Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book review: MELTDOWN (Ben Elton)

Pride, as we all know, comes before a fall, and nothing epitomizes this better than the recent financial crisis, wherein ill-advised gambles made by bankers and a hubbub of lending loans for people who weren’t ready to buy a house came together in the mother of all hubrises. Ben Elton uses the credit crisis as the backdrop to his book, wherein a group of University friends who have all lucked out – to varying degrees – in their following life choices find that none of them are untouchable from the financial woes of the world.

At the centre of the story is London investment banker Jimmy Corby, an affable, happy-go-lucky man who fell into his trading job with the touch of good fortune that had accompanied him in almost every other step of his life, including meeting his ditzy, well-meaning wife Monica, without whom, it is generally agreed that Corby would have spiralled into the descending spiral of a heart attack or crack addiction. 

His old Uni mates, which include fellow banker Rupert, who carries his craft out with much more of a sneering veneer than Jim, Dave, an established architect, Henry, a self-conscious political activist and Lizzie and Robbo, a married couple, amongst whom she is the frontline of a popular food company that caters for upmarket events and he, mooching off her success.

The friends – and all their wives – have all been in frequent contact since their callow University days, though it is noted that their friendship has barely been tested, such is the cushiness of their jobs (all of them are comfortably on £50,000, minimum, their kids are in private education and they all have big-ass mortgages to match.)

But then along comes the financial crisis, and everything the main characters are used to, comes crashing down. Jimmy and Monica, with their three kids in their gigantic £7million house in Notting Hill, first have to let their nanny go, before facing the awkward conversation with the Headteacher wherein they’re told that as they can no longer afford their son Toby’s fees, they won’t be welcome there. Social satire is rife; the conversation between Jim and the teacher when state education is suggested as a viable option wouldn’t be out of place in a Catherine Tate sketch.

Before the crunch, Jimmy had invested in a road in Hackney with a view of having his friend Dave’s company re-designing it, making it more glamorous and bringing in some big bucks, but when the possibility of this goes out of the window, the street becomes nothing more than a popular squatting site for a local hobo called Bob. In one hilarious moment, Jimmy contemplates re-using a nappy on his youngest daughter Lillie in order to save 18p.

The fall-from-grace overtones could not be clearer, and Jimmy realising the error of his city culture ways is the ultimate in bolting the barn door after the horse has bolted, but there is joy and bathos to be had in his adventure.

Ben Elton throws in a few of his signature twists in the story, and with the unfurling of various friends’ economic situations, also reveals that the oh-so-perfect lives that each of the friends thought they led were really anything but – and how important their finances played in sustaining the illusion that all was well.

It’s very hard to be at the bottom, especially having been at the top for so long, but Jimmy and Monica are fairly likeable protagonists who we as the audience can warm to, even if some of their dialogues (such as the one when first deciding about what state school to put their son in) hint at the blissful ignorance that those who perceive themselves to be the upper strata of society have on certain life matters.

For the most part, Ben Elton tries to abstain from coming across as overly preachy and playing the blame game in his cautionary tale, and rather than pointing fingers or going for the banker bashing route, cannily points out that he without sin can cast the first stone; Henry, at the time of the crunch an esteemed politician, reprimands Jimmy and Rupert for their heady banker ways, yet he doesn’t hesitate to claim benefits on his second house in Berkshire – a wily nod at the actions of various MPs in the news currently.

The majority of the novel is written in his pithy, witty tone, but there is the odd line of writing that exhibits genuine emotion and does the impossible – has us sympathising for characters living in a mansion. There’s an uncharacteristically sweet denouement from Elton at the end, which, whilst pat, doesn’t ring any less true; it takes losing all the superficial stuff to work out what really matters in life.

Money, after all, doesn’t buy one love.

Grade: A-


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