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Richard Godden, Fictions of Finance at the End of an American Century: Punctuating Capital

Valentine Alloing
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Richard Godden, Fictions of Finance at the End of an American Century: Punctuating Capital, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023, 288 p., ISBN: 9780192867759, £78.00.

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1The financialization of the US economy has been an object of literary investigation over the past four decades and beyond, with novels set in and around Wall Street such as Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003), and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991). Literary criticism too has delved into the impact of financialization on literature: Mirosław Aleksander Miernik’s Rethinking Fiction after the 2007/8 Financial Crisis Consumption, Economics, and the American Dream (2021), Jacques-Henri Coste’s and Vincent Dussol’s The Fictions of American Capitalism. Working Fictions and the Economic Novel (2020), and Peter Knight’s Reading the Market: Genres of Financial Capitalism in Gilded Age America (2016), to name but a few recent studies, all deal with the question at different moments of US literary history.

2Richard Godden’s Fictions of Finance at the End of an American Century: Punctuating Capital primarily draws from economists and historians rather than contemporary literary research, yet offers an original entry into the question through meticulous close readings. The book grapples with the materiality of texts, linking them to a financial unconscious, and contends with their syntax to unravel the jagged rhythm of financialized capital. Godden’s close readings, characterized as intimate and at times erotic, consider punctuation as “the rhythms of the unsaid […] whisper[ing] through the sub-semantics of language” (vi). Placing bodies at the core of his analysis, Godden roots his examination of finance capital in Marxist theory, referencing scholars like Robert Brenner, David Harvey, Louis Althusser, and Karl Marx. This analysis frames capital as existing simultaneously in various phases, embodying a “successive simultaneity” (Marx 1990) that violently manifests itself through crises.

3In dissecting the rhythm of financialized capital, the book identifies two pivotal moments—1973 and 2006—which it links to two objects. 1973 signifies a turning point in US capital history as financial assets become much more profitable than production: machines on the production line are opposed to the immateriality of debt, now considered the preferred raw material of financialization. Examining Althusser’s notion of objects as the materialization of invisible structures, the book explores the 2006 peak of the housing bubble, depicting the mortgaged house as no longer a home but a function of the financial sector. The mortgaged house, described as “a piece of real estate immanent with its own emptiness” (15), becomes a symbol of the peculiar materiality underpinning the subprime crisis. Drawing on Marx, the book explains how finance detaches itself both from production and from circulation. Unlike productive or commodity capital, money capital seeks self-referential speculative realization, creating more money independently and deferring a future entailing the painful materialities of production and exchange.

4Having revealed the inherent invisibility of financial economic structures to economic agents, Godden turns to language. In his endeavor to recover the materiality of these structures, which “think behind our back” (18) the latter appears as the perfect point of access. Consequently, Godden follows Althusser’s request that readers “hear malice in the words that speak to [them],” that is, “hear behind the proffered word the silence it conceals” (295). Godden also finds a base for his study of the rhythm and punctuation of finance capital in Mikhail Bakhtin’s sideward glance at the text and in the internal dialogism he sees in individual words. Using Bakhtin, as well as Valentin Vološinov, Godden thus discusses the figure of the ellipsis as evidencing more than silence or hesitation, but as signaling contradiction.

5In the first chapter of the book, “Incidents in the Life and Language of Debt,” Godden returns to the origin of the financialization of the US economy, relating it to two concepts: inflation and abstraction. Drawing from Alain Lipietz’s distinction between real money—representing accomplished labor—and credit money—i.e., “anticipated realization”—Godden observes that the fictionality of credit money is not incompatible with high rates of profit, but often delivers high inflation rates. Credit money—Marx’s “fictitious capital”—is not reinvested in the circuit of production, and it disrupts the circuits of commodity and productive capital, therefore creating debt crisis. The book then draws a parallel between credit money—money made from money—and language made from language in the works of poststructuralist authors such as Walter Abish. Quoting from Abish’s 1975 experimental piece “In So Many Words,” which is composed of 160 sections started by an arbitrary number which determines the exact number of words in the passage, Godden assesses the modification of semantics by number. Abish’s fascination for the quantitative, as well as his pervasive use of inuendoes eroticizing numbers, and his many puns on sight, evidence his preference for what Alfred Sohn-Rethel describes as “a physicality of the abstract” (57). Lodging this mode of perception in an inflationary decade, Godden describes the focus on commodity, abstraction, and perfection in Abish’s “The English Garden” (1977) as being part of the “calculative habitus,” an orientation towards price and number identified by anthropologist Arjun Appadurai. He then relates said calculative habitus to linguistic practices through a reading of Walter Benjamin’s theory of allegory, and especially through the fetishistic allegories identified by Benjamin in Charles Baudelaire’s poems that point to price as the ur-allegorical sign.

