Double or Nothing
Two novels go all in on gambling
Of all the phrases to gain traction in our language in recent times, is any uglier than “human capital”? Even as the term suggests an imperative to nurture and educate (capital, after all, must be developed), it financializes the human. Education appears through its frame as an investment opportunity, personal life choices as a series of risk calculations. By quantifying and instrumentalizing, “human capital” impoverishes life’s complexity.
Granted, taking potshots at business language is easy and ultimately futile. Increasingly, its idioms shape our political and social imagination in ways so powerful as to appear immutable. Any dissenter is put in mind of Paul Simon’s “I Know What I Know”: “Who am I to blow against the wind?” How then, if at all, can we reckon with this twenty-first-century financialization of language and life? Perhaps the most interesting approach involves telling stories about it. Can we play with financialization’s dominant images and terms, spin narratives about them, and thereby reach new cultural understandings of our marketized, monetized lives?
This is the project of two new novels, Susan Swan’s The Dead Celebrities Club and Stéphane Larue’s The Dishwasher (originally published in French but recently translated into English by Pablo Strauss). In each, acts of gambling fuel wider explorations of a world mediated by credit and debt. This strategy may seem to risk banality. Isn’t the casino one of our commonest images for contemporary finance? Thankfully, these novels skirt obviousness. In them, gambling serves as a portal for exploring human character. Their shared concern lies with the fate of financial metaphor. What happens to our sense of the tactile, tangible world when we fixate upon a slot machine’s whirling dials or a stock’s fluctuations? Neither book posits the gulf between human capital and human character as a simple opposition. Rather, each charts the complex effects of their interaction.
Swan’s The Dead Celebrities Club does so dazzlingly and hilariously. The novel’s central figure, Dale Paul (who insists on being addressed by his full name), is a disgraced hedge fund manager newly incarcerated in a minimum-security penitentiary, Essex, in upstate New York. Hubris and fraud are his specialties. His shady dealings have destroyed the pensions of war veterans, landing him media coverage as a financial villain reminiscent of Bernie Madoff. His wealth and clout gone, Dale Paul concocts an in-prison betting scheme: a dead pool, in which players cast bets on which aging celebrity will die first. With the help of Mr. Jack, a capricious gangster, he extends the betting pool beyond the prison, roping in more players. Although Dale Paul sells the wardens on the game as a tool for teaching financial literacy to inmates, his true motive is clear: played shrewdly, it could restore his fortune.
Mr. Jack is a key figure of the novel’s jailhouse plot, but The Dead Celebrities Club is ultimately most interested in Dale Paul’s relationships with characters on the outside. Some of these figures are members of his family, others old friends from his childhood in a posh Toronto private school. Dale Paul has treated many of them patronizingly, carelessly, or callously. We wait anxiously to learn whether disgrace and imprisonment will reconfigure these relationships. Will he see his past behaviour for what it was? Will penitentiary life spark penitence in a man seemingly allergic to it?
Such uncertain prospects for recognition, repentance, and change lend Swan’s plot suspense. The novel accentuates these questions by veering between Dale Paul’s incarceration and his memories of Toronto school life. We encounter many figures — his endlessly forbearing cousin, Meredith; his deferential and sensitive writer friend, Tim Nugent; a swaggering, calculating presidential aspirant, Earl Lindquist — as both children and adults, which prompts us to assess their growth. How have they changed? Each character evinces continuities between their childhood and adult selves, even as they claim to have matured. Schoolyard memories linger among them as sources of grudges or gratitude, shaping their interactions even decades later. To what degree can our personalities change with time and circumstance? This question shadows every character, not just Dale Paul.
Although the ex-financier’s crimes are plainly despicable, Swan subverts readerly temptations to moralize by making him an endlessly charming first-person speaker. (Much of the novel unfolds in his voice, though short chapters in the third person, focused on other characters, interrupt it.) He wins friends easily, even among the far poorer, less educated inmates at Essex. The Dead Celebrities Club mines these interactions across class divides for humour, but a darker truth emerges from its comedy of manners: Dale Paul’s grace, poise, and warmth cloak the raw relations of capital — financial, human, and otherwise — through which he has exploited so many.
