by Kate Jennings
A review by C. P. Farley
Freelance writer Cath, the narrator of Kate Jenning's Moral Hazard, is a self-described "bedrock feminist, unreconstructed left-winger." However, when her husband, 25 years her senior, is diagnosed with Alzheimer's, she realizes that she may have to compromise her values in order to cover his escalating medical bills. She gets a job as an executive speechwriter in a high-powered Wall Street investment firm, "whose ethic was borrowed in equal parts from the Marines, the CIA, and Las Vegas." For the next six years, she spends her days working long hours in the Darwinian world of high finance and her evenings taking care of her rapidly deteriorating husband. Cath sums this experience up in the books first paragraph: "Bloody awful, all of it."
Fortunately, this artful novel is not. In a mere 175 pages, Jennings not only provides a whip smart exposé of the Byzantine, jargon-happy subculture of bankers, CEOs, risk managers, and so forth who run our financial world and a devastating portrait of the cruel effects of Alzheimer's, she also creates the memorable, Graham Greenesque Cath: intelligent, witty, melancholic, and stubbornly unsentimental.
Cath is introduced to the culture of Wall Street by her smoking buddy-cum-financial mentor, a Leonard Cohen-quoting leftist named Mike, who rails against the transparent greed and ritual hypocrisies of Wall Street culture while pulling in a substantial compensation package as head of the firm's risk management department. In one of his rants, Mike asks Cath: "Did you know that Mussolini admired American corporations?"
Cath later realizes what he was driving at: "The United States is a democracy, and yet it's powered by autocratic corporations. Its engines are fascist. Nothing democratic about them." The world she has made her home is an Orwellian gulag:
There's a pretense at democracy. Blather about consensus and empowering employees….But it's a sop. Bogus as costume jewelry. The decisions have already been made. Everything's hush-hush, on a need-to-know-only basis. Compartmentalized. Paper shredders, e-mail monitoring, taping phone conversations, dossiers. Misinformation, disinformation. Rewriting history. The apparatus of fascism. It's the kind of environment that can only foster extreme caution. Only breed base behavior. You know, if I had one word to describe corporate life, it would be "craven." Unhappy word.
The metaphor may be blunt as Cath's husband ("Sweet Bailey, dearest Bailey") rapidly loses his mental and bodily functions, not to mention his personality, Cath assimilates herself into a world devoid of soul and beauty but Jenning's treatment of it is not. Her Wall Street beset by a moral Alzheimer's is an apt and timely representation of the state of the union. And Cath, who refuses to indulge specious justifications or false comforts, is a wonderful example of what it takes to remain human in the modern world:
We're rather keen in this country on learning lessons, as if everything were a test and not just life happening. No pain, no gain all that bunkum. I could do without the pain, thank you....The dailiness of life that's what gets you through hard times. Putting on your pantyhose, eating breakfast, catching the subway. That's what stops your heart from breaking.
Kate Jenning's is a remarkable writer insightful, compassionate, lyrical, and artful and Moral Hazard is bloody good, all of it.