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Vol. LXIV, No. 28
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
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Book Review

Deep Down, It’s All About Writing — Martha McPhee’s Excellent Adventure

Stuart Mitchner

Martha McPhee’s new novel is not what it appears to be.

According to the jacket copy, Dear Money (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $25) is a “Pygmalion tale of a novelist turned bond trader …. a raucous ride to the top of the income chain.” True enough, except that when a real-life bond trader came along and “propositioned” Martha McPhee in 2004 (“If you give me 18 months, I’ll turn you into a star trader.”), she behaved like a real-life writer. She saw a story in that proposition, explored the idea, researched it, and wrote a book that in its most inspired and accomplished pages has more to do with the joy of making literary art than it does with the art of making money. Of course the story is about money and about India Palmer, an attractive woman in her thirties, a wife and mother venturing into a high-stakes, male-dominated world. Where the book achieves something superior to its story line is in McPhee’s engagement with her true subject, her true calling; when the real writer takes over even as the fictional one bows out, no holding back; when, in other words, the narrator is letting her hair down, taking risks, surprising herself, cooking, grooving, elated, swept up in the act of writing.

It’s significant that the only two characters specifically mentioned in the jacket copy for Dear Money are India Palmer and the “trader of mortgage backed securities” who arrives when a yellow biplane “swoops down from the clear blue sky.” Even though a large part of the novel concerns India’s relations with her sculptor husband Theodor, her children, her friends, most particularly another couple whose wealth she envies, the narrative thrives in the dynamic between India and Win Johns, the Wall Street wizard who takes her on that “raucous ride.” You could say that Win is the Mephistopheles to her Faust, the Satan to her Eve, but while he may have platonically seduced McPhee’s protagonist, his actual function resembles that of a surrogate muse, money personified (he “reeks” of it). Like some lesser Gatsby, he arrives in a Scott Fitzgerald moment and presents the real-life author with the motive, challenge, and goal she needs. When citing the “great novels about money” in a Q and A provided by her publisher, McPhee makes special mention of The Great Gatsby (“anything written by Fitzgerald is about money”), going on to confess that her title actually came to her by way of Fitzgerald, who once considered using it for the collection of stories that became All the Sad Young Men.

Risks and Rewards

Like India Palmer, Martha McPhee has attained a certain literary stature. She’s been a National Book Award finalist, a recipient of prestigious grants and excellent reviews, and she’s still looking for the breakthrough book, the one where the sales surpass the acclaim. Perhaps it’s only to be expected that Dear Money is less interesting when the author has to focus on the presumably autobiographical aspect of India’s life as writer, wife, mother, and friend. The Bohemian destiny she and Theodor once envisioned is constrained by the expensive realities of parenthood, making ends meet in New York, and keeping up with the proverbial Joneses, in this case Emma and Will Chapman. While this part of India’s life is handled competently enough, and better than competently in episodes like the Egyptian-themed opening gala at the Met, the passion of the writing when money’s the muse — the fire in the belly of the book — makes the domestic interludes seem uninspired, and no wonder, given the magnitude of the risks and rewards in India’s adventure (even her half exotic, half ordinary name reflects the schism).

So here we are, halfway through the novel, with the life of the writer termed a dead end, no longer tenable, at least for India, who tells herself, “A real artist would not want as much as I do …. A real artist would be happy in the act of creation.” Then, lo, the dice are rolled, and at the very moment the fictional artist throws in the towel, the real one comes forth, the writer-as-stock trader cutting loose with a force worthy of the terms India applies in italics to a literary super-star she envies (“imaginative, dynamic, inventive”).

“Shall I Go On?”

The origins of India’s renegade streak (and a clear indication of the attitude McPhee displays at her most daring) are revealed when she summarizes her elaborate, outlandish response to a dull high school essay assignment (to describe her bedroom); the result is an epic in miniature complete with an alcoholic grandfather who witnesses and inadvertently enables a fatally botched operation on his wife, India’s grandmother. The teacher reads the paper to the class and everyone’s impressed and “heartbroken” to hear India’s tragic family history. “What I did not tell them,” the author’s author informs us, “was that the story was a lie …. My paternal grandmother lived to be 104. Shall I go on?”

Doing Cindy Sherman

The feisty bravado of that last question sees India through the great adventure that waits on the other side of well done but standard chapters describing her publication day and book tour. When India enters the bold new world of Bond and Bond Brothers and submits herself to the will of her Mephistopheles and his Lucifer, Ralph Radalpieno, the transformation is already underway. Dressed in what she thinks is appropriate style (“black velvet suit cut with eyelets, the skirt form-fitting, patent leather heels”), she becomes at once vulnerable and desirable (“Bonds, blondie? … that suit’ll get you laid” says Radalpieno). It’s no coincidence that on her way into the lion’s den in this sexy, corporate guise, India mentions seeing photographs by Cindy Sherman on the walls of the penthouse. In a Q and A on her website (, McPhee makes the connection between India’s makeover and the artful transformations Sherman accomplishes in “the way she photographs herself in many different disguises.” According to McPhee, “I wanted to assume the role/mask/disguise of the bond trader, to look at the other side.” Note that she’s speaking in the first person, not as India’s author but really as if she herself had ambitions to do a Cindy Sherman, and so, in her own way, she does. There are two sorts of first-person narratives in Dear Money, the formal, contained one that at times feels more third-person than first, and the thoroughly immersed, active one in which McPhee inhabits and energizes India as she progresses from neophyte to player to competitor, risk taker, big loser and big winner, and at one point the subject of a bet in the exhilaratingly unlikely scene in which she, Martha/India midlist novelist, mother and wife, consumes 21 hamburgers to her female opponent’s 19 while the boy-men of Bond and Bond who are betting on the match cheer them on.

A Misreading

A built-in irony accompanies any novel about a novelist yearning for good notices when the novel itself actually comes up for review. Although Dear Money received a nicely placed notice in the June 27 New York Times Book Review, the reviewer, Sylvia Brownrigg, finds the characters “disappointingly well behaved” and sees India as being “untroubled by deep attachments,” which is like faulting Becky Sharp for being Becky Sharp. Complaining about “prose that often falls short of eloquence,” the reviewer disparages the author’s way of “darting back and forth between past and present” (“McPhee stumbles over tenses”), and then proceeds to end the review by singling out for praise a scene that “more vividly than any other” shows “how far this spirited woman has traveled from a decorous life of letters.” The scene in question is the hamburger-eating competition and what helps make it “spirited” and vivid is McPhee’s “darting” into the present tense.

When Writing Pays Off

Writer and trader become one in the scene describing India’s most daring coup for Bond and Bond, wherein she recalls that first triumph when her teacher, Miss Fine, read her essay to the class, “all the students attentive …. They were rapt; they were mine …. Having been a novelist had given me the advantage here. Having been a novelist had finally paid off.” (Some readers may recognize a hint of McPhee’s Princeton roots in the reference to “Miss Fine.”)

Having read in Princeton last week at Labyrinth Books, she will appear next on July 24 at the Berkshire Literary Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts. On July 25 she will take part in the Open City Summer Writers’ Festival in New York and on August 4, also in the city, she will be reading at the “Fiction Writers Respond to the Economy” event in Bryant Park.

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