The Economy of Words: A Conversation with Peter Mountford

Peter Mountford will discuss his latest book, "The Dismal Science," with Sam Lipsyte at Community Bookstore on Wednesday. Photo by Sarah Samudre

Peter Mountford will discuss his latest book, The Dismal Science, with Sam Lipsyte at Community Bookstore on Wednesday. Photo by Sarah Samudre

Sometimes the name of a book alone can tell you a lot about its author. It doesn’t take a genius to intuit that the man who wrote War and Peace, for example, suffered from no shortage of ego or ambition. Likewise, before I had even cracked open Peter Mountford’s new novel, The Dismal Science (February 2014, Tin House Books), I understood a few things about him. He was not a writer apt to talk down to his audience. (No one who doubts his readers’ critical faculties names a book after one of the world’s most inscrutable disciplines: economics.) And I knew Mountford had a sense of humor. Let’s face it, anyone who puts the words ‘dismal’ and ‘science’ right there next to each other in the title of a book aimed at a general audience understands black comedy.

All of this was appealing, but also, if I’m honest, a little intimidating. It seemed more than possible that Mountford’s story of an aging World Bank functionary in the throes of an identity crisis might be over my head. Thankfully, it hit me right where all good fiction does: in the gut. Because what wasn’t immediately clear from the book’s title is that Mountford isn’t just a clever writer but a deeply soulful one.

In one sense, The Dismal Science is about money, but describing it this way would be a little like calling The Great Gatsby a book about decadence. Boiled down to its essence, it is an intimate portrait of the impacts of First World economic avarice on one man’s life—about how the cultural and personal beliefs he carries around about money and power bleed into every aspect of his life, informing his priorities, his marriage, his very sense of self. This man, Vincenzo D’Orsi, is an Italian ex-pat who has spent an entire career bending his principals to accomplish the aims of his employer and then one day wakes up to find he can bend no further. With its forays into chess strategy, Machiavelli, and the politics of the developing world, it’s fair to describe The Dismal Science as an intellectual book, but, for me, it’s the novel’s protagonist that gives it such weight and heft. Vincenzo is a character so acutely and, occasionally, ludicrously human, he’s hard not to love. I loved him so much that on finishing the book, I immediately sought out Mountford’s first novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), a story that covers much of the same terrain from an entirely different, but equally incisive angle.

I recently had the chance to chat with Mountford about a range of topics, including the dangers of unintentional autobiography, growing up a “World Bank Group Kid,” and his belief in letting narrators “think aloud.” Brooklynites can catch the author in person on February 19th at Community Bookstore with local legend Sam Lipsyte. There’s a Magnolia-esque relationship between your novels—The Dismal Science and A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism. They’re not sequels but have overlapping storylines and feature cameos by shared characters. Both books stand alone, but reading them together, as I did, offers a wide-angle view of a fictional universe you created. Did you conceive of them as a series or did the idea evolve over time?

I fucked up, actually. I was writing this one book, it was going to be these two stories woven together, but then it dawned on me that the two stories were totally different. One’s a study of the fragile nature of identity, and the other is this fairly gritty study of ambition, and the limits of strategy. There’s more to each than that, of course, but if you’ve got to reduce it, that’s where it stands, and I couldn’t see why they’d be bound together as one volume. They were different animals, and despite the overlapping stuff, they just didn’t make sense.

In retrospect, it’s weird how revealing both books were of my subconscious. The first, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, is all about the price of ambition, and when I was writing it I was so overwhelmed with rejection—I’d been writing for eight years and had amassed enough rejections to wallpaper a large house, I had thrown away two books, I’d thrown away enough stories for another book, and I felt like a horrible failure. It was intensely humiliating. And there, on the page, I had this character who was struggling with his own disastrous insignificance, in a way. I felt deeply for him. The second book was completed a couple years later—I was writing from within a troubled marriage. I had little kids and there was a kind of latent energy collecting within me.

