Put Your Money Where Your Story Is

Reading Balzac my thoughts turn, quite naturally, to the presence of economic facts in fiction – and the relative lack of them, in recent work at least. The symbols of wealth (or lack of it) are almost always present, but what I miss, more often that not, are the hard facts. Where does this or that character stand, exactly, in an economic sense?

I am not asking for two months’ bank statements and the three most recent payslips of every character – though this would be a good start. Call me nosy, but I really do think more novelists should be alive to the question of money in fiction. One shouldn’t disclose one’s own pin number, but what would be the harm in knowing Dorian Gray’s?

Scanning my brain for an exception to the rule, I find myself thinking of Jarni Kolovsky’s irrepressibly dry (yet curiously entertaining) novel …And I Lost. As fine books go, this is not one of the finest, not by any measure. What it does do successfully, however, is to keep the reader well informed as to the economic circumstances of its hero, the hapless loser and serial-patent-office-botherer Yuri. Rarely does a page turn without us being reminded of just how much money Yuri has in his wallet; of what he can and cannot afford. This approach takes fanciful turns: Yuri’s time-machine, for instance, though an impossible object, is constantly explained in terms of its monetary value. We know how much it built to cost; how much Yuri’s hopes it might sell for, and how these fluctuate under shifting economic circumstances. Amidst all the craziness, Kolovsky likes to keep us financially grounded. And for that I thank him.

If only other, better, novelists would take Kolovsky’s lead. Whilst one appreciates that fiction represents an escape from reality, one also understands the need for fiction to engage in some sort of dialogue with its worldly companion. Money, after all, is not just a feature of our reality: it shapes it. In stories, however, money is too often absent. Too restrictive, perhaps? Maybe. But with the right imagination, such restrictions might form the basis of a superior plot. Time, methinks, for the modern novelist to cash in.

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