The Economics of Decisions: An Interview with Peter Mountford




Lora Shinn interviews Peter Mountford

The Economics of Decisions: An Interview with Peter Mountford

January 22nd, 2014 reset - +

THE OPENING CHAPTERS of Peter Mountford’s The Dismal Science take place within the Washington, DC, halls of the World Bank. Therefore one would be forgiven for assuming that the novel is about that enigmatic, often-maligned international organization. Instead, The Dismal Science is about how easy it is to blow up your life in a few small, devastating moves. Vincenzo D’Orsi is a vice president at the Bank. Widowed, middle-aged and lonely, D’Orsi quits his job amid a firestorm of scandal and truth-telling, self-destructive acts that ripple outward, affecting the lives of millions in the Western Hemisphere. Faced with the fallout, D’Orsi must try to either build a new life or continue the destruction he has begun.

It was only fitting that I interviewed Mountford in Seattle, where in 1999, rioters protested WTO free trade policies, smashing life (and windows) in the normally quiet, polite city.

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Lora Shinn: When did you get the idea for The Dismal Science?

Peter Mountford: When I was 17 or so, my father worked at the IMF, and he was part of this breakfast club of senior economists — they’d all sit around over bad coffee and Marriott cafeteria breakfast gossiping about global finance. Sometimes I’d tag along. Much to their amusement, I had blue hair and played in a punk band. One morning, a soft-spoken Japanese guy was troubled because Russia wasn’t collecting taxes on their rich, and they had a lot of debt; he was managing the largest loan that the IMF had ever given: $50 billion to Russia. So he said he was going to cut off their loan. Next morning, The Washington Post’s front page said “IMF Suspends Loan to Russia.” This guy, this friend of the family — who played in a Mariachi band for fun, and loved Scotch — he had just twisted the arm of a superpower. This mild-mannered economist with an innocuous office in a nondescript building. No one knew who he was. And that’s how the world works. That was the seed for this novel, truth be told — the story gets rolling in a breakfast conversation in that same cafeteria.  

LS: You seem to have a good feel for the internal workings of the World Bank and Lehman. How did you gain the insights necessary?

PM: I knew the World Bank because of my dad’s work at the IMF, but I didn’t know much about Lehman and by the time I was writing that part of the book, Lehman didn’t exist anymore. I interviewed some former Lehman employees. They got to see the sausage of fiction being made in the grimmest way. All these questions about what the elevator was like, what was the furniture like, blah, blah. Surely robbed them of any potential interest in fiction writing — all those thousands of tiny details just for a dash of verisimilitude.

LS: Although the lead character is an atheist, religion pops up repeatedly throughout the book. What's your experience with religion? Do you think economics can be another form of religion, for some?

PM: My family was not religious, but my dad was an economist, and my sister is an economist, and I was briefly something like an economist, or I got paid by a think tank to pretend to be one. Economics is absolutely a form of religion — we live in a kind of theocracy devoted to that religion. We’re subjects under the tyranny of that particular logic, a reign of that brand of reason. So much of what happens in economics is presented as hard science, but there’s faith underpinning the structures of the models they use — the correlation between utility and wealth, for example. That’s capitalism right there: More is better. If you take away that single idea, the whole Jenga tower collapses.

LS: Game play is also central in the book, both literally and figuratively. Characters try to anticipate one another's moves, whether playing chess or making decisions on the international stage. Yet, as you say in the book, "People's behavior isn't ever as predictable as other natural phenomena, like gravity," which also frustrated the book's institutions when dealing with populations and loan repayment incentives. What's the alternative, though?

PM: This has long been a fascination of mine. I love that the “What’s the alternative” question you pose at the end there is, in essence, completely unanswerable. I run around hunting for questions that rise to that level of difficulty. As Kundera put it, “The spirit of the novel is the spirit of complexity. It says to the reader, things are not as simple as they seem.” And yet we’re all desperate to make sense of the world, to find a path through it that is “best,” whatever that means to you — and what it means will change from day to day, hour to hour. We cling to religion, to science, to economics. We’re desperate for order, and life just keeps tumbling along until it’s not tumbling along anymore, and then hopefully someone throws a superb funeral party and a lot of people cry for a long time, or they tell great stories about you, or they’re so devastated by your death that they can’t even really talk about you ever again. Of course, then no one ever hears about you again.

Yes, we’re all trying to game the system. Dialogue, in real life, too, is often a kind of haphazard fencing match, but there’s never really a winner, and what does it mean to win a conversation? You succeeded in making your ex-lover, the one who left you, feel terrible about herself. Now what? Now it’s time to clean the kitty litter and pay the bills and do the laundry. Good for you. But she’s still gone. 

LS: Speaking of loss, the protagonist's dead wife is almost another active character in the book — she haunts the periphery of every scene, and the dynamics between characters. Do you feel that Vincenzo's loss affected his decision-making, or spurred him to take chances that he might not have otherwise?

PM: The negative space in our lives is still space in our lives. Current psychiatric doctrine on grief suggests that it’s not something you can or should work through, or process; it’s not a task. The loss is just part of you now, like an outline of the person now gone. There is no work, there is no recovery, you just have to figure out how to enjoy your life with this new thing that’s within your life, this negative space.

