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Thriller Default Swaps

HITLER, STALIN, THE Bletchley Park code-breakers, ancient Rome—Robert Harris has made his name (and fortune) as a novelist by digging further and further back into the fantastical pasts of his imagination. Over the past few years, though, Harris has become more interested in writing up-to-the-minute thrillers. Five years ago, in The Ghost Writer, he anatomized the turmoil at the heart of a British government that looked eerily similar to those headed up by Tony Blair. (Despite its assassinations and car chases and improbably easy seductions, the novel laid bare the tensions that rove the Blair administration long before its tragic involvement in the Iraq war.) Now, in The Fear Index, Harris offers his take on the financial crisis that has engulfed the developed world pretty much since Blair left office. If nothing else, the book will make horrifying reading for any politician who thinks that some time soon things will be back to business as usual.

The horror begins in Geneva, on May 6, 2010—not uncoincidentally the day of the computer-triggered “flash crash” that saw the Dow Jones briefly plummet almost 1,000 points. We are at the lakeside home of Dr. Alex Hoffman, a math genius who has been seduced away from a morally impregnable research career working on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and into the more compromised (and, of course, rewarding) world of hedge funds. Thanks to his development of VIXAL-4, a super-computer that can understand news stories and predict market behavior—and is already factoring in the effects of the first austerity riots in Greece—Hoffman calculates himself worth “a billion, a billion-two.”

So couldn’t he afford a better alarm system? I mean, here he is, the night before he is due to unveil VIXAL-4’s latest software to an international audience of potential investors, and though his $60 million mansion’s state-of-the-art “five-hundred-watt tungsten-halogen security lights” go off, Hoffman still ends up with a bump on his head, fearing for his future as well as for the honor of his still sleeping wife. Over the next twenty-four hours, as he is targeted by enemies unseen and unknown, Hoffman’s private and professional lives begin to fall apart.

It would be unfair to give much more of the plot away. Still, since the novel opens with a quotation from Frankenstein, it is hardly spoiling things to point out that Harris has some fun with the Promethean parallels that his Zurich setting affords him. The Fear Index, which at times reads more like science fiction than straight thriller, is the latest entry in what we might call the novel of technological hubris. Harris’s skill lies in his linking this dystopian tradition to the despairing mood of a world in which we have all just learned not only that we understand next to nothing about the swaps and derivatives and positions that determine our futures, but that the people who we trust to run them do not understand them either.

None of this, you will be thinking, sounds much like the territory of the rip-roaring or the action-packed. We all like money, to be sure, but despite the melodramatics of talk about risk and reward, lucre, no matter how filthy, is hardly the stuff of real drama. As for investment bankers, for all the delight and despair they may engender, they are not axiomatically venal villains, much less exciting heroes. But Harris is a practiced page-turner—a writer who, like Frederick Forsyth before him, can have you believing in stories that you know before the fact to be categorically untrue. De Gaulle never was assassinated, after all, and Hitler did not win World War II. This time around, though, Harris is dealing with something that really could happen. Improbable—and occasionally ludicrous—as his plot is, there is no denying that its basic premise is no more than the logical end-game of today’s market strategies.

And yet for all its debts to the likes of Michael Crichton and Ian Fleming, The Fear Index teaches you little about high finance. Read Goldfinger and you come away an expert on golf and canasta; read Airframe and you can hold your own on aircraft construction methods and safety records. Nobody, though, will learn how to buck the market from reading this novel. Chuckle though I did at the cocktail party scene in which Hoffman’s business partner Hugo Quarry explains the theory behind hedge funds by encouraging bets on what color panties a lady guest might be wearing, it didn’t for a moment clarify what a liquid security is, much less what, ahem, short selling might be. In truth, Harris’s imagery gives the game away. The lady’s underwear, whatever its color, is there to take your mind off the awkward fact that the analogy is pretty inane.  

As for the financial crisis proper, Harris aficionados could be forgiven for imagining he would have made rather more of his machine-out-of-control metaphor than he does. For the past thirty years, after all, governments in the developed world have been slavish in their adoption of an approach to the politics of economics so mechanistic as to be almost Marxist. To be sure, there was nothing remotely egalitarian and redistributive about the Washington consensus. But the neoliberal project’s messianic faith in the idea that economics determine and explain every facet of human life, as well as its certainty that it was the only and proper end of history, are looking not only dogmatic but even absurd. It is not the critic’s job to tell an author what he ought to do, of course. Still, I cannot help feeling that Harris might have used The Fear Index to explain the larger ideological con behind the financial flim-flam we have all just been suckered by.

In other words, this is not Harris’s best book. Just before reading The Fear Index I was re-acquainting myself with the novels of Eric Ambler, which seventy years after the political turmoil they evoke and explain still read beautifully. Thematically, Robert Harris is far more zeitgeisty, but as a stylist he is nowhere near Ambler’s league. His sentences clunk more often than they click, and his rhythm is leaden—there is no variation in pulse from one line to the next. His eye for a cliché (“formidable powers of attention,” “the voice of pure fear”) is, well, shall we say second to none.

And yet. Eric Ambler wrote screenplays too, though the movies he scripted or doctored— including The Cruel Sea and A Night to Remember—now look like so much gunk from the bilge-pumps. Not so Harris’s film work. Even as The Fear Index hits the bookshops, its author is turning it into a movie script. Given that his screenplay for The Ghost Writer was infinitely superior to his original novel, you might want to wait for the film.

Christopher Bray is the author of Sean Connery (Pegasus). He is at work on a cultural history of Britain in the 1960s.