"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Very Funny Descendant of Zola: Marina Lewycka's Novel about Quants, Commies and Community

Seems I spoke too soon a bit ago when I asked, rather rhetorically, where was a current novel to compare with Zola's The Kill when it comes to dealing with the causes of our economic woes.

Marina Lewycka's hilarious Various Pets Alive and Dead does just that, however,  It begins in early September 2008, ends a year or so later, and in between hits many of the high points of radical politics in Britain in the last quaarter of the 20th century.

The main characters include Doro and Marcus, a couple who fetched up in a hugh old house in coal mining country, just as Margaret Thatcher and economic forces were conspiring to shut down that industry.  Their three children--school teacher Clara, math whiz Serge and Down's syndrome sweetie Oolie-Anna--are trying to make their own lives, free of their parents' do-gooder, pacifist ways.  Other characters include Serge's comrades in the fields of finance, the other residents who passed through the old house/commune, and Clara's fellow teachers.

What they do is very funny: I laughed outloud every 25 pages or so, and I read late into the night for sheer pleasure.  Mixed in with the farce, however, is a great deal of information about the financial shenanigans that lead to the collapse of the housing bubble.  Nowhere else have I come across such a digestible exposition of the mathematical models that underlie the making of  financial "products" and manipulation of the stock market.  Bravo for Lewycka for doing what legions of business writers haven't done while telling an engaging story!

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Lewycka's first big novelistic success (she's written four in all)  also mixes fact and story.  But whereas it looks backward to the Ukraine of the 1930s and 1940s and immigrant lifein post-War England, Various Pets... is as contemporary as the latest computer hardware update.

Zola might not recognize Lewycka as working his tradition--can't think of a moment when he was funny--but they belong in the same company of writers who deal honestly with the world as they see it in books that people are going to want to read.

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