In an author’s note included with the advance copy of Michelle Miller’s The Underwriting, she lays out the challenge she set for herself: “I wonder if it’s possible to create empathy for investment bankers. Like, would anyone ever care about any of the people in this room being stressed? It’s so pathetically privileged, isn’t it?” Miller makes a strong point: bankers just like the ones working at her fictional firm L Cecil (and at JP Morgan, where Miller herself worked briefly) sank the economy in 2008 through sub-prime loans and credit-default swaps they instigated. Hardly any got punished. They aren’t exactly sympathetic characters.
But, the same way novelists create art out of all sorts of privilege, from lawyers to aristocrats to snobby prep schoolers, Miller not only gets the reader to care about the anxieties and secret desires of investment bankers of all stripes, she also spins an exciting piece of intrigue from the concept, and one so dully dependent on jargon and paperwork to boot.
Or more accurately, Miller re-spins it: earlier in her career she wrote young adult novels as Sadie Hayes, examining the intersection of tech and finance with a more obvious debt to Gossip Girl. And The Underwriting began fictional life as a 12-part, slickly produced, multimedia subscription serial on her website last year, before Putnam acquired the rights and Miller retooled it as a novel.
We first meet Todd Kent, the L Cecil man who will soon get his plum assignment overseeing the IPO of wildly successful dating app Hook (think Tinder) as he is getting out of bed with a new conquest who sees long-term relationship potential where he merely sees one-night stand. “You are such an asshole,” she cries, oddly echoing the opening scene of Adelle Waldman’s much-discussed novel of Brooklyn manners, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
In fact Nate, the sensitive writer-artist, and Todd, the wannabe alpha banker, are not that far apart. They claim to be enlightened about women but fail to demonstrate those ethics in practice. They value their work over pretty much anything else. And their ambitions and ego can dwarf rooms, unless they are cut down by higher-ups or shamed by peers. (Miller barely conceals her amusement when Todd is one-upped by the women in his professional life.)
As part of his assignment, Todd puts together his Breakfast Club-style team to get Hook’s Silicon Valley ethos on track for a public offering. There’s the rigidly disciplined Tara Taylor, a college fling of Todd’s now on the fast track to management; Neha Patel, the analyst unkempt in dress and manners but astoundingly adept with facts and figures; Beau Buckley, the rich man’s son whose party-boy schtick masks untrammeled depths; and from Hook’s side, the Zuckerbergian CEO Josh and his grasping, nakedly career-grabbing CFO, Nick Winthrop, among a rather large cast of characters.
Miller throws in a ton of plot – sabotage, hacking, careerism, SEC investigations, identity politics, not to mention a suspicious death – though the escalating pace never suffers. But she is at her most exacting and brutal when describing the gender politics at play. Seeing Tara get dressed down, literally, by Josh for being a “necessary distraction” to smooth the gears for Hook’s IPO induces a serious cringe.
Miller doesn’t spare the women, either. They exact a thousand cuts upon each other with accusations of upward sexual mobility, caring too much or not enough about their appearance, or how family life is sacrificed for the sake of a seat on the board of directors.
In fact the whole atmosphere of this book is cutthroat. Metaphorical eviscerations occur every day with millions, if not billions, of dollars at stake. No wonder misery abounds at every rung of the ladder.
Miller has an explanation. What people didn’t understand about Wall Street, she writes, is that financiers weren’t “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 sub-prime 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.”
Fiction allows Miller’s characters to redeem themselves in surprising ways. The Underwriting, in the midst of entertaining the reader, never forgets its real purpose: to puncture entitlement with the nastiest sting in the tail available.