The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

I’ve been listening to a lot of Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF, lately. Each episode is a nice probing of the comic impulse, usually recognizing its sadness. Maron talks about his myriad insecurities, his failed relationships, his neediness. His humor is a reaction to the things about himself that he’s uncomfortable with. In a recent episode he described the type of laugh he attempts to elicit from his audience: “the laugh that really should be crying,” where the joke in question arouses discomfort.

I also recently read Zadie Smith’s essay about the role of humor in her relationship with her father (Dead Man Laughing). Some parts are very personal to Smith’s life, but others make a few illuminating generalizations about comedy. She tosses off great one-liners, such as: “Comedy is a Lazarus art; you can die onstage and then rise again,””In my family, at least, [comedy] was a way of talking about things we didn’t want to talk about,” and “Comedy nausea is the extreme incarnation of what my father felt: not only is joke-telling a cheap art; the whole business of standup is, in some sense, a shameful cheat.”

She focuses her essay on her father, Harvey, a “comedy snob” who favored comics “wedded to despair.” As Smith notes in the end of her essay, Harvey’s life, if lived without laughter, would have been a long set-up without any reward in the form of a punchline. Harvey registered Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, in which a character bears his likeness, as a “laugh-or-you’ll-cry” fiction. Such was his life. Such are all our lives.

This is all to say that I would have liked The Financial Lives of the Poets more, had it been written with a few ounces more seriousness. It’s a very enjoyable novel, extremely accessible, lightning quick to read (lest you want to put it down to text one of the novels’ jokes, the phrases “population-control pajama pants” or “the Devil’s floss” [a thong], for example, to a friend). Once the plot gets going, it goes and ends, for the most part, where you expect it to.

The book follows Matthew Prior, a down-on-his-luck, unemployed father of two boys (Teddy and Franklin, their presidential names being one of my favorite jokes of the book), in charge of housing his senile father, and whose marriage is coming apart at the seams because of a suspected affair between his wife and the local lumber dealer. Going out for milk one night, on an impulse Prior attends a party with two stoned 20-somethings. Wallowing in his self-pity, and under the threat of foreclosure, Matt decides to start buying and selling weed as a means of making the money needed to keep his family’s home, his kids from the dangers of public schooling, and his marriage from falling apart completely. It’s a book about several kinds of declines: personal, financial, biological.

The problem is that it bills itself as a sort of social novel — it takes place in modern day Anytown, America, amid our current economic collapse. Reading Sister Carrie and House of Mirth this semester in “Literature from the Gilded Age to the Jazz Age,” and, yes, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen the week of its release, I was struck by each writer’s ability to condense a moment in time into a strong, complexly-layered narrative. Those three books are heavily notated, either on their mass-market paperback pages, or on iPhone notes dedicated to marking sections, sentences, or particular observations about the texts. My iPhone note for The Financial Lives of the Poets is short, tapped wearily out of the un-excitement that’s synonymous with reading good, not great books.

There are complexities to be found in The Financial Lives, but they don’t compare to Dreiser’s, Wharton’s, or Franzen’s. For example, drug dealers are people too. That’s one of this book’s complex messages. Another: the American financial markets and machine (a series of complex systems) are as deeply flawed as the people who run it. Another: sometimes you have to settle for being “OK.” Another: the world is unfair.

The book is not completely dumbed down. There are a few nice bits about the travails of fatherhood (though Smith’s essay, for example, is miles more interesting on that topic). There’s a running commentary throughout about the dying newspaper industry, but we generally already know that the newspaper industry is dying, and why that is (Web 2.0).

Perhaps the most annoying part of The Financial Lives of the Poets is that, since the narrator goes without sleep for much of the book (meeting with dealers from late-nights into early-mornings), he’s constantly reminding himself and the reader of his circumstances. This means that at the start of almost every chapter, we’re told things we’ve come to realize at the end of the preceding chapter. It makes the book easy to follow, but is frustrating in that it precludes a steady narrative rhythm. It also precludes a challenge of any kind, which, if moderated, usually makes for a more worthwhile reading experience.

In describing how The Financial Lives came about, Walter wrote that he poked “his head out the window and describe[d]” what he saw, with comic embellishments. He also wrote that readers who were perplexed by his NBA-finalist novel, The Zero, would probably like The Financial Lives (i.e., this is a far simpler read). And The Financial Lives does play well to a large audience. It’d make for a charming Capra-esque film (though Weeds watchers would probably dismiss it, unfairly, as knocking-off that program). Nick Hornby called The Financial Lives “a joy to read,” and, for the most part, it is. But unlike Hornby’s joys, Walter’s book never made me stop and think about how his words correlated to my life’s experiences, my relationships, my shame, my joys. Perhaps I’m too young. Perhaps that’s it.

The Financial Lives of the Poets, like the one episode of Weeds I’ve seen, made me laugh often and made me think briefly about art/media-as-a-mirror, but never made me consider crying instead of laughing (though Matt’s situation is comi-tragic, Walter’s writing doesn’t seriously dwell long enough on the force of his melancholy), which is the kind of comic reaction I prefer, for what feeling is rarer than being torn between misery and euphoria?

I never felt any real discomfort reading The Financial Lives, and not just because of its fundamentally hopeful tone and conclusion. And I think, if there doesn’t have to be discomfort in the reading experience*, there at least has to be challenge. The completion of a book presents many challenges, I think. You imagine what the writer meant with his or her book, what he or she was trying to say, what symbols or structure he or she played with. In this respect, The Financial Lives of the Poets may be a rich book, as many reviewers claim it to be. But the process of reading it, line-by-line, scene-to-scene, was too easy, the writing too lackadaisical, to warrant very much close attention after I finished. Marc Maron’s podcast and Zadie Smith’s essay use humor far more effectively; it’s their conduit, their theme, their process and their point. Here, it is merely genre, style. I wish Walter had written a socio-comic novel concerned more with the country’s absurdity, rather than just his story’s.

*David Foster Wallace: “I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
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