Money, Art and Myth-making – Cartwright’s new novel

The events of Justin Cartwright's latest novel, Other People's Money, revolve around the  “casino-banking” shenanigans which led in part to the recent global financial meltdown. The novel is not about the recession as such, though, except that the ruin of the banks forms a backdrop to larger concerns around notions of supposedly transcendant forms of “rich living”.

The London private bank of Tubal & Co is on the verge of collapse due to some unwise and mildly unethical hedge-fund investments – a fact known only to the anxious heir-apparent, Julian Trevelyan-Tubal, and his closest advisers. The elderly president and patriarch, Harry, has suffered a stroke and spends his days in the Antibes, dictating mumbled letters to his doting secretary, while his wife, Fleur, is sleeping with her personal trainer back in London. Meanwhile, in sleepy Cornwall, Melissa Tregarthen, a young newspaper reporter, starts a blog, and visionary playwright Artair MacCleod is writing a script based on the writing of Irish novelist Flann O'Brien. These threads all come together in what is, as Cartwright himself has admitted, probably his most tightly-plotted novel.

One of the most engaging aspects of the text is the glimpse it provides into the lifestyles of the super-wealthy. We're afforded a kind of voyeuristic pleasure through our forays into the lives of the Trevelyan-Tubals, with their private jets, chauffered Bentleys, posh  tennis clubs and Matisses on the wall. Cartwright's detailed prose certainly draws us into the rarified air of the Tubals' world, but this carefully observed portrait is about more than just sensuous description.

So why is Cartwright writing about the ultra-rich, then? Part of the explanation lies in the epigraph, a passage from art critic Robert Hughes' s The Shock of the New, about Matisse's studio. The artist's studio is described as “a world within a world”, an “ideal place” which sheltered Matisse – and his work – from the “alienation and conflict” Hughes sees reflected in Modernism. The extract references Baudelaire’s “L'invitation au Voyage”. The last line is particularly significant: “There, everything is order and beauty, luxury calm and pleasure.” The poem is also invoked in the novel when Artair, inspired by Fleur's opulent house, recites some lines to her. The description of an ideal, beautiful, walled-off space serves as an apt image to encapsulate the novel’s concern with idealism and delusion.

Cartwright’s novels as a whole are overwhelmingly concerned with delusions – both necessary fictions or harmful lies – and with humanity’s inherent yearning to create an ideal world for itself which transcends the mundane and earthly. No social grouping or activity seems to escape the author’s revelatory gaze: family, love, celebrity, religion – they’re all shot through with delusion, claims Cartwright. And in Other People's Money his focus is now trained on the rich, who use their money to create a separate, perfect world for themselves. Julian reflects of the idyllic setting of the tennis club, for instance: “I have always lived in these private spaces separated from the world by money.” Money allows the rich to create for themselves a world where “everything is order and beauty”.

This isolation leads to other kinds of delusions. Although Julian is deeply implicated in the myth-making of his class and family, he is also critical of their “belief that this money production is a superior form of activity and that those who deal in it are superior people”. This delusion about their own moral superiority is provided as a potential cause for the financiers’s reckless actions. Of course, the whole credit-swapping scandal was literally based on myths – on derivatives of no value. Cartwright deftly picks up on this – for Julian, the matter of the non-existent money is an “existential matter” rather than a “banking question”. Julian compares the credit swaps and diced mortgages to “chimeras” and reflects: “These derivatives were to no assets, to no worth, to no human endeavour. They turned out to be imaginary. It's almost beyond belief that a huge industry was in thrall to fables.” Cartwright presents the recession partly as a kind of a lesson about the potentially harmful effects of mythologising.

The delusions of the rich are not the only myths examined in the novel. Art is self-evidently a delusion, and an illusion, as the playwright Artair MacCleod wishes to demonstrate, through his invocation of Flann O' Brien's thoughts about how there are no “true stories”, and Kierkegaard’s idea that “all art involves illusion”, and that “the artist's single most important duty is to show that truth is never at any one point complete”.  MacCleod attempts to highlight the illusory nature of art by drawing attention to the fictionality of his screenplay. He intends the film to include images of the filming taking place, and he, as director and writer, will also participate in the film: “[I]t will be a self-evident sham, and the viewer will be offered the opportunity to distance himself, or herself, from the illustion with which film-goers willingly collaborate.”

Of course, through the invocation of these postmodern, self-referential techniques, the novel also draws attention to its own fictionality. Otherwise, however, Other People's Money resists being read as a postmodern text. Despite Cartwright’s insistence, via O'Brien, that “there are many ways of telling the same story”, the novel's narrative structure is conventionally linear. Also, Artair’s elucidation of his metafictional screenplay is suspiciously a little too heavy-handed – perhaps Cartwright is subtly poking fun at postmodern literary techniques by bringing out the old mise-en-abyme chestnut.

While art is represented as an illusion/ delusion, it is also shown to be transformative, and transcendent. Artair embodies the philosopher-artist figure, and there is something noble about the way in which he soldiers on with his impoverished theatre company in the damp Cornish boathouse. He is simultaneously somewhat ridiculous. His only money-making production is Thomas the Tank Engine, while he lives on sponsored pasties, rewrites his own manuscripts in longhand to sell to universities and argues with bank clerks who do not know that he is a National Treasure. There is constant fluidity, in Cartwright's portrayal of Artair, between purity of artistic vision and the self-conscious occupation of the role of an artist. Much of the appeal of Cartwright's writing is his subtly ironic tone – the characters are gently mocked, but irony does not sour to cynicism. Despite Artair's laughably pompous persona (he calls the bank teller a “pygmy” and then has to apologise for being politically incorrect), we are nevertheless made to sympathise with his artistic vision.

This is not to say that art gets off scot-free – it's subjected to the same scrutiny as other activities. The way in which artists pose themselves as moral authorities is compared, by inference, to the assumed moral superiority of the financiers. It is Fleur – once a second-rate actress herself – who realises that although Artair holds to a utopian ideal of a “world where Art and Mammon are reconciled”, this is “probably more a world where the artist is in charge”. Melissa is also intrigued that Artair believes art should be “priveleged” above other activities. While this may sound worthy, when read alongside Julian’s reflection on the belief of the bankers that “money production is a superior form of activity”, even faith in the transformative power of art is revealed as a potential delusion. It is after all, Artair who recites the Baudelaire poem to Fleur: he also wants to create a world of “order and beauty”, an artistic enclave that is exclusive and potentially isolating. It is up to the reader to decide whether the startling conclusion of the novel vindicates Artair's artistic vision.

To touch on delusions and idealism in Other People's Money is but to scratch the surface of this complex novel, yet the text is also exceedingly readable, mainly due to its charming and well-drawn characters. Melissa Tregarthen is one of the most realistic contemporary twenty-something characters I’ve read – frumpy without being pitiful, clever, yet innocent.

And that’s not even getting started on the brooding South African gym trainer and the buoyant Australian yachtsman. Other People's Money satisfies both as a wide-ranging commentary on art, money and human yearning, and a deeply enjoyable, wit-filled read.


Odwa Nomavuka a.k.a "Mr O" says:

I just want to say thank you… for blessing us with a platform to voice out!
I really love this! much love and respect….
I can’t wait for the next installment!