6Referencing Costas Lapavitsas’s concept of “moneyness,” i.e. the representation of pure exchange value, the book then turns to Ann Beattie’s “Janus” (1985), which features a real-estate agent obsessed by a bowl, arguing that the story reflects a clarification of the opacity of moneyness. Godden thus points to the real-estate agent’s progressive internalization of the bowl as evidence of the clarification, here depicted as a fetishization. The book then focuses on the recurrent motive of blood, reading it as a sign of the liquifying of hard bodies—read: extraction of money from them. To do so, Godden turns to Christine Schutt’s “The Blood Jet” (1985), the story of a mother who abandons her children in favor of a rich and abusive man. The mother, and narrator of the story, visits a house that is for sale. Her abuser, fascinated by the real-estate agent’s revelation that it is a murder scene—a man killed his wife in the house—becomes violently engrossed in the story and attempts to kill the narrator. Noticing the subversion of trust and promises in the abusive relationship, the book also highlights the intromission of finance in sex.

7The connection between sex and finance is made even stronger in the second chapter of the book, “Fictions of Fictitious Capital. American Psycho and the Poetics of Deregulation.” This chapter uses the deregulated context of offshore hedge funds and derivatives as a framework of analysis to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991). Ellis’s hero, Patrick Bateman, embodies the pathological prosperity of the Reagan era characterized by a further financialization of the economy accompanied by fetishization and mystification. An example of this mystification is the explosion of derivatives, a financial instrument encapsulating the relation between two abstractions—exchange or interest rates for example. The book also comments on the lengthy and brand-obsessed descriptions of Bateman’s clothes, comparing them to the unbranded shirt in The Great Gatsby (1925): the fetish—here, the brand—erases the product as well as the production process and the labor of the worker, triggering anxiety as it stands in the way of what is desired. There is little separating the fetish and the spectacle, in Guy Debord’s definition of the term at least—i.e. “capital accumulated to the point at which it becomes an image” (24). Both obliterate the real, in the doubly fetishistic creation of more fetishes. Since the fetish is not what it seems, American Psycho regularly showcases an anxious sensory reception containing a sense of duplicity—verbal slippages, puns and inuendoes. Bateman’s torturing and serial killing comes to resonate with the derealization and quasi-immateriality hinted at by this fetishistic process: he makes pain as a vehicle used to verify the bodiless economic form of fictitious finance capital. Bateman, Godden contends, “kills serially, riskily, painfully, abstractly, fictively, and in a manner entirely in keeping with the financial forms that structure his lifeworld” (88).

8In the third chapter, “Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park, and the Exquisite Corpse of Deficit Finance,” the book takes a psychoanalytical turn in its exploration of Ellis’s oeuvre. It offers an exploration of his mock-memoir, Lunar Park (2005), through the exquisite corpse and the crypt, two concepts coined by psychoanalysts Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham to account for pathological grief as the defensive incorporation of traumatic deaths and family secrets. Lunar Park centers, precisely, on a safe in a vault containing the ashes of Robert Martin Ellis, Ellis’s father and the source for Patrick Bateman. The novel’s lament associates the dead father’s ashes with those of the World Trade Center, buildings iconic to neoliberalism but also to the waning of America’s hegemony and its increasingly desperate attempts to compensate for the stagnation of its economy through oil imperialism. The connection between father and son is also complicated by a triangular genealogy: Robby, Ellis’s fictional son, is unwittingly named after Robert, who, the narrative suggests, could be his biological father. Yet Godden is ultimately less interested in Ellis’s blurring of the line between reality and fiction than in analyzing the cryptonyms to “emphasize the degree to which text, sex, father, and finance prove inseparable” (102).

