Frédéric Bastiat once wrote: “There are people who think that plunder loses all its immorality as soon as it becomes legal. Personally, I cannot imagine a more alarming situation.” In light of all that has happened surrounding the financial crisis of 2008 and the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme, we’ve been left to wonder about the downfall of modern ethics, regardless of legality. The growing separation between the ethical and the legal stems, I think, from a desire to become wealthy at any and all costs. This is the subject of Jonathan Dee’s latest novel, The Privileges.
Mr. Dee takes us into the world of high finance and the culture that surrounds it. For many people, it’s probably an all too realistic look at what happens amongst the wealthiest Americans. For others, it’s simply sickening to read about the petty struggles of American bourgeois life.
The story begins by describing the wedding of Adam Morey, a stereotypical middle-class guy who has grand financial aspirations, and, Cynthia Morey, his bride to be. We learn that Adam suffers from narcissistic tendencies and plenty of megalomaniacal delusions; Cynthia, on the other hand, is stunningly beautiful and seems to be most interested in climbing as high as possible in New York’s social stratosphere (I pictured her as a New York Trixie of sorts). Together, Adam and Cynthia are an extremely good-looking couple who are seemingly made for each other.
So what happened to Adam and Cynthia Morey after their lavish wedding? “Time,” as Dee writes, “advanced in two ways at once: while the passage of years was profligate and mysterious, flattening their own youth from behind as insensibly as some great flaming wheel, still somehow those years were composed of days that could seem endless in themselves, that dripped capriciously like some torment of the damned.”
As the story unfolds, we learn that Adam conceives of a scheme for insider trading. This provides the ethical conundrum of the novel. What are the ramifications of Adam’s plunge into criminality? Furthermore, how does he reflect upon it?
Mr. Dee writes: “In the rare moments when he stepped back and thought about it at all, it was vital to Adam’s conception of his professional life that he wasn’t stealing from anybody. There was nothing zero-sum about the world of capital investment: you created wealth where there was no wealth before, and if you did it well enough there was no end to it.” As can be implied, Adam clearly lacked a moral compass.
As for the rest of the Morey family, they stumble along the way you’d expect a rich and dysfunctional family would. Jonas, the Morey’s son, studies art history in Chicago. April, the Morey’s daughter, is a shopaholic with a drug problem. In my opinion, Jonas, an enlightened intellectual, is by far the most likable character in the novel.
Admittedly, I’ve never read anything by Jonathan Dee before and I enjoyed his writing style immensely. The Privileges is ultimately a disturbing novel about misaligned values in the modern world. And, in the end, Mr. Dee kindly reminds us that wealth is not worth pursuing at any cost.