Romancing the Douche: On Peter Moutford’s A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism
“What are you going to do with your life?” This is one of the numbing questions a child of a certain age must continually encounter. It implies a categorization of lifetimes as commodities, quantities that can be invested wisely or poorly. It is not enough to simply have lucked one’s way into a sum of time on earth, something must actually be made with it. A particular career is more important than an appreciation of the experiences we are all bound to endure: suffering, sickness, love, optimism, peace, terror, and loneliness. The worst of these can be softened by wealth, while the best transubstantiate into something imperishable: the disembodied smile of a woman in a Zales advertisement, her life-affirming love caught in a perfected object ready for sale at market value.
A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, Peter Mountford’s first novel, is an emotionally mute fantasy about a man with very good answers to the question of “doing” in his life. Mountford’s hero is Gabriel, a Brown graduate who abandons a job at a business newspaper to become a researcher for an American hedge fund in Bolivia. Gabriel was raised by a single mother, an exile from Pinochet’s Chile who studied in Russia, dallied with a man who impregnated her, and then moved to America to become a college professor and freelance journalist with connections at the Los Angeles Times and The Nation. She’s an idealist and survivor of political violence who stays at the Ritz when on assignment.
For all of the suffering in his mother’s past, Gabriel has inherited the soft teat of American suburbia, which sustained him from his childhood in the Claremont McKenna suburbs through the ivy leagues and into a reporting job in New York. It’s hard to imagine what other benefit of luck he could have had in his young life, but none of it satisfies the question of what to “do.”
As Gabriel suffers the indignities of an L-train commute while his classmates make small riches and one-up his Williamsburg studio with SoHo lofts, the dream of becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winner is eroded by an interest in money. “He didn’t need gazillions,” Mountford writes. “He just wanted to buy himself out of the question of money itself; $3.5 to $4 million would do it.” So when Gabriel hears of a lucrative researcher job for the Calloway Group, a small hedge fund run by the emotionless Priya Singh, he jumps at the chance.
Mountford’s own history is a neat parallel to Gabriel’s. As a recent graduate Mountford took a job as a researcher at a D.C. think tank and worked his way into a role living in Ecuador during its late 90’s financial crisis. He soon discovered the think tank was supplying his work to a hedge fund it was running as a backend scam. Thus a parable was born. In promotional materials Mountford has described Gabriel as a buffoon. This has its own prejudicial tilt, the author scorning his creation for not having a better answer to the “do” question than making lots of money.
Gabriel’s desire for money is paradoxically defined as an absence of specific needs. He doesn’t want a boat or enough money to start his own company, he just wants enough money to never have to worry about it. He is a stoic observer deprived of the experiences of joy and terror, self-doubt or seemingly even the contentment that can accompany a contemplative morning bowel movement, let alone a season spent working in the Andes. Gabriel’s first assignment is to try and make money out of the 2005 Bolivian presidential campaign when Evo Morales won support for an agenda of nationalizing the country’s oil and gas resources.
Once it becomes clear that Morales will win, Gabriel has the less-than-scintillating task of discovering whether or not he will hold true to his campaign promises, a process that leads him to Santa Cruz Gas, a Brazilian company owned by a Canadian shyster exploiting the previously lax standards of Bolivian oil and gas extraction. Once Gabriel discovers that Morales is indeed going to nationalize the country’s gas industry he earns a feather in his cap by telling Priya to ‘short’ Santa Cruz Gas—a process whereby stocks are borrowed from a broker and sold at a high price then bought back later at a lower price, the shares returned to the broker with a fee and the remainder kept as profit. Essentially, he is a capitalist spy sent to report on the obvious.
And like other stoic personas in serious literature by men about the world, Gabriel’s night hours are taken over by sex and ennui. His first paramour is Fiona, a heavy-drinking chain-smoking Wall Street Journal reporter in her forties. She’s not wearied by the world but energized by it, old enough to know there are more life-affirming experiences than falling in love with a stranger in an exotic altitude, a quality both Gabriel and the narrator seem to begrudge.
“She had a hearty appetite for sex and fucked vigorously, as if it were an aerobic routine and he were a piece of equipment in her gym,” Mountford writes. “When she smoked afterward, he could sometimes see her heart flexing in her rib cage. With Fiona, he was often aware that she was a living being, that her body was a strange thing, a sack full of organs and bones and fluids, everything in shades of pink and ivory and aubergine.”
Fiona gives Gabriel a copy of a secretive International Monetary Fund report on Bolivia’s future and introduces him to Lenka Villarobles, the press secretary for the future president. Lenka is more guarded than Fiona and more beautiful—or rather, the narrator’s description is poetic instead of anatomical. “She was attractive, with a long neck and a cinnamon complexion. On her chin there was a splash of reverse freckles, a spray of paler, vanilla dots fanning up toward her cheek.” If the contrast in descriptions isn’t foreshadowing, there is no such thing. Gabriel will fall in love with the one speckled in sugar and spice while the other woman, objectively no less desirable, intelligent, or beautiful, will never escape the association with a “sack full of organs” to Gabriel.
Gabriel and Lenka begin a relationship almost as soon as they’ve met. They are at professional cross-purposes, Gabriel trying to discover valuable information about the coming policy changes and Lenka trying to protect Evo’s reputation and key appointment decisions. Complicating matters is Gabriel’s need to keep his role secret, even as he falls in love. It’s like Batman and Vicki Vale in a way, or maybe James Carville and Mary Matalin, the married strategists opposed across the Democrat-Republican divide.