In both cases, I didn’t even realize how personally revealing the books were until much later. The Dismal Science is about this guy who obliterates his life in order to start again. Six months after I finished the book, my marriage began to explode, and within a year I was divorced.

I’m wary of this novel I’m writing now—how is it going to be a crystal ball into my future?

What’s it about?
The narrator is a woman who murders the father of her unborn child. Oh, I get it now. No, I’m kidding.  

The first two novels tell very different stories, but they both revolve around men from the First World whose lives are indirectly transformed by the 2006 election of populist leader Evo Morales in Bolivia. A Young Man’s Guide centers on Gabriel, a middling financial journalist in Manhattan who gets a job gathering on-the-ground intel for a hedge fund looking to capitalize on the Bolivian election. The Dismal Science follows the ups and downs of a career bureaucrat with the World Bank who resigns in protest after a Bush henchman tries to strong-arm him into cutting off aid to Bolivia if Morales is elected. What is it about Bolivia, and this election in particular, that so captured your imagination?
Bolivia’s the poorest country in South America, and their history is a near perfect example for the overall experience of countries that were colonized by Europeans. It’s a crushing story, but it’s also occasionally bizarre beyond belief—they lost their coastline in a war with Chile over bat guano, which Bolivia wanted to tax because it contains a useful ingredient in the production of gunpowder. It’s said that with the silver that the Spanish took from Bolivia, you could build a highway of solid silver from Bolivia to Spain. This was how the Spanish empire was financed.

In the 1990s, natural gas was discovered in the Bolivian jungle, and a Spanish company Repsol came to own most of the drilling rights. In Bolivia this is called “El Saqueo”—the sacking. From Columbus until the election of Evo Morales, this is how they conceptualize their history: as a long uninterrupted pillaging. The country is 70% indigenous, but Evo was their first indigenous president.

At the time of his election, astute onlookers sensed that something dramatic had changed, that poor countries weren’t so eager to play ball anymore. That’s turned out to be true. The entire relationship between poor and rich countries has changed, and not just in Bolivia. But that time in 2005 was a hinge moment. Crucially, it was also two years before the financial crisis and the collapse of Lehman and so on. It was this pivot point in contemporary history, a total overhaul of the status quo, and I think it’s an interesting time to look at these well-off financial operatives interacting with this incredibly poor country.

DS Coming in 2014One of the things that struck me about your books is how unabashedly idea-driven they are. When you boil it down, the fates of both protagonists really hinge on their evolving beliefs about money and the role it should play in our lives. It would be really easy for this type of material to turn turgid and unreadable in the wrong hands. Did you struggle to balance the political and personal demands of the stories? 
The poet Carolyn Forche said something to the effect of, “Good political writing erases the division between personal and political inquiry.” I’m paraphrasing, but the point remains that if you’re struggling with that question, then you’re probably in trouble. As soon as a story feels like an invective, some kind of op-ed that’s trying to sneak in the side door, it’s dead in the water. Op-eds work well at a page and a half, but try hammering your message into your reader’s brain for 250 pages and they’re going to be very uncomfortable.

To me, great essays involve a writer wrestling with material that is very dangerous and unsettled for them—they’re at war with themselves on the page. Great fiction, likewise, is about the unanswerable and shadowy part of life. David Foster Wallace talked about how reading fiction made him feel less alone, because you the reader are peering so deeply into the lived experience of someone else. I want the energy of great essay and I want the energy of great novels—that intimacy that Wallace is talking about is achieved through penetrating very deeply the interior space of a very complicated person’s life, you’re drilling down into their essence. But from my experience, political questions—questions of class and money and power—are also part of people’s lives in a very rich and complicated ways.

I want it all. And I know a lot of writing teachers get upset when a story starts sounding like an essay, but I get upset when a narrator isn’t allowed to think aloud, when it’s all supposed to be surface drama and hidden messages buried in the subtext.

