Friday, February 5, 2010

Poetry No License to Print Money

When I was reading Jess Walter's "The Financial Lives of Poets" I kept thinking to myself: Geez, is there a more frequently dismissed / considered irrelevant creative discipline than that of writing poetry? And so, because there categorically isn't one, is poetry not the perfect sort of interest for a character wading haphazardly through the tough financial waters of contemporary America? And that's why Jess Walter's created more than just a gimmick -- he has the right kind of perception to point out the hypocrisy and downright assholery that have defined our economic woes, both large and small.

For what I'm about, for my money, for the cliches and truisms I can abide, Walter is among the best of contemporary writers at discerning the facts of the matter, bringing to light little truths that anyone can understand but are no less hilarious and poignant for that fact.

He's like Vonnegut-light, not as polarizing and not a curmudgeon. Much of the humor to be found in "The Financial Lives of Poets" springs from the roots and stem of understandably righteous indignation. Every moderate, middle income, slightly-left-of-center American male should find in Matt Prior, the novel's protagonist, a guy they can relate to, a man who has made his own mistakes but has suffered from the very apparent failure of the system just as profoundly, if not more so. The system made the claim that it would be fair, that markets pick the creme-de-la-creme and, at least, don't screw you over as long as you're trying your best. But corporations look out for their own interests and politicians lie and look out for corporations.

Still, don't ignore your own role. There's a need for temperance in everything, not rash judgment. Matt Prior is the kind of intelligent middle American who understands this, and as a result his frustration with the system comes off much more even-handed than it might otherwise, if he sounded like the angry proletariat who's only aware of his own circumstances, who never stops to consider how others are equally or even more affected by calamity than he's been. Prior's ability to see this is one of his most important characteristics, because it's not flowery, not romantic. Walter seems to ask you to empathize with drug dealers, an asshole cop, a cuckolding lumber salesman, and in one of my favorite scenes, he does so by crafting a tender moment between a gangly father who exhibits the signs of meth addiction and his young son. In short, Prior is confronted by "others" and, in a believably honest way, sees how far upon his high horse he'd managed to climb before his fall.

It might be that novels are better suited to capturing the "zeitgeist" than movies, in my opinion, because they are afforded (expected to compel) a much deeper level of intimacy with the characters -- you find yourself inhabiting Prior's yearning for hope of a better tomorrow and the bumps and vicissitudes that hinder and stymie this object. You find you can relate to his feeling as clueless as he demonstrably is at times, as totally and completely left out of the loop. And this to me is what makes "The Financial Lives of the Poets" a success, ultimately, it isn't playing games or expecting you to care because you simply should, it inspires something beyond what, say, Reitman's "Up in the Air" attempted and, as I've said, failed to achieve; it manages to maintain the quirky, sardonic level of humor inherent to the subject of home foreclosure, marriages failing and continual layoffs while never losing touch with the humanity of the individuals, keeping them tactile and interesting and avoiding the opportunity to create caricatures who tug at our heartstrings.

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