Great Novels About Money

Still from the film, "The House of Mirth", directed by Terence Davies, 2000

In this time of foreclosures, Wall Street pay-outs, and unemployment, ReadThis asked Martha McPhee (marthamcphee.com), author of the recent novel, Dear Money (loved by People magazine and Joseph O’Neill, among many others) to give us her choices of the best fiction about cash.

I have always loved novels that have money coursing through them, like blood.  It is a theme that doesn’t tire me and money certainly makes characters act, revealing who they are.  My latest novel, Dear Money (a title that I borrowed, by the way, from Fitzgerald who discarded it, using All The Sad Young Men instead), as the title suggests, has a lot to do with money.  I became interested in the topic as extreme wealth rose all around me in the heady days of mortgage-backed securities.

Money is a glorious and dirty topic and, it seems, everyone has something to say about it.  While working on Dear Money I read and reread some money masterpieces.  I especially love the Victorians as they were obsessed with money and used it as a lens through which to see the hypocrisy of their society.  To choose my five favorites is nearly impossible, so I thought I’d cheat by listing, in some cases, authors who have more than one great book that explores money.

I’ll begin with:

1)   Theodore Dreiser.  The novel that comes first to mind is The Financier which is based on an historic figure from the late 19th century who was caught up in a run on banks that sent the US economy into a nose dive.  Frank Cowperwood, the financier of the title, is so vivid and real and scheming, and the financial fiasco so urgent and devastating that I couldn’t put the book down.  What is that magical power some writers have to make you almost cheer for the most immoral character?  And how is it that Dreiser makes deals and double-deals and greed and fraud turn into a classic novel about business?  But The Financier is just the most obvious money novel of Dreiser’s.  All of the others are about money too, about wanting more, about attaining it in one way or another.  Sister Carrie, An American Tragedy, Jenny Gerhardt – money pulses through them, the central heartbeat.  Dreiser understood a very American predicament – the burning aspiration of the have-nots to have more, the lengths they’ll go to satisfy that urgent longing.

2)   Edith Wharton.  The novel of hers I love most is The House of Mirth. I thought about Lily Bart a lot while working on Dear Money.  I wondered who she would be today.  I certainly don’t think she would kill herself.  Rather I believe she’d go off and find her way, start a career and make a satisfying amount of money on her own.  Wharton is so deliciously good at describing Lily, at that particularly place in which she finds herself — caught between having been taught to live a certain way and not being able to afford to.  Her downfall comes from being unwilling to compromise.  She won’t marry a bore.  I also quite love The Custom of the Country and found Undine Spragg one of those marvelous, awful characters you watch out of fascination as she gets just exactly what she wants.  And she wants money.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda in front of their Westport home

3)   The Great Gatsby.  I’d be remiss if that novel weren’t on my list.  It’s brilliant, a window on the roaring ’20s.  Again, Fitzgerald creates a fascination for the rude and the ugly who destroy people’s lives for the benefit of their own.  Though money is a subject that fascinated Fitzgerald deeply and though he wrote about it in all of his fiction in one way or another, I’m not a huge fan of the other novels.

4)   Now do I choose between Trollop’s The Way We Live Now or Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or Zola’s The Masterpiece?  I love them all.  I love the Trollop for all the intersecting lives and for the aged female writer churning out articles to make ends meet, her pretentions and desires.  I love Vanity Fair for Becky Sharp, her insatiable hunger and naughtiness.  She is yet another repellent character that is a joy to watch.  And, I recognize that I am now deep into cheating, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I look around at the world today, having just read Lydia Davis’s new translation, at all of us in the privileged city, New York, and I think that every last one of us is Emma Bovary with our abundant wants and petty needs.

5)   Perhaps a favorite: New Grub Street by George Gissing.  A favorite

Flaubert

because it is all about writers trying to get by in 1870s London, the terrible compromises they must make for the love of money.  The world of publishing and writing hasn’t changed very much since then if at all.  So reading the novel is like peering directly into our silly moment with so much foolishness passed off as high art and deep thought.

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