Hoping his fiction stays that way
In KarlTaro Greenfeld’s novel “The Subprimes” (Harper: 320 pp., $25.99), the division between rich and poor has opened into a chasm that’s funnier than it should be. Newfreeways bring the1% to their homes inMalibu while the underclasses— everyone whose credit is subprime— use the hopelessly slow405. Social programs have been privatized: Public housing consists of aweeklong voucher to Motel 6. Meanwhile, thewealthy Pepper sisters and their Christian ally, Pastor Roger, drill for America’s last drop of oil. Into this comes Richie Schwab, a semi-employed journalist with a habit of making bad decisions, and Sargam, a motorcycle-riding heroine who helps homeless families create a settlement in an abandoned development in theNevada desert. Greenfeld, who lives in Pacific Palisades with his family, spoke to us about the book by phone. Pacific Palisades is a pretty ritzy neighborhood. Does thatmake you a prime?
Pacific Palisades is the townI grewup in. I don’t see myself as a prime because Iwas grandfathered in. Mychildhood friends, some of their dadswere auto mechanics; they had blue-collar professions. That isn’t the demographic of Pacific Palisades anymore. Mydaughter nowgoes to Pacific Palisades High School where Iwent. I’m seeing firsthand the changes in almost every strata in this community. That’s one of the reasons I made fun of it in “The Subprimes.”
When did you start the book?
the credit crisis, thiswave of foreclosures, and then finished it in the context of disappointment with BarackObamaand disappointment thatOccupy didn’t amount to more than it did. In your book, Sargam becomes a leader of the underclass. Is that wishful thinking? If you could rewrite history, would you give Occupy a hero?
I began towonder whatwould a truly transformative person, or hero, be like in this day in age. We had this great, multiracial promise-giver in Obama, but our hopes were a bit misplaced. He’s certainly a very successful product of our meritocracy, but he hasn’t really been transformative. I began to step back andwonder, what would that person really look like? We expect our transformative figures to have gone toHarvard law. To have decent credit scores. I began to think: No, a truly transformative figure emerges as someone who doesn’t have any of the markings of success or virtue as recognized by our society. Like Jesus Christ. That character I had in mind before doing the book.
Then, during the 2012 Republican debates, I thought: What if you take the economic policies these guys seemto support— eliminating the IRS, ending public education, theEPA, theFDA, privatizing Social Security— and see what Americawould look like. That sounds very serious, but the bookmakes the awfulness funny.
I knewtherewere funny riffs in it, but I sawthe overall arc as kind of tragic. What I’m saying, what I’m predicting (fictionally, at least), is going to happen to America ifwe continue on this road of aggressive private-sector domination of economic policy. Did you have any models for the ultra-rich, ultra-conservative Pepper sisters?
I started with the pastor, and then I thought, he is an ideologue but he doesn’t have economic clout. So I created these two sisters whomayresemble a very prominent pair of formerly libertarian and nowdeeply Republican petroleum tycoons. Howabout RichieSchwab, who, like you, is a writer living in Pacific Palisades?
One of the things that happens when you’re writing a novel set in the near future is you start to speculate, “What would happen to me?” I made the decision to do an exaggerated near-future version ofmylife. Myday job has been, ironically, to be a business writer for a lot of publications. I thought itwould be interesting to have a business writer gradually coming to terms with the fact that he’s essentially a propagandist for a systemthat is crushing people.
Is fiction, satire, a good place for social commentary?
I don’t know. Most good fiction has an element of social commentary inherent to it. Fiction’s durability, in part, is because it offers social commentary. Doyou see things happening in real lifenowand think, “No, no, I was just making that up?”
Iworry real life will eclipse this book very quickly. Whenever you’re writing about the near future, you’re always going to get some thingswrong and some things right. I’m hoping I’m going to get a lot of stuff wrong.
REAL-LIFE economic issues fuel Karl Taro Greenfeld’s novel.