John Lanchester: “Expectations” from The New Yorker, 1/9/12

New Yorker illustration

Luxury meant something that was by definition overpriced, but was so nice, so lovely in itself that you did not mind, in fact was so lovely that the expensiveness became part of the point. Arabella knew that there were thoughtlessly rich people who could afford everything, but she didn’t see herself as one of them. She loved expensive things because she knew what their expensiveness meant. She had a complete understanding of the signifiers.

This novel excerpt (from Capital) is a topical piece, from a British point of view, about rich people problems during the beginning of the current crisis. It’s annoying as hell. I’m trying to find a path to the story. For example, it’s easy to say rich people don’t know what problems are, but all of us are rich, to someone. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make these rich people any more palatable.

Roger is a London banker who expects a million-Euro bonus. Who needs a million-Euro bonus, given the mortgages on his house, his country home, the various domestics they have caring for those homes and their kids. He’s worried, though. His department had a good year, but times are tough (this story is set in 2007) and maybe the bank has seen some losses.

Yes, it’s hard to have sympathy for these people. Sympathy isn’t the point, though. There’s a lot of reference to oblivion, appropriately enough. Roger leaves his office door open, and his blinds up, so he can see what’s going on in his department:

Roger knew from experience that being cut off from your department was a risk, and that hthe more you knew about what was going on among your underlings the less chance you had of getting unpleasant surprises.

At the same time, his wife Arabella is fed up with him, because he is oblivious to her pressures:

Sheila, the Australian weekend nanny, was very helpful (though she was no Pilar – for one thing, she couldn’t drive), but there was still masses to do, and her husband did very little of it. He didn’t cook… and he didn’t wash clothes or iron them or weep the floor or, hardly at all, play with the children. Arabella did not do these things, either, not much, but that did not mean that she went through life acting as if they did not exist, and it was this obliviousness that drove her nuts.

The representative of the Compensation Committee arrives with an envelope containing Roger’s bonus check. There’s some foreplay in which both grope for the names of wives and kids of the other – “And then there was a half-a-beat or a quarter-of-a-beat pause while he searched for the name; which meant that Roger had won this exchange” – followed by an explanation of the department’s great year and the bank’s overall losses. Roger’s check is not for a million Euros. It’s for thirty thousand. And while some of us think that’s not a bad sum, in addition to the hundred grand salary, it’s not going to be enough for the mortgages and the nannies and the BMW and the Mercedes and and and – hey, it’s barely enough for the couch he’s bought Anabella for Christmas, arranging the delivery on Christmas Day. He barely makes to to the john in time to throw up.

He returns to his office and watches his underlings as they get the news that their bonuses will also not be as grand as they expected:

They looked like refugees or something. Sad, so sad. It was like……being in some shit hole in Iraq or somewhere, where some Yank pilot has dropped a bomb on you by mistake. Everybody’s blown into pieces, bits everywhere, limbs, blood, everything. And it’s not your fault. That was the key thing – not your fault. He hadn’t done anything wrong. But they’d gone and dropped the bomb regardless. Those bloody Yanks.

I’m intrigued by the introduction of fault here. I wonder if it’s dealt with more completely in the novel.

Because this is a novel excerpt, the end is pretty much exactly as set up. Arabella departs, leaving a note – another envelope full of bad news – that she’s off for the weekend and he’ll have to cope on his own, sans nanny, since Pilar has just left to return to her native Spain – or Colombia, according to Roger, who probably doesn’t really care where she’s from except that she’s gone back there and won’t be caring for the kids for three days. Christmas day is exactly the disaster that’s been set up, with two kids overexcited then bored, and Roger at wit’s end.

I feel very unfair being so dismissive of this story. What makes it interesting, though, is a post by Paul Debrasky of I Just Read About That, concerning the juxtaposition of this story and “Two Midnights in a Jug.” I think now they’re the same story, from opposite sides of the coin. Both are about what economic station – wealth or poverty – does to people. Both are about oblivious people. Thing is, I read “Midnights” and I feel compassion and understanding and hope someone figures something out soon. I read “Expectations” and I want to stab Roger and Arabella with a dull knife. Repeatedly.

From his Book Bench interview, Lanchester discusses the non-fiction book he’s written about the financial crisis, I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. I understand the novel from which this story is taken is also about other residents in Roger’s neighborhood, a diverse crew, and how they deal with the financial crisis. In spite of myself, I’m curious; I have a feeling the novel says something I want to hear. Too bad the excerpt didn’t.

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