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.

1308_SBR_FLOOR_ILLO

Illustration by Nate Powell

One day in the autumn of 2011, working in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, I saw a notice for a careers talk by a team from the investment bank Morgan Stanley. At the time I was researching a novel set in a bank, and desperate for any chance to put a human slant on the byzantine world my investigations had thus far uncovered, I decided to go along. When I went to the seminar room, though, a flustered-looking aide told me that due to a turnout overwhelmingly beyond expectations, the talk had been relocated to the Edmund Burke, the largest lecture theatre on campus. I hurried downstairs and got one of the last remaining seats. Around me, students perched on the steps or crowded the back.

Even the bankers seemed surprised. This was 2011, after all. In Madrid, Athens, New York, and London, young people were demonstrating on the streets against the iniquities of the banks. Here in Ireland, the collapse of the banking system had been described as the worst disaster since the Great Famine. Tens of thousands had lost their jobs and now lived in the shadow of eviction, soup kitchens were overwhelmed by people who a few months before would have called themselves middle-class, and every day some new detail emerged of the corruption and incompetence of the banks who had brought all this about—the worst of which, Anglo-Irish, had as it happened employed Morgan Stanley to put a gloss of legality on its final attempts to cover its losses. Yet for these kids a job in a London bank was an opportunity too good to be passed up. Was this generation really so depoliticized that they no longer recognized right and wrong? Or was this the resumption of a much older and distinctly Irish story? Had the jobs lost due to the banking crash given them just the excuse they needed to go?

Aifric Campbell worked on the trading floor of Morgan Stanley for 13 years, and On the Floor, her smart, caustic, moving novel, follows a young Irishwoman, Geri Molloy, as she tries to make it in a London investment bank. Success requires she sever all ties with home, but this isn't something she feels particularly bad about. On the contrary, it's coming back that's the problem: She describes waiting in Heathrow Airport on Christmas Eve with her fellow escapees—“vets in Canada, doctors in Ethiopia, barmen in Boston, nurses in New York” and other “scattered children of Eire,” for whom Ireland is nothing more than a “transit lounge” they pass through once a year in order to be reminded of all the reasons that they left. The book is set in 1991, on the eve of the first Gulf War, but the forces motivating Geri and her generation are the same ones that James Joyce—Campbell's compatriot and like her a former bank employee—identified almost a century before: the paralysis and corruption of small-town life, and the betrayal that awaits anyone unwilling to accept it. Unfortunately for Geri, betrayal isn't confined to the shores of Ireland, although in London it's significantly better paid.

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Banking is notoriously difficult to dramatize, and often stories set in banks drop the numerical stuff early on for something that readers, and for that matter writers, can more readily understand. But Campbell knows this world inside out, and joining Geri at the start of her working day (at an eye-watering 6:38 a.m.) we are plunged directly into a fizzing ocean of banking arcana. We overhear incomprehensible but expensive conversations about Japanese warrants and convertible bonds. We meet Geri's colleagues—her boss, splendidly named “the Grope”; Rob, a bookie's son who never went to college and now has the most profitable trading book in the firm; and the intriguing Pie Man, a compulsively eating quant who represents, in an industry not hitherto noted for the human touch, the algorithmic, even more dehumanized future. Geri aside, they are an unsympathetic lot. They don't have time for character attributes other than greed and are totally immune to satire. This leads to some funny moments: We hear how “the gloom over Black Monday” was lifted by the release of Oliver Stone's Wall Street, which reconfirms for these traders “that greed is good and lunch is for wimps. The traders were flying in truckloads of Brooks Brothers' button-downs, dragging their girlfriends along to see how cool their jobs looked on a big screen, some even gekkoed their hair.” They also read The Bonfire of the Vanities in which, they believe, “the trading floor was elevated to an art form...there it was in black and white: we were Masters of the Universe.”

Shrewd as her account is, Campbell's real achievement here is her heroine's voice. Spirited, sardonic, wounded, funny, Geri remains compelling no matter how esoteric the material she's discussing, or how annoying and punchable the guy she's discussing it with. And they are almost all guys; Geri is well aware of her precarious role as “the skirt amongst men.” The only other woman around is Zanna, an independently wealthy “Europhile Yank” who plots her route through the glass ceiling from the “nerve centre” of her enormous wardrobe, and with Geri draws up a Rule Book for Wannabe Female Bankers on a napkin: Never get period pains in the office; never cry in the office; and, chillingly, “Always remember that two women standing together on a trading floor can only be gossiping; therefore treat all female colleagues with total contempt.” However, Geri has an ally, of sorts. Felix Mann, a reclusive hedge fund manager and “the smartest guy on the planet,” has chosen Geri to handle all of his trades. From his business alone, she pulls in millions for the bank, and is therefore untouchable, although she's aware that her boss and everyone else assume that she and Felix are sleeping together.

 This Felix Mann—more on that portentous nomenclature below—is, to put it mildly, an odd fish. A Cambridge philosophy graduate who holes up in a tower in Hong Kong with a collection of creepy war memorabilia, he speaks in the baroque, contraction-averse tones of the polymath movie serial killer or Nazi. ('“Transubstantiation, Geraldine. A rather troubling concept for an Irish Catholic child I would have thought—eating the flesh and blood of the grown-up baby Jesus?”')  Add his millions of dollars to the mix and it's very hard not to think of Christian Grey, of Fifty Shades fame, though instead of beating her with a belt, he makes her read Immanuel Kant. Felix has decided Geri would be of more use to him in Hong Kong; Geri's boss, seeing dollar signs, concurs. But Geri has recently broken up with her boyfriend, brilliant, insufferable Stephen, and can't bear the thought of leaving London.

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