Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Spending for Vast Returns: Colleen Coyne Reviews Jess Walter's Novel "The Financial Lives of the Poets"

Poetry & Popular Culture Correspondent Colleen Coyne writes in from Minneapolis where she is completing an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Minnesota. Self-identifying on Facebook as "Optimistically Agnostic," she ultimately finds something in The Financial Lives of the Poets that readers can believe in. That and an investment tip or two.

Earlier this winter, Chicagoland publisher Sourcebooks, Inc. launched PoetrySpeaks, a website selling text, audio, and video of individual poems for $0.99-$1.99 a pop. (Think iTunes for poetry.) Call me cynical, but as much as I want it to be, poetry is rarely profitable. Despite conventional wisdom, PoetrySpeaks is betting on a huge audience of willing and eager, iPod-toting poetry-purchasers to pony up the big bucks—or at least enough dough to keep 'em afloat.

Only a fool would take that wager. But in Jess Walter’s latest novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, former business journalist Matt Prior has done just that, literally betting the whole house on his pipe-dream Poetfolio.com, a website that delivers financial news via poetry—with disastrous and hilarious consequences.

We first meet 46-year-old Matt, slipper-clad and sleep-deprived, on a midnight 7-11 milk run. He’s out of a job; he’s pretty sure his wife is cheating on him; he’s a caretaker to his two little boys and dementia-ridden father; and he’s a week away from losing his house because of the categorical failure of his “money lit” website. With little time to make everything right, what’s a guy to do? Hook up with some local stoners and become a drug dealer, of course—all in the name of salvaging his marriage, saving his house, and bringing his life back from the brink of ruin.

Matt is responsibility gone rogue, a “creepy old guy” trying to grapple with the lingo and social cues of a totally alien drug subculture. In his most insightful moments, he takes on American entitlement and gluttony, suggests his own complicity in the current sado-masochistic financial kink-fest, and questions our Web-centric need for instant gratification. During a brief hopeful moment, he wonders: “is it possible to fall in love with your own life?” We readers are inclined to say no, having watched so many people over the past year lose jobs and homes. But flawed as our lives can be, we fight for what we want and will do anything—anything—to save ourselves and the people we love. That’s one reason we like our anti-hero—he’s flawed, but he’s a fighter.

And because we like him, we watch Matt’s many dubious decisions with hands half over our eyes, as if we’re watching a slasher flick. (Don’t go through that drug-dealing door, Matt!) He’s surrounded by other characters spanning the hapless spectrum: Chuck, the balding lumber salesman who’s putting the moves on Matt’s wife; Monte, ruler of the local pot plantation (a.k.a. “Piggy, Drug Lord of the Flies”); Dave, futilely cautious lawyer for all major drug transactions; Richard, his financial planner who’s “predictable as coffin shopping”; and a host of others who, like Matt, are desperately trying to make the best of their broken worlds. We can’t bear and yet can’t wait to watch the disaster unfold. Although the story is somewhat predictable—like that slasher flick—it’s told with such wit and insight that we don’t want to put it down.

Beyond his characters, Walter’s strength is the novel’s form. Much as Matt himself lives multiple lives, The Financial Lives of the Poets takes on multiple generic and formal conventions, sliding from sitcom territory to the realm of crime thrillers as lists, screenplay dialogue, and poetry all work in concert to reveal the hidden, ignored complexities of everyday life and the challenge of conveying them through literature. If there is a major fault in The Financial Lives of the Poets, it may be that the premise is completely unconvincing. How could a man who made his living as a business reporter think that Poetfolio.com would be a fiscally sound investment? He’d be either incredibly dumb or incredibly na├»ve (and evidence for both abounds). Or perhaps it's too great a leap of faith. Can either Matt or Watler really believe this is what poetry can or should do?

Matt's a mediocre poet, but if he were better at it, we probably wouldn't like him as much. We read his blank verse, villanelles, and haikus alongside more familiar, deliciously appropriated bits. Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams all make cameos (“so much depends upon the red Camaro," for example). Matt initially began Poetfolio.com, he tells us, because “investment poetry would…open the door for a literary discussion of the thing that most of us spent so many days thinking about: our money.” Perhaps only in such a discussion could we begin to make sense of the great mess we’ve gotten into and begin to get out of it.

While reading The Financial Lives of the Poets, I couldn’t help but think of Williams’s famous lines

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Matt’s downfall is triggered partly by a lack of interest in poetry—really, a lack of interest in humanity—and Matt continually reminds us how important poets and poetry are in these fragmented, implosive times:

The truth is that anything you try to own ends up owning you. We’re all just renting…. The poets were supposed to remind us of this, to regulate the existential and temporal markets (Let be be finale of seem. / The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.) and to balance real estate with ethereal state (One not need be a chamber to be haunted, / One need not be a house.) Hell, we don’t need bailouts, rescue packages and public works. We need more poets.

Amen to that.

In this tale of our current financial crisis and our long and compli- cated relationship with po'try, Jess Walter’s creation is hilarious and poignant, sardonic and wise. While indicting our money-obsessed consumer culture, Walter crafts his characters with empathy and care, and we identify with them at their lowest and highest moments. It’s a story of forgiveness and redemption, of triumph and spirit, balanced with a bit of raunch. Though timely and topical, The Financial Lives of Poets will stick around because the cultural crisis of this book—how to make poetry matter, how to get people to care about their own lives and about each other—is timeless. And despite the despair of Matt’s situation, and our own, Walter provides us with some hope, reminding us that while “the edge is so close to where we live….It’s okay. Just keep moving forward. Don’t look back. It’s okay.” And we believe it.

And for those of you lit-entrepreneurs who’ve been thinking “Financial poetry? Brilliant! I could do that...”? Well, Matt’s ill-fated domain, Poetfolio.com, is still available. Snatch it up and live the dream.

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