Actually comparison to dramatic analogs is fruitless because Lenka and Gabriel’s affair has no need to be illicit. There is nothing inherently sinister in a government having connection to investment firms or, indeed, from trying to find mutually beneficial investment opportunities together. It might have played into fears of exploitation that Evo campaigned against, but it could just as easily have been argued for as a vehicle of development and infrastructure investment. No such effort happens with Lenka and Gabriel, but there’s just as much reason to assume their connection could have been positively influential rather than tragically corrosive.
But Lenka and Gabriel must be opposed for the sake of drama and plot. Conflict creates the illusion of progress. So technically Lenka and Gabriel aren’t “doing” anything together, yet they have sex, Gabriel briefly bonds with Lenka’s young son, meets her family, and has some awkward moments with her ex-husband, who still lives in Lenka’s family home through a trick of Bolivian familial solidarity.
Deprived of Lenka’s plebeian influence Gabriel is inanimate, a ghostly figure on Mountford’s narrative carousel. If Gabriel is a buffoon, as Mountford claims, he is surely the most passive, least colorful buffoon to protagonize a novel. Gabriel might have found the trail of some interesting stories as a reporter, but as an investment researcher he is without imagination. Mountford describes the comfort he takes in checking in on his online investment accounts.
“He stared at the balance as it fluctuated during trading hours, refreshing every few minutes when he was at his computer. He did some light research, but it wasn’t really significant. Really, he didn’t do anything. He rarely bought or sold shares. He just stared at the account. On days when his holdings grew by more than 2 percent he felt awash with euphoria and confidence. On days when it sank, he was crestfallen.”
When Gabriel later sets his master plan in action—calling a short order on Santa Cruz gas—the victory is equally obsessive and muted. Nothing happens for two days, and then the rumors he’s seeded among his fellow journalists become newswire stories and the company stock drops while the numbers in Gabriel’s account tick upwards.
This seems to be the object lesson promised in Mountford’s title: Gabriel’s vapid need to see numbers abstract themselves upward is not just a personality defect but an indictment of capitalism in its endstate. I suspect the direness of the term “late capitalism”—a descriptor that could have applied to the oligarchic 20’s or the inflation-choked 70’s as well—will seem anachronistic in a few years, but Gabriel’s journey is, nevertheless, intended to be taken in the context of our most recent economic disaster.
It is one of history’s sweeter ironies that Karl Marx was among the first to use the word “capitalism.” Mountford’s late capitalism is an era of emotionless statistical angling. Wealth is made by replicating digits on spreadsheets instead of creating actual goods or more efficient ways of distributing them. In Das Kapital, Marx defined the root of all capitalism in terms of the commodity, a thing created to satisfy human desire.
“A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference.”
In Mountford’s late capitalism money itself has become the commodity. A million dollars is desirable not because of what it can buy but because having it obviates desire. Gabriel has no coherent use for money beyond the jealous comparisons with his richer school friends. It will not help him become a Pulitzer Prize winning author nor—well, that’s really all Mountford can see of Gabriel’s wants.
Even his love for Lenka is stoically unexpressed after she realizes he’s working for a hedge fund and outs him to all their mutual friends. As Gabriel reflects on what he’s lost in betraying her trust while trying to better his company’s position on Santa Cruz Gas Gabriel recalls Lenka’s perfect shoulders, which he’ll never see again. Even a buffoon, I think, would miss more than a perfected body part. Even douchebags write nostalgic love songs and sing along to them in karaoke bars with their neckties strung around their foreheads.
As the novel closes Mountford connects Gabriel’s success in the hedge fund business with the newfound inability to perceive the world’s most elemental qualities. “Though he inhaled deeply, his lungs were still hungry for oxygen. He exhaled and inhaled again. The air smelled like nothing at all.” The arc of Gabriel’s young life is of a person whose humanity has simply been deleted. Mountford ends on a note of sterility, the most essential element of life defined only by its capacity to fill and empty Gabriel’s lungs.
When I was fifteen my grandfather, who lived in Denmark, gave me a 500 Kroner bill at the end of a summer visit. He’d intended for me to buy something with it but my mother impressed on me how valuable the sum was, nearly $75 with the exchange rate at the time. There wasn’t anything I could think to buy so I left the bill in a white envelope and kept it pressed between the pages of the book I had been reading that summer (One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest). When I returned to America I realized the money was useless and to get anything with it would require a trip to the bank where a large percentage of the value would be lost in fees. So I kept the bill tucked away in the book, and left it there.
Every year for Christmas and my birthday a new sum of money would arrive from my grandparents, a couple twenty dollar bills I’d use on video games or clothes or books. The process became thoughtless, a sum I began to expect. The year after my grandfather died I moved to New York. In packing my belongings I discovered again that old copy of Cuckoo’s Nest with a yellowing envelope pressed into its pages, a bank-perfect 500 Kroner bill inside. Surrounded by boxes of accumulated junk, it suddenly seemed like I’d been making cheap trades for all those little sums of money. With the bill I had a small remnant of my grandfather, preserved in an act of giving. I hadn’t done anything with that bill, and by virtue of that fact it had become more worth holding on to than anything else I’d “done” with the money he’d given me. And if there was a particular scent in the air that evening I have to confess that, like Gabriel, it didn’t register.
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