher tax on people who have no responsibility for its disappearance. And the little tossers in the investment banks who’ve put away their two and three and four million in bonuses each year over 10 years, they of course will be the only ones who won’t pay back a coin. Which is bloody odd when you come to think of it. Because really they ought to be in prison.”
It’s a rousing speech, worthy of Frank Capra. But it puts the lie to a claim earlier in the novel, that books are “the key to understanding. The key to reality.” This engaging novel is, like John Veals, finally too obsessed with money to serve as a dependable key to anything.
More Articles in Books »A version of this article appeared in print on March 21, 2010, on page 8 of the Sunday Book Review.
Published: 4 Aug 2011
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Faulks began with the intention of writing what he called a âmodern Dickensian novelâ, one in which characters from different walks of life were linked by initially unseen connections and in which London itself played an important part. The main characters are John Veals, a hedge fund manager, and his son, Finbar; Hassan al-Rashid, a student, and his father, known as Knocker; Jenni Fortune, a Tube train driver; Gabriel Northwood, a barrister; and R. Tranter, a hack journalist. At the beginning of the book it seems that all are destined to meet at a party given by a new MPâs ambitious wife, Sophie Topping; but what underpins and binds them all is that the lives they lead are virtual or synthetic: all have become disconnected from the ârealâ world.
âFor some time,â said Faulks, âI had been aware of people I occasionally met making five or ten million pounds a year for what appeared to be no more than making bets with other peopleâs money or âOPMâ as they dismissively called it. The profits were theirs to keep with minimal tax, while any losses, because their operations were underwritten by high street banks, were for the taxpayer to shoulder. This seemed to me the greatest con trick ever perpetrated on the British public. It was embarrassing that it had been so enthusiastically embraced by a Labour government. When Gordon Brown opened Lehman Brothers office in Canary Wharf, he said, âWhat you have done for the City of London, I intend to do for the British economy.â And he did.â
Faulks spent some weeks researching the shadow world of credit default swaps and CDOâs, the instruments with which financial institutions almost broke the world banking system. âDonât be taken in when bankers say itâs very complicated and we simpletons canât understand it,â said Faulks. âThere are one or two tricky equations which few people â least of all the traders â could follow. But ninety per cent of it is simple enough.â The character of John Veals demonstrates how gigantic profits can be made legally from inside information if the financier has no ethical sense. In the course of the week in question Veals builds a position based on the likelihood of a run on a traditional bank. The run will happen when Veals makes known the existence of a particular document he has surreptitiously obtained from a cleaner (in fact, a woman in his pay) in the bankâs head office.
âVeals was difficult to get right because he is essentially one-dimensional,â said Faulks. âThatâs the whole point of bankers and financiers like him. They are, as his wife says, âfunctionally autisticâ, with no interest in any aspect of life beyond hypothetical profit. For nuance of character, you have to look elsewhere. But of course itâs the sheer monomania that makes a man like Veals quite fascinating.â
The book was begun at the height of the boom and was not intended to be a novel of the crash. However, as the banking collapse approached, Faulks decided to shorten the time scale of the book, to squeeze it down into a week and locate it at the last minute that it was still possible to believe the good times would never end: December 2007. This involved considerable rewriting, Faulks admitted. âThe new tight time scale, seven days, seven chapters, gave me urgency and structure, but it played havoc with developing relationships, which just donât grow that fast. I had to sort all that out so the reader didnât need to worry about it. It was technically very fiddly, but I hope that doesnât show.â
Hassan al-Rashid, meanwhile, is a Scottish student at a dingy university on Londonâs south bank, who is exploited by Muslim extremists, to the extent that he is prepared to take part in a terrorist bomb plot. Faulks gives a sympathetic account of the attractions of an all-embracing belief system to a young man confused by conflicting cultural demands. âI was trying to understand how someone as ironic and as British as Hassan could be so badly led astray. After all, heâs a Kilmarnock supporter. The Yorkshire bombers of 7/7 were obviously in my mind.â
Gabriel Northwood, the barrister, is involved in a civil action about an attempted suicide on the London Underground, a case that also involves the driver Jenni Fortune. Both have an addiction to a virtual world -- he to a lost lover and she to an internet game called Parallax â that they must lose before they are free to understand what hope for the future the other may hold out. John Vealsâs son, Finbar, meanwhile, is addicted to genetically modified skunk and to a reality show on television called âItâs Madnessâ. A nervous breakdown lands Finbar in the same psychiatric hospital as Gabrielâs brother Adam â a hospital that is the intended target of Hassanâs terrorist attack.
The threads of this tightly woven plot are drawn together as the characters converge from all over London to the dinner party foreshadowed in chapter one. The book ends with a series of reverses and resolutions, some unforeseen, some reassuring and some chilling.
Hutchinson jacket, 2009
The book was well received by reviewers, who praised its seriousness, its topicality and its scathing satirical humour. While most of the press attention was extremely positive, some journalists attempted to find real-life models for the characters in the book â aquest Faulks described at the time as âpuerile and doomed.â Some gossip articles continued to treat it as a roman Ã clef, with the character of R.Tranter inviting particular speculation from fellow-journalists.The most frequently mentioned âmodelâ, however, was discovered to be married with children, living in the countryside, while Tranter lives alone with a cat in the invented suburb of Ferrers End.
And some press coverage tried to inflame religious resentment, not over anything in the novel itself but over comments taken out of context from an interview. But, as Faulks put it, âThe Muslim spokesmen these reporters contacted were pretty sophisticated, modern people, so that one didnât really take off. There was one very nasty fundamentalist who tried to make trouble on his website. The police said they would force him to take down his comments if I requested it. But since part of the theme of the book was the emptiness of the virtual world, I decided not to. I think his persistent offences have since led to him being banned or deported.â
Owing perhaps partly to the large amount of press coverage, the book became Faulksâs fastest selling hardback, with a total of more than 150,000 copies sold in the Hutchinson hardback and trade paperback editions. In Vintage mass market paperback, published in September 2010, it went to number two in the Sunday Times bestseller lists and is on course to be Faulksâs fastest selling paperback as well.
At a literary festival in October 2010, Faulks said, âIt isnât really the novel I intended to write. It developed this angry and comic satirical impulse under its own steam. The book I wanted to write, a sort of Dickens meets John Updike, still remains to be written. I enjoyed being in the present day for a change and of course itâs much easier to do, with far less checking of facts. I hope to return to the present for another book, but in more loving, less satirical mode.â
â¢ âDuring times of momentous change, men of letters are driven to produce works that fictionalise the state of the nation, linking individuals with historic events. The 19th century gave us Thackerayâs Vanity Fair, Dickensâs Our Mutual Friend and Trollopeâs The Way We Live Now. The 21st century has given us Sebastian Faulksâs A Week in December.â
The Sunday Times
â¢ âRichly entertaining and highly rewarding.â Chris Blackhurst, The Evening Standard
â¢ âAs cold, impassive and deadly as a coiled rattlesnake, John Veals will endure as the epoch-defining villain of early 21st century British fiction.â
Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
â¢ A Week in December is being developed for television by Simon Burke for Left Bank Productions in London.
â¢ David Jones-Parry, the lifelong friend to whom the book is dedicated, is the brother of Caroline d'Achon, the dedicatee of A Trick of the Light.
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