08 December 2007

Mezrich's latest

Rigged, the latest book by Ben Mezrich, describes the world of oil-futures trading.

It may not sound like the most natural subject for book by a general-interest publisher like William Morrow -- given the bald statement of the setting above, one might have expected Wiley & Sons to publish this.

But Mezrich became famous with a book about card counting in casinos. For him, the oil futures exchange, especially the New York Mercantile Exchange, or NYMEX, where much of this book is set, is as exciting as any casino in Vegas, and his goal is to make us feel the same.

I've written about Ben Mezrich in this blog before, in particular about his book about American arbitrageurs in east Asia, The Ugly Americans. As I said at the time, the claims of the book to be non-fiction are a bit unsettling. Mezrich changes more than merely the names of his characters, and at some point "protecting one's sources" and such becomes, simply, fictionalization.

I have the same difficulty with this one. Consider the subtitle of Rigged. It's "The True Story of an Ivy League Kid who Changed the World of Oil, from Wall Street to Dubai." The insistence upon the "true story" part is my hang-up here.

Consider, now, the following passage, the opening paragraph of chapter 3.

"There was something uniquely soothing about the whir of helicopter blades. The rhythmic, circular disruption of air, each and every turn apply calculable lift, allowing a thing that should not fly instead to float, like a magic carpet in a child's coloring book -- a carpet made of steel and Plaxiglas and in this case solid gold. Even as the rhythm slowed and the floating, five-ton, bug-eyed carpet came to a gentle rest on the jutting ivory-white helipad, the whirring blades continued their soulful cadence, the long steel appendages cutting slower and slower arcs until all that was left was the beat of the thing itself, the soothing rhythm of a thing that should not be -- but, indeed, was."

Clearly, the author is taking us inside the mind of one of his characters here. The character in question isn't the "ivy league kid" the book is written about. Rather, its another young man, a Cambridge University schooled heir to Arabic nobility, Khaled Abdul-Aziz. Khaled's desire to do something grand for the future of Dubai makes him in time an important ally to the central character's desire to modernize and expand NYMEX. And it's Khaled who is supposedly thinking these thoughts about helicopters and their soothing blades.

As a piece of descriptive prose in a novel, I'd consider the above over-wrought. And the "carpet made of steel" bit makes the helicopter sound like a train they call the City of New Orleans. Still, since we're reading a work of non-fiction, we can infer that at some point Khaled confided in Mezrich about his feelings regarding helicopters, right?

Wrong. At this point, we have to flip back to the author's note, where we find the following lovely disclaimer. "Characters such as Gallo and Khaled are composites and are not meant to portray particular people."

I'll ignore Gallo for this post. Khaled is a composite? Non-fiction is, I think, consistent with the use of composites to simplify an overly complex narrative when the author is (as here) upfront about that. But ... composites in that sense don't have a "stream of consciousness." If we portray a composite as thinking of the "slower and slower arcs" of a helicopter on the landing pad as "soothing" then we've crossed the line and created a fictional character.

The South Park character "Towlie" did this sort of "non-fiction" writing once. He had an excuse. He was smoking pot at the time.

2 comments:

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.