Good nonfiction can make a complicated, difficult topic comprehensible. One of the most confounding matters of modern times is how the global financial system went off the rails in 2008. How is one to understand Too Big To Fail banks gambling with other people’s money and then getting taxpayer-funded bailouts? I watched several documentaries and read about a dozen articles on the meltdown, but still didn’t grasp the subject as fully as I did until reading John Lanchester’s I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. Lanchester was researching the meltdown for a novel he was writing and became so fascinated with what he learned he started another book to share it.
Great nonfiction not only informs but tells a story—and Lanchester turns the sordid details into a gripping one. Take it from The New York Times: “The snidest villains and the greediest buffoons in the narrative are the bankers and other financial wizards who began recklessly playing with new, risky, little-understood tools to get richer faster.” The number of players means there’s no in-depth characterization—but the plot is a corker.
But this isn’t a blog about finances, it’s about writing, and my point here is that Lanchester is skilled not only at characterization and plotting but at simplifying a huge, ugly, twisted topic.
I.O.U., if not exactly “literary” nonfiction, is certainly literate, and filled with biting black humour.
When I’m helping business students write academic papers and they’re having a problem expressing what they want to say, I tell them to put it the way they would in conversation. Imagine we’re sitting at a table in Starbucks, I suggest, and tell me what leadership/authenticity/whatever means to you. Reading I.O.U., I felt like I was in the corner of a dark, pricey bar with a huge check in front of me that I didn’t understand and had no way of paying, and then suddenly Lanchester sat down beside me and turned out to be one of the most interesting guys I’d ever met. I was able to tune out the cacophony of drunken bankers around us swilling Dom Pérignon and listen to his story and even if, at the end of the evening, I still found myself in possession of a bill I didn’t deserve, I had to admit I’d had a good time.
If you like “meltdown lit” be sure to check out I.O.U. Meanwhile, I’ve just started the novel that prompted Lanchester’s research, Capital.