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The Subprimes

May 6, 2015

I’m a fan of satire, and it’s been a long time since I read one that’s going to stick with me for a long time. The Subprimes, by Karl Taro Greenfeld, is devastatingly on-target satire. It’s not necessarily the funny kind, but the kind that makes you think about where we went wrong, and what we could do to get back on a better track.

The term “subprime” is defined at the beginning of the story, as you are being introduced to the plight of Bailey and Jeb and their children Vanessa, and Tom, waking up under an overpass:
“They were all lumped together by the media into a category called ‘subprimes,’ a less descriptive label, perhaps, than ‘homeless’ but one that in this era of raw, rapacious capitalism gave all the information anyone needed: the credit rating of the men, women, and children…was subprime. Their credit rating made them unemployable; they were fugitives from warrants for collection and summonses to appear. Their immediate goal was to avoid imprisonment in Halliburton-, Bechtel-, or Pepper Industries-operated Credit Rehabilitation Centers.”

What has happened to the economy to produce such a result?
“The American economy had shifted from being consumer driven to energy exporting…Denied government assistance, the poor had gone past being poor. The recent American Empowerment Act cut benefits to a one-time $250 in vouchers to fast food outlets. They were cut off from health insurance. And they were denied any federal housing subsidy—the National Housing Freedom Bill had changed that program to a one-time $500 voucher for any of several major hotel chains.”

The narrative technique is a bit jarring, at first. The third-person omniscient narrator doesn’t let you get to know “subprimes” Bailey and Jeb very well before you’re thrown into seeing the world from a formerly rich person’s point of view—Gemma, recently-separated mother of two daughters–and then suddenly you get first-person narration from a marijuana-smoking hybrid-driving father of a girl and a boy, separated from his wife and barely scraping by, anxious because “our kids will have to live in all this shit, shit that we have all made.” The reason that these people would ever meet is not clear, nor is the reason that one of them should get to tell his story himself. It becomes clear, of course, but it’s not very well announced or set up.

The novel’s emotional center is the deserted southwest town of Valence, where houses had been repossessed “because of complicated and ultimately usurious financing that was ultimately judged to be the fault of the borrower. If those subpimes had not been so witless as to be unable to read a damn contract, then whose fault was that?” A small community of squatters forms there, eschewing drugs and sharing everything, and they’re led by a mysterious single woman who calls herself Sargam. She’s another part of the novel I didn’t particularly care for, as the plot requires her to perform messianic miracles for no obvious reason except that they’re needed to keep the plot from becoming tragic. If children don’t die for the cause, then the cause can still be fodder for ridicule, if only because it shouldn’t have to be the sort of cause that anyone dies for.

The unlikely-sounding bad guys are Pastor Roger and the Pepper Sisters, who profit from what he calls “energy independence for our nation.” The sisters provide the machinery and manpower for fracking on a very large scale. The viewpoint on fracking is clear when Jeb, who has found a job on the site, “realized that what they were doing was pumping water into the earth, poisoning it, and then dumping it on the surface.” The viewpoint on the extent to which organized religion has become a money-making scheme is clear from the silly scene in which Pastor Roger consoles a man who has been arrested for some kind of impropriety in securities trading and tells him he will get the charges dropped if he goes back to his wife and two girls, because “we don’t believe a man should be persecuted for seeking to create jobs, bestow abundance, and enrich his fellow capitalists.”

Smaller-fry bad guys are the officials in what passes for public school in this society. The satire falters a bit here, because there are few available ways to exaggerate what happens in a middle school when a twelve-year-old boy has trouble doing math the way the school system insists it must be done, touches a girl, or brings a comb shaped like a gun to school. The punishment for the comb incident is to attend an after-school program the kid says is way cooler than the program for boys who touch girls: “Shooters is way cooler than Freaks….I mean, what would you rather be? A serial killer who comes to the school and, like, totally kills people, or, like, some perv.”

The exaggeration ramps up when the father gets arrested for playing street football with his twelve-year-old son and some other kids. Everyone who hears about it asks how they can play football “without safety equipment? Helmets? Pads?” By the time the father, Mr. first-person narrator, gets to Valence, we’re a bit sick of the “in my day, kids played dangerous games outside on the street” theme, which is rescued at that point anyway, by seeing the children begin to play games they clearly don’t understand, like “gorilla” warfare.

Individual ways of dealing with the “national orgy of self-centeredness disguised as free market economics” are ridiculed along the way. Mr. first-person narrator describes his ex-wife as a person who has “withdrawn, totally, into her own self, via yoga and juice cleanses and shaman therapy and the picayune specificity of the foods she will put into her body.” Worse, her boyfriend “lives in an eco-friendly house made of sod….it looks like an igloo covered in grass, an abode fit for a Hobbit, but it has become a popular form of architecture for those who profess to care about the environment: many of the uber-wealthy are seeking to build such structures on their sanctuary islands.”

In the end, there’s a showdown between the people of Valence and Pastor Roger and the Pepper Sisters. “Pastor Roger was on all the networks, intoning in his soft, mellifluous voice the spiritual mission of the Pepper Sisters, and the socialist, progressive dystopia that would ensue if Valence were allowed to continue eking out its existence. ‘People helping people?’ Pastor Roger would ask. ‘I don’t hear any inch of room in there for God. This is secularism run amok, the gravest threat to God’s fabric since Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden themselves.’”

It is devastating satire with interesting characters and a well-knit plot, all tied together with passable, if initially awkward, narrative technique. It is above all good satire, though, showing us “the logical end product of our unregulated free-enterprise system.”

I got an advance proof of this novel from Harper Collins, who say it will go on sale next Tuesday, May 12. Plan a trip to the bookstore, order it, get on the list at the library….this is a book you should read.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2015 6:24 am

    That’s a strong recommendation, but I’m not sure this is one that I would enjoy as much as you! Sometimes I have a hard time with satirical humor, because either I feel bad laughing at a serious issue or because I don’t know enough about the issue to get the joke!

    • May 7, 2015 12:02 pm

      The job of the satirist is to get you laughing at what happens when you take a line of serious thinking to its logical extent, or to do enough worldbuilding to educate you about the issue in the fictional world, so you get curious to see which parts are exaggerated in your own world.

  2. May 8, 2015 12:58 pm

    With a title like that, I figured it had something to do with our economy. I enjoy well done satire so I might have to give this a try.

    • May 8, 2015 1:47 pm

      You knew more about the term than I did. I was lucky he defined it right off!

  3. May 21, 2015 12:50 am

    Can we call it cli-fi?

    • May 21, 2015 8:24 am

      I think you could; the people of this world are watching whales beach themselves in record numbers, moving to private islands when they can, and defending themselves from coyote attacks in formerly settled areas.

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