Ed Skoog recently said, of his second book of poems, Rough Day, “The book is about a lot of things, and one is trying to reconstruct a sense of self after loss […] How to rebuild the world after rupture.” That concept is pinned very closely to the heart of The Dismal Science, as well. Vincenzo has continued living, in a way, as if Cristina had not died. But that isn’t really sustainable, of course, or it draws attention to the absence in a way that is just unbearable. What he needs is radical intervention. He needs to begin destroying the rest of his life so that the outline of her isn’t set in such stark relief anymore. 

LS: I liked the character of Ben, the soft-spoken, vaguely threatening government official who attempts to foil Vincenzo’s plans.

PM: Ben was a fun pseudo-antagonist to write. I like these soft antagonists. Sure, he does sort of threaten Vincenzo’s life, but he’s very nice, and he undermines his own scariness at every turn, which in a way makes him scarier because he becomes unknowable and hard to predict. The machinations of espionage are so often sensationalized in a very dull, familiar way. Having grown up in DC, I do know some people in that community, and they don’t run around shooting people all day and blowing up stuff. Violence is conspicuous and messy. From what I understand, they’ve found that giving or taking away money is the most effective way of getting results. So there aren’t so many high-speed car chases through the back alleys of Rome, and many more meetings in some cafe in Lebanon where soft power is exerted through quiet conversations — how do you plan to pay for your mother’s chemotherapy? We have this amazing cancer care hospital in Minneapolis, maybe she could go there? Maybe you could go there with her? We’ll give you a house, a green card. The nuance of that dynamic is way more dramatically compelling to me than a guy hanging from a helicopter by one hand, shooting people.

LS: I enjoyed the way you wove fact-packed asides throughout the work — on chess, on Dante. Did these topics come up organically as you were writing, or were they topics you observed in your everyday world?

PM: Thanks. They came about organically, but they felt deeply relevant to Vincenzo. If you’re going to halt the narrative to do one of those essayistic asides, which tend to horrify MFA workshops and certain book critics, too, you’ve got to make the asides seem absolutely imperative in terms of character and theme and so on. It’s gotta be fascinating, too. Even still, at least in the United States, a certain kind of reader will be nonplussed — it’s painted as “intellectual,” which is still basically an epithet in America, and it’s thoroughly non-Hemingway-ish, and as a literary community, we’re still crushing pretty hard on Hemingway.  

LS: I take it you don’t crush on Hemingway. Who are your influences?

PM: Nah, I love Hemingway. Clearly he was an asshole, but he was a sensitive guy, too, in a way. Farewell to Arms broke my heart when I first read it. All those stories — well, not all of them, but some of them. I love Nabokov, the voice and mind there. I love Deborah Eisenberg, Coetzee — sort of political writing that isn’t tiresome or preachy. This question is hard to answer. I get influenced by everything, some song I hear on the radio — I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve stolen and altered a lyric from Kelly Clarkson. Watching old episodes of The A-Team. I’ve been reading Laura Van Den Berg’s new collection of stories recently, and they’re great. Ditto for Jodi Angel’s stories. John Cheever’s journals. The screenplay for Die Hard is quite good in a certain way, so I guess that’s an influence. I spent a lot of time fixating on Joyce’s The Dead last month. I’m eager to read this The Flamethrowers book that everyone’s talking about.   

LS: Tell me more about how you wrote the first version of the book in a month, threw it out and started again. Were you able to salvage anything?

PM: That experience — I don’t remember it very well, no doubt blotted out the memory. I think it was the second half of the book that I wrote quickly during a residency, and yeah, it was just a very long and unwieldy outline, so I scrapped it. Presumably kept the ideas for some of the characters and scenes, but the text itself, about 30,000 words, it was sent out to the woodshed wholly intact, and never seen again. 

Maybe impolitic to say, but I think that all these thousands of people writing Nanowrimo books is kind of sad — exertion for the sake of exertion. It’s not writing, it’s typing, as I think Truman Capote said of Kerouac. I don’t care how talented you are, if you’re writing that quickly it’s almost certainly going to be garbage. A noisemaker trying to sing a song. That’s mean spirited, and I’m trying to be a nicer person, so I should withdraw that, but no, it’s also the truth. A lot of my friends have extruded Nanowrimo novels, and some friends have even attempted to revise them, which is like trying to make a delicious dinner out of a bucket of vomit.

LS: I’m sure you’ll hear from all the novelists who pulled it off. But what do you hope readers will take away from The Dismal Science?

PM: I’m interested in how we make decisions and what the meaning of those decisions is — what’s a good choice and what’s not, and how would you know the difference before making a choice? What if the decision you have to make involves the lives of millions of people? 

Vincenzo has all these people in his life, very few of whom matter to him personally, but they all want him to make certain decisions in certain ways. And he has so many decisions to make. It’s this hinge moment in life, we’re faced with them sometimes, not often thankfully, but we are occasionally faced with these hinges. This novel explores the process of managing that responsibility. It’s not prescriptive, of course; in the end it’s a novel, not a self-help book. It’s an amusement, or it’s meant to be, but it’s also trying to sort out the responsibility that we’re each saddled with. Everywhere you turn, you have to choose your way, and sometimes it’s easy, but a lot of times it’s not. When it’s not, you turn to logic for help, or to religion, or whatever you have handy. And where does that leave you?

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Lora Shinn is a Seattle-based journalist and writer. She has also written for Kirkus, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, National Geographic Traveler and Wired.com.

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