Capitalism Gone Wild

By Platt, Edward | Newsweek, January 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

Capitalism Gone Wild

Platt, Edward, Newsweek

Byline: Edward Platt

Robert Harris's new thriller weaves a terrifying vision of a rogue hedge fund.

For a man whose well-turned thrillers encompass the venal workings of power in both the modern and ancient world, Robert Harris leads a very quiet life. He lives in the Berkshire village of Kintbury, 60 miles west of London, and on the day that I went to meet him for lunch in the local pub, the main topic of conversation was the unusual-looking duck that had appeared on the towpath.

Such are the thrills of the countryside, said his wife, the journalist Gill Hornby (sister of novelist Nick Hornby), when we walked back to the Victorian vicarage where she and Harris live with their four children. Harris has referred to it as "the house that Hitler bought," because he paid for it with the proceeds of his first novel, Fatherland, which imagined how the world might have looked had Germany won the Second World War. In the early 19th century, it was owned by a man called Fulwar Craven Fowle, whose son was engaged to Cassandra Austen, sister of Jane. The beech tree in the middle of the lawn that runs down to the canal is old enough to have witnessed Jane Austen's visits to the house, though Harris's new novel, The Fear Index, was inspired by a different kind of 19th-century writer.

It is set in the world of high finance, but Harris conceived of it as a ghost story or Gothic fable in the mode of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Its protagonist is a brilliant but eccentric scientist and hedge-fund manager called Alex Hoffmann, who has devised software that can track human emotions, particularly fear, and hence predict the movement of markets. The program generates vast profits for its creator, but in the best traditions of the genre, it proves less than stable. The action of the book takes place over 24 hours as the program spins out of control.

The novel has been a long time in the making. Harris had been thinking about it for 12 or 13 years, since he read Bill Gates's book Business at the Speed of Thought, which talks about companies having a digital nervous system. He had always wanted to create an Orwellian dystopia, and he was fascinated by the idea of people going to work at a company that was more intelligent than they were. "What would you do if the machine on your desk was taking all the decisions, and you were simply window dressing?" he said over lunch.

After the collapse of Lehman Brothers, he realized that reality had come true in the financial markets. When he started researching the book in early 2010, a friend took him to see a hedge fund in London that was relocating to Geneva, partly because it could recruit people from the Large Hadron Collider. "Financial novels have become rather cliched. I didn't want to write about Wall Street or the City of London, but to write about a hedge fund in Geneva, with all the Gothic overtones of Mary Shelley and so on--that did intrigue me."

Yet despite what Harris calls the book's "Gothic flights of fancy," it is rooted in his observations of the world. "I have two motives when I write a book. I have always thought of myself as a political writer--but then allied with that, there is the sheer pleasure of telling a story."

Harris, who was born in 1957, divides his adult life into two halves. Before he moved to the country and concentrated on writing novels, he was political editor of The Observer, Britain's only left-leaning Sunday newspaper, and a columnist for the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times. In 1992, the Labour Party was defeated in a general election for the fourth time, and as it began a period of reappraisal, its spokesman on home affairs asked Harris to lunch. The relatively unknown politician was Tony Blair, who two years later became Labour leader and set about making the party electable by rebranding it "New Labour" and launching the Clintonesque "third way. …

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