March 2, 2021

Too Greedy to Fail

The novel opens with the approaching death of Sir Harry Trevelyan-Tubal, head of one of Britain’s oldest private banks. Before a stroke incapacitated him, Harry discovered that his son Julian had allowed the bank’s “hedgies” to buy “utterly useless and finely diced mortgages in territories they have never even visited.” Dictating a letter to his devoted secretary, Harry reminds Julian: “ ‘It has always been the policy of Tubal Co. to look after our animals’ (she changes this to ‘customers’) ‘with the greatest possible care.’ ” Since no one else can understand Harry’s stroke-addled speech, his secretary takes creative liberties.

Julian is a creative type as well, a dabbling banker and a classic “mistakes were made” character. He hopes to prop up Tubal’s depleted accounts without catching the eyes of its trustees or clients, then sell the bank. What he really wants is to work with horses: “In his mind as he sleeps,” Cartwright writes in a typically wry bit of characterization, “he is still drawing pictures of ponies in the margins of his exercise books.” Julian lets thugs take charge of the business he’s allegedly running, and understands too little about what’s happened to serve as a real villain. Like a child, he hides from the unpleasant truth.

There is no true artist in the book, but the playwright Artair MacCleod stands in for one. The ex-husband of Harry’s trophy wife, Artair spends his days putting on regional children’s theater productions of “Thomas the Tank Engine” and his nights scripting a five-hour play about the writer Flann O’Brien. “His is, in fact, mostly a cut-and-paste job from the work of O’Brien, with stage directions added in marker pen.” Artair is a stereotypical misunderstood artiste, but hilarious nonetheless. He also receives a regular “allowance” from Tubal Company, which Harry views as alimony and Artair views as “a grant.” He’s outraged when it stops coming shortly before the old man’s death.

While nothing suggests that Artair has talent, he is so convinced of his own genius that he occasionally manages to persuade others. After all, who’s to say what’s objectively good or bad in art? His passion impresses a young journalist, newly laid off from The Cornish Globe and Mail, who naturally starts a blog. In a post that’s mostly about cupcakes, she “decries the drying up of funding, under mysterious circumstances, for that ornament of Cornish and Celtic culture, Artair MacCleod.” This draws the attention of a disgruntled insider at the bank, who offers information that could bring Tubal down.

While it’s unlikely that an investment banker would notice a provincial nobody’s blog, Cartwright has a blast parodying her unedited rambles, mocking our latest “art” form as a kind of journalism lite — no fact-checking required.

Bankers like Julian may be the bad guys here, but the people determined to excavate the truth, the journalists, are just as absurd, delusional and self-absorbed as those they’re seeking to expose. The blogger’s former boss, a Michael Moore type, decides he will break the scandal, because he hates and envies rich people.

Cartwright skewers everyone. Throughout this novel, people wonder who holds the reins in this world, bankers or artists. Both are responsible, Cartwright suggests, for creating our sorry state of affairs. While reality may be grim, this portrayal is a real comedy in which all the characters come out on top, at the expense of other people.

Malena Watrous is the author of the novel “If You Follow Me.”

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