Whorls of Plot and Character: Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Collision…

The Underwriting
Michelle Miller
Text Publishing
May 2015, RRP $29.99

the_underwrtingThe Underwriting tells the story of the countdown to a public offering of ‘Hook’, a Tinder-esque dating application. Throughout the story we get to watch as Wall Street and Silicon Valley collide.

Flashing from one character point-of-view to another, investment banker Todd is hand-picked to underwrite the IPO (Initial Public Offering for those not in the know) of the app, which has incidentally become the great organiser of his sex life; in the team is Tara, who sees this as her chance to break the glass ceiling and validate seven years of sacrifice for her career; Neha, an unkempt but adept analyst; and Beau, a party boy with a dark side. And in Silicon Valley we meet Josh, founder of Hook; Nick, the socially incompetent, nakedly ambitious CFO; and Juan, a community-minded coder who worked on the start-up from its inception. These and other characters appear in the whorls of plot and subplot as the story careens towards the launch date. That author, Michelle Miller, worked at JP Morgan’s Private Bank adds a flavour of real or perceived authenticity to the narrative.

Miller has said that she wanted to write a novel that made people feel empathy towards investment bankers. “Like, would anyone ever care about any of the people in this room being stressed?” Tall order, you may say. And whilst the effect is not so much that you will likely seek to befriend an investment banker as part of your personal outreach regime, she does achieve her goal by creating a satirical narrative that examines the cold comfort of people who believe their own hype. As Todd says after a dubious one night stand, ‘he’d made it a great night and he’d make it a great day, just like he always did’. And yet as the narrative unfolds Todd is gently ridiculed by his own story when his matter-of-fact expectations do not come to pass. For example, he discovers that his personal trainer, the luscious Morgan who surely cannot but admire Todd’s hot bod as she takes him through his paces, is actually in a committed relationship with her girlfriend. Likewise, Todd can’t understand why his driven co-worker Tara doesn’t want to sleep with him.

Todd isn’t evil and he isn’t a murderer—however, as it happens, a murderous tale does thread, perhaps a little incongruously through the novel; it does not form itself into a whodunnit per se, but exists as a point of tension that may or may not disrupt the IPO. What Todd is, is career-committed above all else and callous towards the feelings of the women he sleeps with: as a result he finds his liaisons become increasingly unsatisfying.

Hook is to be floated in a multi-million dollar deal, yet it is frequently mentioned that the app isn’t actually making any money. The story doesn’t seem itself to hold any belief in money as an absolute, and using this perspective in which reverence for wealth is stripped away, Miller is able to drill down to the pith of her characters and let us all look at the gruelling dance the characters put themselves through in pursuit of wealth and success.

Miller says, ‘That’s what people who hated Wall Street didn’t understand. They thought bankers and brokers were malicious—that they were purposefully lying to make a profit for themselves. It wasn’t true: in reality, everyone on Wall Street was just too focused on his piece of sand to see the bigger picture. However much subprime mortgage brokers had deceived the people they sold bad products to in the years leading up to the crash, they’d deceived themselves just as much. Not into thinking what they were doing was good, but into thinking it’s the way things were. Their crime wasn’t that they’d been evil, it was that they’d settled for a shitty system.’

The shitty system in all its shittiness is here examined in witty, snappy detail. The characters think and talk about all the human issues of their environment: family, gender and generational differences. And despite dwelling on what might have been a drear topic, what shines out through the pages is a warmth of genuine human relationships in this irresistible, stay-up-all-night-to-finish-it debut novel.

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