Swan frames his rise and fall through conspicuous references to such Jazz Age classics as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, but The Dead Celebrities Club owes its structure and strategies at least as much to a different, unacknowledged ancestor: Nabokov’s Lolita. As in Lolita, a scoundrel addresses us from prison in an entrancing and seductive voice, one that dispels our awareness of his original crimes. Like Humbert’s, Dale Paul’s language is comically verbose, his speech peppered with words like “scrofulous,” “amanuensis,” “scofflaw,” and “hoosegow.” This is one white-collar criminal on whom we can count for a “fancy prose style.” Swan cinches the Lolita link subtly through linguistic markers such as “chomo” (“prison slang for child molester,” we are told) and “cloudlet,” a characteristically Nabokovian formulation.
Yet The Dead Celebrities Club is not at all Lolita redux. It is very much its own novel, in part because of its plot’s contemporaneity and topicality. This is a distinctively post-recession fiction, one that addresses the financial buccaneering that instigated the crash and stages a popular fantasy that never came to be in post-bailout America: the imprisonment of the 1‑percenters who caused economic ruin for so many.
The Dead Celebrities Club’s nowness carries risks. Topicality is a perilous quality for any novel, since, handled poorly, it can render the text didactic or gimmicky, little more than a fictionalized op‑ed. Swan skirts these perils by acknowledging her plot’s topicality and probing its narrative effects. She accomplishes this feat by embedding within her story a rabid media pack whose recognition of Dale Paul’s newsworthiness reshapes our perception of him. Reporters swarm at the slightest opportunity. The media’s presence lends the novel another layer of narrative consciousness. Lingering on the fringes like a chorus, it reminds us of an international public eager to consume stories about Dale Paul, an entity that upends our reading experience. We read his thoughts and actions, even as we imagine how they might be sensationalized in a tabloid story.
This mediatized layer of consciousness lends a surreal quality to Dale Paul’s world, helping fuel the book’s antic humour. Make no mistake: this is a very funny novel. Swan makes comedic hay by putting her felons through yoga and dance classes characteristic of both upper-middle-class life and what many ruefully imagine as the languid Club Fed world of minimum-security prisons. (One highlight is a scene in which prisoners perform a choreographed dance routine to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” — which, some googling will show the curious, is an allusion to an actual “Thriller” performance in 2007 by inmates at a maximum-security prison in the Philippines. The video went viral; sometimes life is at least as strange as art.)
Swan draws more humour from her characters themselves, many of whom verge on stereotype. We have, for instance, a calculating politician; an untrustworthy gangster; a shy, sensitive writer; an impassioned young activist; a narcissistic hedge fund manager. The Dead Celebrities Club humanizes these figures to varying degrees, placing them beyond yet also comedically close to the stereotypes they so clearly evoke. These characters’ proximity to convention sharpens the cartoonish quality of Dale Paul’s world. Yet their frequent swerves from type, their thwarting of our preconceptions about them, enlivens the plot, lending it at times humour, at times pathos.
The novel’s surreal qualities, as well as its canny use of character types, elicit perhaps its foremost concern: the relationship between a world of tactile experience and one of hypermediation and financialized abstraction. Recall the game that gives Swan’s novel its title, which converts the demise of celebrities into a contest of profit and loss. Life and death itself, that is, have become a game for Dale Paul. Yet mortality inevitably intrudes upon his world. Will these harrowing encounters change him? Swan reminds us, time and again, that all bets are off.
Dale Paul’s financial speculation is psychologically immersive, blinding him to life beyond its strictures. This effect, the blunting of experience, links his speculation to the compulsive gambling of the protagonist of Stéphane Larue’s The Dishwasher, which, as Le Plongeur, won the Prix des libraires du Québec and the Prix Senghor and earned a 2017 Governor General’s nod for French-language fiction.
Larue’s protagonist, who narrates the novel in the first person, is a nineteen-year-old CEGEP student in Montreal with a penchant for death metal and an addiction to video lottery terminals. (Larue strategically withholds his protagonist’s name, piquing readers’ curiosity.) An aspiring graphic designer, he lands the opportunity to produce cover art for the album of his friend’s metal band. However, he quickly gambles away the advance payment he receives. In debt to many people and in need of cash, he takes a low-level job at a hip restaurant, La Trattoria. Even then, the unnamed dishwasher remains unable to stop gambling, pay off debts, complete his CEGEP courses, finish the album cover, or rectify the lies he’s told to friends and family to conceal his desperation.
