Patrick Neate on a credit-crunch novel that lacks credibility
Every epoch eventually produces its definitive chronicle, so one imagines publishers have spent much of the last 18 months sniffing out the voice of the credit crunch: a book to put faces to the faceless bankers, and hang morals on the amoral – a Dorrit, Gatsby or Vanities. This Bleeding City, a debut novel by Alex Preston, a 30-year-old city trader, certainly achieves some of those things; albeit without the maturity, panache and, above all, ethical perspicacity that might grant it any kind of comparable timelessness.
Preston’s antihero is Charlie Wales, an ambitious fellow from a seaside town who’s impressed by the sloanes he meets at university and wants to live where they live, wear what they wear and binge with the best of them. Upon graduation, he moves to London to share a house with close friend Henry, the son of a newspaper man, and on/off girlfriend Vero, who’s both sexily French and Frenchly impossible.
Charlie eventually snags a job at Silverbirch, a notorious hedge fund, and is soon nose deep in coke and talking like some kind of subprime Gordon Gekko. Then the crash happens. This presages the most successful passages of the novel, as the caricatures masquerading as Charlie’s colleagues fall one by one. It’s hard to care about any of them, but it’s pleasing that Preston has the wit to grant a second chance only to those of significant parentage, as opposed to significant character.
However, this is not just a novel of the crunch, but its aftermath for young Charlie too. And that’s a shame, because the protagonist’s attempts at redemption are chewy and indigestible. If I have little problem with the way that Preston’s city boys are such . . . well . . . “city boys”, it’s because many I’ve met do wear that stereotype like a badge of honour. Unfortunately, none of the other players is much more plausible either – Vero, for example, is a pidgin pastiche exclaiming “bof!” to denote her Gallic credentials, while all the characters have a bizarre tendency to soliloquise, mixing adolescent cod-philosophy with stagey pronouncements.
Preston has an undoubted storyteller’s instinct; This Bleeding City is consistently engaging and zips along at a decent crack – albeit not fast enough to stop one stumbling over clichés and implausibilities. Charlie seeks redemption mentoring a kid called Ray from the crap end of Dalston, but it’s no great surprise when the young boy starts offering pearls of wisdom of the “do what you love/love what you do” variety. Taking Ray’s advice, Charlie finally attempts to escape the moral bankruptcy of high finance for more noble employ by becoming – guess what? – a journalist; no great surprise that this doesn’t pan out as hoped.
The main problem, however, is Charlie himself: it’s just too hard to sympathise with him. The blurb describes the novel as “a timely reminder of how good people end up doing terrible things”. But Preston tells us nothing good about Charlie – he’s embarrassed by his “bourgeois” parents, is hopelessly materialistic from the start and tramples on the feelings of anyone who cares for him. Charlie is not some poor boy polluted by the City, but an example of the greed that pollutes it. And the fact that this story takes such an apparently cock-eyed view of its protagonist’s moral universe makes the book itself seem less like a depiction of corruption than an exemplar of it. This Bleeding City conjures some voyeuristic curiosity as a novel of our age, but I suspect it lacks the perspective to outlive it.
Patrick Neate’s latest novel Jerusalem is published by Penguin.