The finance elite's manipulation of reality

Finance Fictions: Realism and Psychosis in a Time of Economic Crisis
Forfatter: Arne de Boever
Forlag: Fordham University Press (USA)
THE PARADOX OF MONEY / Arne de Boever explores how the unstable reality of finance makes people psychotic – and pushes literary realism to its outer limits.


Money is the truest and most crucial element of our lives, but at the same time, money is abstract and unreal. For classical Marxist literary theorists, such as the Hungarian Georg Lukács, the value of the novel lay in its ability to realistically mirror society and thus provide a critical clarity in a complicated reality. Arne de Boever also chooses such a simplified definition of realism as a starting point, knowing that things will get complicated when he considers the financial novel as a subgenre. The novel characters' pursuit of money also shows a hunt for a reality that is constantly evading.

De Boever's texts become an extension of the novelists 'and filmmakers' project: trying to uncover, understand and showcase the financial economy, which he cites with Joseph Vogl's book The ghost of capital (2018) describes as mysterious, intangible and ghostly. Ten years after the financial crisis in 2008, it seems clear to all of us that the demonic forces of financial capitalism cannot simply be driven by a revealing classic Marxist critique. On the stock exchange, it is haunting by daylight.

The manipulation of the financial elite

In an attempt to understand the financial crisis and the speculative economy of our time, Boever returns to the deregulation of the financial market in the 1970s. Nixon's administration needed more money to fund the Vietnam War and in 1971 left the gold standard set in the Bretton Woods agreement to guarantee the value of the money. This was the beginning of the heyday of speculation, since the monetary value could no longer be traced back to anything material. Remarkably, the 70s is also the epoch for the emergence of postmodernism, which emphasized that signs and symbols circulate freely and refer more to each other than to the so-called reality – which is thus becoming an increasingly suspicious size.

Among the most dangerous notions of the financial fantasy is the fiction about safe investment.

Before this feeling of unreality has caught on, Tom Wolfe wrote The vanity fireworks (1987), which in a classic realistic novel style portrays a stockbroker's greatness and fall after, in his money-intangible invulnerability, he clashes with the realities he has submitted to and lost contact with – in the form of a colored man he runs into by a mishap – which is later exploited by an opportunistic journalist and others who want to trap him. The game of emergency lies and cover-ups against the press is a picture of the financial elite's manipulation and non-committal relationship with reality.


As a counterpart to the escape from reality, de Boever describes the postmodern novel, in which anti-heroes indulge in a self-destructive pursuit of a lost reality. The Named Jack Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho (1991), for example, explores their own numbness through a series of grotesque killings. De Boever sees the lost sense of reality as a direct consequence of the financial system's abstract and reality-removing way of life: a work that is indeed lucrative, but which is even more alienating than the worker's wear and tear on the assembly line.

If stockbrokers end up trapped in their own game and become mere features of a system they only halfway overlook, it becomes an open question whether the novel can describe their relationship with the economic system in a realistic and clear way. In a chapter on Robert Harris' novel fear index (2011) Arne de Boever considers this updated financial novel as a variant of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818): We follow a programmer who has created an algorithm for high-speed trading, but who discovers that the automated finance program is beginning to live its own life and is making ever more frivolous and murderous decisions. The extreme speeds of automated systems cause panic. They trade in real estate and money, but the seemingly real sizes are at the same time abstracted into numbers that can suddenly disappear.

When money can evaporate or materialize for reasons that can no longer be overshadowed by anyone, the world of finance moves into science fiction – and the finance novel with it. To some extent succeed fear index by representing the relationship between man and the incomprehensible, de Boever believes. Yet this novel gives way to the temptation to incarnate the inhumane system in a caricatured form: an evil algorithm, a monster, something terrible – which nevertheless becomes a questionable personification of the formless chaos of electronic finance.

Cosmic horror

What goes on in the hyper-abstract interaction of algorithms that make up today's financial reality can no longer be experienced or described directly. The money itself is, in the deepest sense, a fiction, Boever states, and even the gold standard was just an illusion of something concrete. Debt and credit are older than money, and it is mysterious: a trust-based, invisible relationship between the creditor and the debtor that points into an unknown future. The challenge for realism is thus to describe the indescribable. Parts of the economy remain standing as one black box where we can observe what goes in and out, while the box can never be opened and inspected.

In the postmodern novel de Boever describes, anti-heroes indulge in a self-destructive pursuit of a lost reality.

Even in the financial world, concepts such as "dark pools", black holes and other understandings operate. The algorithmic financial systems are no longer ours, but a kind of unpredictable cosmic power that does not even follow predictable laws, they suggest Boever in his most extreme chapter. The financial novel has elements of cosmic horror, a genre in which nameless and invisible forces play with man and drive the protagonists crazy.

The last chapters of de Boever's book become a comic-satirical outing in Michel Houellebecq's The map and terrain (2011) and Ben Lerners 10:04 (2014). In both projects, the novels are about themselves, reflecting on the relationship of art to what it represents, where there is room for manipulation. Houellebecq's protagonist paints a picture of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs discussing the future of the Internet – and understands all art since the Renaissance as a form of speculative arousal. 10:04 is about a novel idea that is put out to tender for the publishers long before the book is written. The writing itself is constantly postponed, since the novel will never be able to meet expectations.

Among the financial imagination's most dangerous notions, they find Boever the fiction about secure investment: a fantasy of invulnerability that pushes the risk to distant, damaging parties exposed to an unstable market, manipulated or plunged into debt. Finally, he airs a profitable hope for other financial fictions and a different reality, where the abstract nature of money also makes it possible to let the debt itself evaporate like a bad dream. Belief in a reality behind the language and numbers may not be enough to expose the world of finance as something false or illusory, but it guarantees that other stories are possible.

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