I was really struck by how movingly you wrote about later middle age in The Dismal Science. Vincenzo’s particular breed of sadness seemed so real to me. You are in your late 30s, which is still relatively young. How did you get Vincenzo right?
With Vincenzo, I was often thinking of my father, truth be told. The book is dedicated to him. He recently had a stroke, which took away his ability to read, and I think The Dismal Science was the last novel he read before the stroke. I wasn’t going to let him read it, but he visited, and my life was imploding at the time, it was in September, about five months before the book was to be published, and I just decided, fuck it. I gave him a copy and he read it in a single day. I asked him what he thought and he said that he really loved it, that it was better than my first book, and then he  burst out crying. It was an incredible moment. And then a couple months later he was in this hospital, and he could no longer read.

One of the things that really distinguishes your work from a lot of the fiction being published in America today is its international orientation. Vincenzo is an Italian who immigrated to the U.S. to work for the World Bank as an adult; Gabriel is an American mutt with an unknown Russian father and a Chilean mother. Can you talk a little about why foreign cultures and cultural outsiders play such a large role in your fiction?
I’d like to claim that I’ve got this big artistic agenda, but it’s just how I’ve lived. My sisters were born in Paris, and my nephews have four passports: France, Mexico, U.S., and U.K. I’m a dual citizen with the U.K. My siblings all live in Europe and have done so for most of their adult lives, except my brother who also lived in Trinidad and in Australia and so on. I lived in Ecuador two years, in Mexico for six months. I’ve lived in Scotland.

Growing up in DC, I was what we called a WBGK, a “World Bank Group Kid.” My dad was actually with the IMF, but the term was loose, it just meant you were extremely international and your family wasn’t private-sector rich, but you were at a fancy private school anyway. WBGKs didn’t have nice cars, didn’t have designer clothes, but they often were bilingual or better, and they were sort of aliens, or they were “weird” in a way that’s problematic when you’re in middle school.

More and more people seem to feel that the writer’s imperative is to create “likable” characters and escapist stories capable of competing with other mediums, like television. Author Donna Tartt went so far as to say that it’s the novelist’s “moral duty” to entertain. What do you consider your moral duty as a writer?
That your writing must entertain, on some level, is necessary if you’d like to publish in a way that will be of interest to for-profit bookstores. But how you entertain is a question that I think is a lot more complicated. Think about the riveting but unlikable characters at the center of the beloved TV shows of our era: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire, Seinfeld, and so on—though I suppose those are all unlikeable men, and I have a hard time thinking of popular unlikable women, which is telling. In any case, as a writer, to me a likeable character is probably kind of banal. If I’m going to be locked in a room with a character for a couple years, please don’t let them be nice.

Likability aside, a book does need a kind of internal propulsion mechanism. Sometimes that’s plot, sometimes it’s the complexity of the characters, sometimes it’s some rich ideas, or themes, or prose—usually it’s all of the above. Nicholson Baker is enormously popular, but his books are meandering and plotless, freighted with heady digressions—but that’s the fun, is the chasing the pyrotechnics of that thought process.

I think that within the book business—from bookseller to publisher and everywhere in between—a quiet and insidious idea has taken root that readers crave escape in all of their reading. This certainly includes literary fiction, which supposedly prioritizes its artistic value over its commercial value. Historical or cross-genre fiction is often lauded by critics and sells well but is deeply escapist. Ditto for magical realism. I love Jonathan Lethem and Karen Russell and Tea Obreht, they’ve published some of my favorite books of recent years, but the work does certainly flee from the familiar.

The scarcity of fiction that deals with the workplace is odd to me. Or, I think of Salvage The Bones, by Jesmyn Ward, which presents this very stark American experience, and it sold well after it won the National Book Award, of course, but before that it was in the process of quietly getting flushed out of the bookstores. And even after it won, people seemed put out by how grim it was. We all complain about the airbrushed Lena Dunam on the cover of Vogue, but who are we kidding? We’re begging for an airbrushed version of life at every intersection, and the book market—including the literary fiction market—is no exception.

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