Gambling-generated debt fuels an ambient mood of anxiety in Larue’s tale. Gains and losses in the protagonist’s bank balance, however small, accrue great emotional weight as the plot unspools. But the novel is as much about the mental sleights through which we delude ourselves into downplaying mounting problems. As the dishwasher continually ignores obligations to others, the reader winces. Any born procrastinator knows well the alluring idea that urgent tasks will magically go away if ignored long enough. Larue imbues the dishwasher’s procrastination, especially in designing the album cover, with both a sense of satisfying recklessness and an angst-ridden awareness of a looming reckoning. As he shirks duties and relapses in his gambling, readers remain aware — with escalating dread — of the bill that will inevitably come due.
Having effectively dropped out of CEGEP, the dishwasher receives his true education in the humble space of La Trattoria’s dish pit. The Dishwasher is, as Québécois reviewers have noted, a Bildungsroman, a novel of education and maturation. (It’s also a Kunstlerroman, a story of artistic development.) While The Dishwasher’s adherence to venerable Bildungsroman tropes can feel overfamiliar at times, it more often produces highly satisfying and original variations. The dishwasher’s Bildung proceeds through his entanglements with a wide-ranging cast of characters that make up the restaurant’s staff. Some of these entanglements are tutelary, others romantic, others criminal. They occur within La Trattoria’s kitchen and at the dive bars where the staff parties after hours. Some of these figures — most especially Bébert, a sous-chef who takes in an astonishing amount of booze and drugs — feel larger than life, but that isn’t necessarily to the plot’s detriment. That the dishwasher describes them in this way accentuates his youth, his capacity for growth.
Indeed, the novel’s fascination with growth suffuses its plot’s time and place. This is a story about specific parts of Montreal in a specific era. Its plot unfolds in the early 2000s, somewhere between 9/11 and the election of Obama. It’s an era that now appears eerie: people carry cellphones, but they’re flip phones, not smartphones. Familiar cultural references abound, yet there is no Facebook or Twitter. From the vantage of 2019, it’s a world recognizable yet not quite ours, one trembling on the brink of change.
The setting is one of impending change too: The Dishwasher is distinctively a novel of Montreal, one wistful for and protective of its rundown quartiers threatened with gentrification. Larue clearly cherishes the bars, back alleys, and derelict apartments he describes, sensing in them an urban authenticity imperilled by developers. Willa Cather divided fictional cities into two types: cities of fact and cities of feeling. Larue’s Montreal contains many place-markers of the city of fact: street names, specific Metro stations, historical references. Yet the city of feeling predominates. The grubby corners in which so much of The Dishwasher’s plot transpires are spaces of wildness and disorder that carry associations of youthful irresponsibility. It is conventional to romanticize such spaces, of course, but Larue also imbues them with a constricting, claustrophobic air as the dishwasher’s debts accumulate.
Despite its ardent literary mapping of Montreal neighbourhoods, The Dishwasher shines most brightly in its indoor scenes describing shifts in the kitchen. Here Larue’s prose — flinty and precise in Strauss’s translation — becomes utterly propulsive, its effects mesmerizing. A veteran of the Montreal restaurant scene, Larue clearly knows his way around a kitchen, heaping these passages with descriptions of cooking techniques and routines, all while conveying each shift’s frenetic action. The Dishwasher is worth reading for these scenes alone. Their tempo and intensity evoke the death-metal music referenced so often by various characters that it forms a soundtrack to the larger plot. Their immersive qualities generate a literary — and infinitely less harmful — analogue to the psychological immersion produced by the dishwasher’s compulsive gambling.
Immersion takes myriad forms in The Dishwasher, some harmful and some salutary. It fosters self-obliteration and, often concomitantly, self-transcendence. Across the novel, characters lose themselves in drugs, booze, gambling, death-metal concerts, and the labour of restaurant work, each of which induces a trancelike state. What self resurfaces from such dissolution? Larue poses this question time and again.
Unlike the immersion induced by Dale Paul’s and the dishwasher’s financial speculation, in which social relations are eclipsed by abstract calculations of profit and loss, the immersion prompted by Swan’s and Larue’s fictions stems from their investments in human character. Each novel assays its protagonist’s prospects for growth. However, the growth each explores remains unquantifiable, incapable of assimilation. Swan and Larue expose this figure — the human of “human capital” — as itself a character, a fictitiously constructed model of personhood. Their works chart how capital shapes literary personhood even as it offers new models of character — notably, the citizen as “capital,” as an object of investment and speculation — for people to inhabit in everyday social life. Through these novels, we see “human capital” emerge as a species of character subject to artful revision.