Since the 2008 financial crash we’ve learned some odd phrases: quantitive easing, squeezed middle and the sweetshop vocabulary of double dip, triple dip and credit crunch. There’s a reluctance to use words like 'depression', possibly because it’s too reminiscent of the last time capitalism failed. These days, depression is a mental health problem for individuals: the preferred term for a faltering economy is the more technical and limited 'recession'.
Technical terms sit uneasily in novels. Cory Doctorow’s For The Win, a novel about online gaming and political activism, contains some mini essays on economics, but, between lectures, the novel relies on the standard thriller device of good people being pursued by bad people. Novels, after all, are usually about individual experience. There may be an audience for hard sci-fi, but there doesn’t seem to be one for hard econ-fi.
Reading the economic crisis
Crashes, however, are dramatic, and the last one soon found its way into fiction. John Lanchester’s Capital features, among its array of representative Londoners, a city banker anxious about the size of his bonus. These days if there are bankers in novels set before 2008 – Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money is another example – we know it’s likely to end badly for them. Lanchester’s novel includes the crash, but isn’t about the crash, certainly not in the way that his non-fiction Whoops! is about the crash. His banker goes from being relatively rich to relatively poor, and has to adjust to what a Victorian writer would have called reduced circumstances. Lanchester’s other characters (the builder, the traffic warden, the shopkeepers, the artist) have their own problems. Whatever we call the thing that followed the crash is still in their future.
Love on the dole
Their future, our present. Nearly five years after Lehman Brothers choked, the UK economy is still weak. It may, or may not, still be in recession. We won’t know until we have the figures, and even those won’t tell us much. Economic indicators can be good while unemployment remains high. Recent US experience, after all, gave us the phrase 'jobless recovery', and it’s acknowledged there’s still a problem with reduced effective demand (economic jargon for people not having enough money). And to most people recession doesn’t mean two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth: it means businesses failing, jobs lost, shops disappearing from the high streets and food banks suddenly becoming important. It means uncertainty about the future, which has long been the traditional theme of novels about working class life. It’s a long tradition. Consider Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole from the 1930s, or Pat Barker’s Union Street from the 1980s: stories about the sheer grind of surviving from week to week, a struggle that continues long after those economic indicators have improved.
My own novel, The Schism, is a sidelong addition to the genre. It’s set in the early 90s, just before the period of house price hyperinflation sometimes called the Lawson Boom. It isn’t strictly about recession: the word recession is never used, economics is never discussed. The narrator’s work - collecting credit cards from people in debt – depends on businesses failing and people losing their jobs. It’s work that brings him into regular contact with angry and unhappy people, but it’s not the most important thing in his life. The novel is about several things: a difficult fraternal relationship, the boundaries between unusual beliefs and mental illness. The recession is taken for granted. For my narrator, it’s just the background noise of his life.
The Schism by Robert Dickinson is published by Myriad.