Nick Paumgarten’s Literature of Crisis
These are interesting times, as the Chinese would say, and all the more worrying for it. Last week I spoke to a man who has built a reputation as a long-term value investor in Hong Kong’s stock market. “The market’s crazy”, he said, “I’m going to Shanghai for a while”. You just can’t argue with that. But there are other ways of perceiving the situation, and we can’t all afford a cross-country jaunt for the clarity of distance. So I’ve turned not to the dry financial press, with its hyperbole and gloom, but to a writer who knows how to weave a story a little better than well. Sometimes the technique is almost important as the telling, especially in describing what would otherwise be unknowable, or at the very least arcane.
Nick Paumgarten seizes on the role of credit in the current travails, writing in last week’s New Yorker. His brief argument is not in the least difficult to follow – interbank lending has dried up and all else has followed. “Hoarding”, he writes poetically, “is panic’s quiet twin”. That might seem a little too rhetorical, but allusion can often trump analysis in drawing the bigger picture. First the banks panic, and then they – and everyone else – start to hoard. It follows that when someone mentions recession, no-one really wants to spend. Everyone’s thinking about whether they can keep their jobs, whether their savings will last if they don’t. So things get worse, and hoarding really does become panic’s quiet twin.
And in the literary vein that the New Yorker so deeply mines, Paumgarten uses the allusion to frame an otherwise dull interview with an un-named banker. Metaphors infuse the short piece, with the situation labelled as “nuclear winter” where “nothing moves or grows”. This is particularly unfortunate (even if we’ve become insensitive to the term), because interbank lending is the “the photosynthesis of finance”. A little flowery, you might think, but it would be hard to miss the point. And the anonymous banker adds to the ambience with an aphorism to call his own: “markets are about travelling, not arriving”.
Paumgarten, somewhat ungraciously, holds the comment to be mysterious, but the sense of arrested motion is central to the piece. It is, after all, entitled ‘FREEZE’! At two separate levels this resonates throughout, both in the sense that activity has ceased and in the implied imagery of an authority figure yelling at a wrongdoer to stop. You might immediately be able to place names against those roles, and Paumgarten notes that blame has been flowing freely in recent days. But the banker rattles that settled pattern by noting that regulators were not doing enough as the banks sought to shed their massive debts, and are now doing too much of the wrong thing.
The culprit hidden within Paumgarten’s imagery may well have many faces, one of which could be that of authority itself.
Of course, this is all a very carefully crafted interplay, something of a strategy game paced out in words. Paumgarten could well have written a sterile descriptive piece, in which a ‘source’ mentioned a lack of credit, an ill-managed attempt to ‘deleverage’ and a looming recession. But everyone’s doing that – it’s a cacophony, a barrage of pointless noise reverberating through our nervous lives. What we need now is the sort of writing that speaks in implications, that says one thing to us on many levels. Paumgarten speaks briefly, but his voices are many; take the time to listen if you can.