I.O.U. a Great Nonfiction Story

by Sharleen Jonsson

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.

IOU book coverGreat 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.

Here’s Lanchester on bankers in TBTF banks getting bonuses when things went up but apparently not suffering when things went down: “Imagine if you go to a casino and play roulette, and every time you win, you keep all the money. But whenever the wheel lands on zero, you lose a sum amounting to ten times all the money you have won to date—and the good news is, you don’t have to pay it: the government steps in and picks up the tab, and you keep your previous winnings. How cool is that?”

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.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Roger October 23, 2012 at 8:38 am

i, too, have watched my share of docs on the meltdown, still can’t quite grasp how it happened, and can’t imagine how anyone could make it understandable. but i will check out this book you recommend. i suppose that, even if it still doesn’t clear things up, i will have a chance to examine good storytellling in action. i’d be curious what you think of the “fiction” he made of this tragedy — look forward to your post on that!

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Sharleen Jonsson October 25, 2012 at 8:18 pm

Let me know what you think of it, Roger. And yes, I will post something about the novel. Thanks for commenting!

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