The House Of Illness

April 5, 2002

Kate Jennings, Moral Hazard, Sydney: Picador, 2002.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Moral_Hazard_(novel)Kate Jennings’ powerful new novel is written from Cath’s perspective.  A freelance writer in love and in New York, Cath finds herself working for amoral finance capitalists to pay the exorbitant medical bills of her husband that Medicaid can’t meet.  Despite her “bedrock feminism” that had been examined but not “tested” over the years, Cath had married Bailey, a designer and collage artist twenty-five years her senior.  Bailey was warm, optimistic, and enthusiastic. Cath was pessimistic and introspective.  But they connected.  He could understand her, and she could keep him grounded.  Jennings defines their early years together as happy, with the usual fights and tensions.  But then Bailey began to forget.  He had Alzheimer’s.

Jennings is well known for reworking autobiographical material in fiction, and Cath, the protagonist of Moral Hazard, shares many experiences with Jennings herself.  Both women were left-wing feminists raised in Australia in the radical sixties.  They relocated to the United States and married men much older than themselves.  Their husbands were adored partners, stricken with Alzheimer’s.  Both men were nursed over many years of disorientation and decline before their deaths.  Cath, like Jennings, worked as a speechwriter for Wall Street banking executives, crafting speeches on derivatives and hedge funds to earn enough to pay for her husband’s medical and nursing care.  Cath, a freelance writer with a cynical bent, entered investment banking wary of corporate clichés and macho business ethics.  She knew, in her blunt Australian way, that in her firm “women were as welcome as fleas in a sleeping bag.”  Cath faced a number of terrible dilemmas that challenged her instincts and stretched the boundaries of her tolerance: working for a craven corporation to earn the money to care for her dying partner; and contemplating ending the life of a man she loved.  Jennings’ novel explores compromise, moral torment, and defeat, but – like the most fully realised scenes in the life of Cath and Bailey – Moral Hazard is at its best when confronting compassion.

Throughout Moral Hazard Jennings uses short, sharp sentences.  Acerbic and direct.  Her writing is usually straightforward and uncomplicated.  But some writers, even in brief, vivid sentences, cannot always resist the urge to remind us that they are writers with impressive vocabularies or large dictionaries.  This is particularly unfortunate in Moral Hazard when the dictates of style jar with the overt content of a love story exploring the painful onset of memory loss and physical debilitation: “He raged, pounded walls, accused me of all kinds of perfidy.  This, the most trusting and uxorious of men.”  (Perhaps a good test for Alzheimer’s disease is for concerned wives to require their ailing husbands, every morning after breakfast, to define uxorious.)

More impressive aspects of Jennings’ style in Moral Hazard include the forceful, but intimate, first-person narration of the expatriate Australian.  Cath’s clear Australian voice is heard throughout Moral Hazard, particularly in her irony and bluntness of speech.  Cath also displays a not uncommon tendency to swear when feeling stressed.  But Jennings, like her fictional alter ego, has lived in New York for more than two decades.  Rich Americanisms of image and phrase flow through her prose: “At the Fulton Street subway stop, a press of people oozed like molasses through the turnstiles and up the narrow stairways.”  When Cath takes her wheelchair-bound husband on an outing from the nursing home to a New York café Bailey eats a bagel (what else?) with cream cheese and lox, Jennings preferring the Yiddish word for smoked salmon.

Cath felt obliged by economic necessity to work at Niedecker Benecke in the World Financial Center. When sketching her corporate characters Jennings at times knowingly presents stereotypes, such as the bullies and bigots who worshipped Reaganomics, railed against affirmative action, and decried the “billions” wasted on the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Jennings does not try to discern hidden layers of depth and emotion in such unsympathetic characters, but notes instead that Cath’s boss Hanny (short for Hannibal) was “true to type in every respect” and that the firm’s touchstones of “respect’ and “integrity” were “aspirational” and defended by a bevy of lawyers.   Her approach to such characterisation is not shallow, unsatisfying, or a failure of the novelist’s nerve.  Perhaps every large workplace accommodates a caricature or two.  But there is, however, a certain inevitability to her plot line and characterisation: the firm’s left-wing critic of corporate excess takes the bullet when the hedge fund collapses, and the CEO walks away with a cool $250 million.  Shares go up, shares go down.  Inevitable.

Moral Hazard is an expression of love for a dying and dead husband, sometimes communicated directly to the apostrophised reader: “Have I told you how much I loved him?  Bailey: my family.”  It is also a novel of love for the author’s adopted home, New York: an expansive, encompassing intimacy recorded in a poem of Walt Whitman’s that Cath found inscribed on a wrought-iron fence fronting the New York marina:

City of the world. (For all races are here, all the lands of the earth make contributions here.)  City of the sea!  City of the wharves and stores – city of the tall facades of marble and iron!  Proud and passionate city – mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!

New York is home to Kate Jennings and to Cath.  And both women have contributed their loss to New York’s torment and the pain of its citizens.  In Moral Hazard Jennings portrays the individuality of Cath’s anguish and bereavement.  Cath’s loss is unique because of her passionate relationship with Bailey, but also common: shared with other caregivers, including Jennings, who love partners that no longer recognise them.  The stunned sense of loss at the heart of Moral Hazard resounds with the horrors faced – like the unexpected onslaught of Alzheimer’s – by a shocked city after the sudden attack, and then the dramatic, irreversible, crumbling of the World Trade Center on September 11, when all that was solid melted into air.

Moral Hazard is a short novel about love and finance capital, weighty subjects treated with surprising economy.  In her earlier novel, Snake (1996), Jennings wrote a brilliant book – sadly now out of print – in which she used deft sentences and brief, poetic chapters to reveal the domestic tragedies of an Australian rural family without condescending to the reader or burying her audience in unnecessary detail.  But with Moral Hazard the punchy sentences lose their impact when the writing occasionally degenerates to listing names of bankrupted companies or financial scandals that are meant to speak for themselves – such as the Asian meltdown, the Russian loan default, the crisis in hedge funds, or the dot-com bust.  (We could add Enron, WorldCom, and OneTel and HIH to bring globalisation more up to date and closer to home.)  The relationship between Cath and Bailey is individual and deserves the close, detailed attention provided by Jennings’ novel: the type of personal attention a loving wife gives her debilitated partner when he can no longer dress himself, control his bladder, walk unaided, or remember his friends.  The moral hazards of working in finance capital deserve more intimate detail as well.  Not so many catalogues or buzz words; more complexity and literary “thick description” of an individual financial case that would draw the exemplary from the richly specific.  Jennings often equates the dementia of finance capital with the dementia of Bailey’s last years, but the destructive madness of derivatives, currency speculation, and hedge funds is named rather than examined in this novel.

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