9The fourth chapter of the book, “No End to the Work? Jayne Anne Phillips and the Exquisite Corpse of Southern Labor” returns to the unconscious of finance—the labor and body of the worker—in the shape of the blue-collar Southern characters of Phillips’s first three novels Machine Dreams (1984), Shelter (1994) and MotherKind (2000). The industrial and economic history of the South, marked by a lack of regulations and capital, but an abundance of unskilled, ununionized, low-wage blue collar workers, is encapsulated within the Hampson family whose life is chronicled by Phillips in Machine Dreams. Godden identifies an act of expulsion and retention at the heart of the three novels, a structure that mostly centers around the incorporation of the exquisite corpse of blue-collar fathers by daughters whose upward mobility is associated with an education permitted by their mothers. The book’s intimate exploration of bodies and sexualities does not stray away from its focus on rhythm and on the collision of voices that splits objects. Contemplating the “long funerary note to a failed regional marriage between blue and white collars” (143), the book displays the contradictory memorialization and erasure of the body of the working father.

10The fifth chapter, “Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite Monetized War, Militarized Money—a Narrative Poetics for the Closing of an American Century,” focuses on Philipps’s fourth novel, Lark and Termite (2009), and extends its investigation into the function of war within financial capital. Godden reaffirms the connection between Phillips’s preoccupation with the damaged body of the worker—or, in that case, of the soldier—and the receding role of factory labor in the US economy. The connection is better illustrated by Fort Knox and the proximity of the nation’s gold reserves with the military training of young men about to die in the Vietnam war, as is the case of Billy Hampson in Machine Dreams. The chapter interrogates the manifest anomalies of the neoliberal world order: the US dollar having replaced gold as the valueless money of the world, only a Keynesian use of defense can guarantee the dollar’s lingering value. Indefinitely rolled over Treasury IOUs will never be repaid but impose “wounds to the collective body, issued on behalf of the few, from which wounds global liquidity flows” (158). Contrasting the industrial wounds with atopic and purely liquid high-frequency trading—rendered possible by Verizon’s golden route of cables between New York and Chicago—Godden reflects on the motif of telepathy in Lark and Termite, a novel that explores the connection between Erin Leavitt, who impulsively enrolled in a peacetime army but promptly died in Korea, and his children, Lark and Termite, who remained in West Virginia.

11The sixth and final chapter, “The Bodies in the Bubble. David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King,” co-written with Michael Szalay, focuses on the latest stage of financialized capital: the 2008 crisis. The chapter opens on a strange coincidence: on September 12, 2008, government officials and corporate executives frantically tried to prevent the looming crisis by devising a rescue plan for Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, but also for Lehman Brothers. That very same day, David Foster Wallace hanged himself, leaving his last novel, The Pale King (2011), unfinished. The novel, set in the mid-1980s, is concerned with problems of corporeality and abstraction that it associates with finance capitalism. The body of the writer, central to the text through the character of “David Foster Wallace,” is dismissed in a foreword, not for literary but for legal reasons, and appears as the ghostly mirror image of the body of the corporation, conflating a legal person with the bodies of the workers. The book argues that The Pale King was “impossible to finish—its volatile contradictions belonging less to Wallace than to the phase of finance capitalism which he sought to anatomize, and through which he lived and died” (206).

12An incredibly exhaustive book that is unique in its erudition and mastery of complex economic mechanism, Fictions of Finance at the End of an American Century will doubtlessly capture the attention of anyone interested in contemporary American literature. The book nonetheless appears to be destined to the more informed readers with some background in economy, as its extensive use of financial concepts can prove challenging to the layperson. The book’s usage of close reading, however, offers a renewed outlook on the practice “as a means through which to recognize the historical density of utterance, and to sense the complexity of what enters our minds and comes out of our mouths” (207).

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Valentine Alloing, « Richard Godden, Fictions of Finance at the End of an American Century: Punctuating Capital »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 12 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/22752 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11x3b

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Valentine Alloing

Université Paris Cité

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