'Soon the Economic System Will Crumble': Financial Crisis and Contemporary British Avant-Garde Writing

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Since the mid-1980s, as Britain, or, more specifically, London, has emerged as a global financial centre rivalled only by New York the idioms, codes, and rituals of high finance have become pressing concerns for British novelists. These concerns became acutely urgent with the onset of the global financial crisis or 'credit crunch'. The sub-genre of contemporary British fiction dubbed 'crunch-lit' by the critic Sathnam Sanghera has achieved prominence, popularity, and acclaim in recent years, but the novels in question have so far proved wholly inadequate to their subject matter, attempting to impose the venerable fictional traditions of realism, personalisation, and moralisation onto a crisis that was in many ways unreal, impersonal, and amoral. In this essay, I suggest that for British fiction that fully acknowledges the intellectual and aesthetic challenges posed by financial crises we must look to earlier decades and to overtly avant-garde techniques: specifically to the experimental science fiction of Christine Brooke-Rose and the academic philosophy-cum-cyberpunk writing of Nick Land. Brooke-Rose's Amalgamemnon (1984) vividly imagines the impending catastrophic breakdown of a wholly computerised global financial system, from which human agents are excluded. Similarly, Land's 'theory-fictions' or, in his preferred term, 'hyperstitions' of the 1990s--most notably 'Meltdown' (1994)--construe the sprawling, anonymous circuits of contemporary financial capitalism as tending inexorably toward crisis. Both Brooke-Rose's and Land's texts overtly present themselves as prophecies of financial disaster; as such, their time has now arrived, eclipsing in importance and relevance more conventional texts that respond directly to the ongoing crises of financial capitalism.

When it Comes to the Crunch

The 'crunch-lit' novel that most fully exemplifies the failings of the form is also probably the best known and most widely celebrated example: Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December (2009), a panoramic portrayal of contemporary metropolitan life set in the early credit crunch days of December 2007. The attachment to realist conventions exhibited by this and similar novels is problematic because it results in a fundamental contradiction between content and form, since the phenomenon to which the text gives narrative shape, the phenomenon of contemporary financial crisis--abstract, cryptic, phantasmagoric--is everything that realism, with its air of transparency and emphasis on the material, the tangible, and the apprehensible, is not. A Week in December, like other credit crunch novels, places great emphasis on the unreality of financial exchange: such exchange is 'detached ... from the real world; 'semi-virtual; and 'magical[ly] self-sufficien[t]'. (1) Similarly, Justin Cartwright's Other People's Money (2011) describes advanced financial instruments as 'chimeras' and 'fables' that 'appear from nowhere' and then 'simply [implode]'. (2) The speculative, ontologically unstable condition that such texts attribute to finance capital would be conveyed to the reader with immeasurably greater power, however, if, rather than merely being described matter-of-factly, it were absorbed into the fabric of the narrative discourse itself.

In a further contradiction, works of crunch-lit typically maintain a realist style whilst depicting the dynamics of the credit crisis in profoundly counter-factual terms, by attributing this structural and systemic crisis of global finance capital to the actions of a small group of people, or even a single individual. A propensity familiar from the well-established sub-genre known as the financial thriller, (3) its clearest manifestation in novels responding to the credit crunch again appears in Faulks's A Week in December, whose protagonist, a hedge fund manager named John Veals, seeks to profit by single-handedly bringing down a thinly-veiled version of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and with it the wider British, and world, economies. …