A Caustic, Moving Novel of High Finance and High Heels

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 9 2013 12:20 PM

A Skirt Amongst Men

Aifric Campbell’s caustic novel follows a young Irishwoman’s rise in the world of high finance.

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If we hear a little too much about her heartache over Stephen, Geri’s quite a bit more reticent when it comes to what actually makes her tick. It's not until quite late in the narrative, courtesy of a rather unlikely plot twist, that we discover who she really is, and the double-betrayal that propelled her out of Ireland and into the bank. One element of this betrayal is a tragedy all too plausible to an Irish reader, though it could have been better fleshed out here. The other involves her family and school's hostile reaction to Geri's outing as a math genius, which to me seemed problematic. It's true that the Ireland of the 1980s was a deeply conservative place, with a national philosophy Campbell tartly reduces to “Don't be upsetting your mother.” But even then it had a huge regard for learning, and an education system good enough to propel young Irish people into high-paying jobs all over the world (meaning they could send their money home, but not vote—the perfect solution as far as the government of the time was concerned). So it's a little hard to credit that her parents and teachers would be so resistant to Geri's obvious gifts.

Author Alfraic Campbell
Author Alfraic Campbell

Photo courtesy of An-Sofie Kesteleyn

It must be said too that Geri does not convince as a math genius. Her sentences—long, lolloping affairs, with a tendency to pick up modifiers, qualifiers and other, unrelated subclauses like so many dazed hitchhikers packed into a speeding Pontiac—may be exactly what one might expect in a banker's voice, but from a natural mathematician the lack of precision seems dissonant.

Pie Man, the corpulent quant, is a better rendering of this type, and of the kind of sociopathic nerdery that will soon take over banking. Pie Man has a crush on Geri, and there's a terrific scene in which he squares up to Geri's old flame Rob, the unschooled, intuitive trader. Rob throws schoolyard taunts at Pie Man; Pie Man responds by painting a picture for him of his impending obsolescence. In a few years’ time, he declares, “it will all be technical trading. ... Just watch what technology is going to do to your careers. ... None of you will survive.” If only Pie Man and Rob could see 17 years into the future! In IOU, his outstanding book on the 2008 crisis, John Lanchester is scathing about the catastrophic misapplication of math to the market, and the world-historical feats of wrongness the rocket scientists produced: for instance, using the Gaussian copula formula, quants worked out that a 20 percent fall in house prices could occur only in a timeframe many trillions of years longer than the history of the universe. Of course, it happened almost immediately, and brought about the implosion of the entire global economy. One can't help but feel the novel's refusal to contemplate what's coming down the tracks—not just the 2008 crash, but S&L, Long Term Capital, the Internet bubble, etc., etc.—as a missed opportunity.

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By the end of the book, following a disastrous fact-finding mission to Hong Kong in which all the facts she finds out are the wrong ones, Geri has few illusions left. “There is always someone using you,” Felix tells her succinctly. But here, again, it feels like Campbell pulls her punches. The lunacy of the whole banking project is never addressed; instead Geri simply withdraws, as though the problem all along was really that of a woman in a man's world. A passing reference to Either/Or only deepens the ambiguity. The happiest man is the one who lives in the present, Geri says, for no reason it seems at first. And then you get it: happy man—Felix Mann. Does Campbell genuinely believe that a man who spends his entire life on a computer in a darkened room in Hong Kong surrounded by pictures of atrocities can be said to be living in the present? And that he is a happy, even the happiest, man? This seems like a serious downgrade of both happiness and humanity, as well as an attitude to the machinations of hedge fund managers that seems peculiar, even from the perspective of 1991, before we knew exactly what these people were up to,

Campbell is a gifted storyteller, and possesses a rare insight into this secretive world. But maybe it's hard to take the investment bank out of the girl, because for all her authority, and for all her heroine's spirit and singularity, On the Floor leaves us with the image of banking bankers themselves are so fond of—an elite realm of coldly brilliant mavericks who ruthlessly exploit flaws in the system for huge returns—quite contrary to the industry the events of the last five years have revealed, so warped by greed, ineptitude, and herd thinking that its contribution to the real world has come to resemble a game of Russian roulette.

I suspect Aifric Campbell has a lot more to say on this topic, and I hope she comes back to it in future novels. The world of finance is so lucrative that it still casts a spell; Campbell could, if she wanted to, be the one to open the eyes of the next generation of kids before they leave the leaky lifeboat of home for the proud Titanics of Wall Street and the City.

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On the Floor by Aifric Campbell. Picador.

Paul Murray is the author of the novels Skippy Dies and An Evening of Long Goodbyes.