‘Moral Hazard’ by Kate Jennings

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 192 pages; 2002.

What a beautiful little gem of a book this one turned out to be!

Kate Jennings’ Moral Hazard is set in Wall Street during the 1990s and tells the story of an outsider — Cath, an Australian “bedrock feminist, unreconstructed left-winger” — who works at an investment bank by day and looks after her ill husband by night.

Previously a freelance writer, she’s sold her soul to make big bucks as a speechwriter for the mid-level bank known as Niedecker Benecke. She needs the money to look after her husband Bailey, 25 years her senior, who is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s.

She knows nothing about finance but she can craft a sentence, although she finds the sexist world — and the politics — of the investment bankers and the communications department a challenge. Her only “friend” in the firm is Mike, a fellow cigarette smoker, with whom she spends her breaks, sitting outside in the plaza sharing confidences.

The book was reissued by Text Classics in 2015

Stark but beautiful prose

The story, which spans roughly six years, from Bailey’s diagnosis to his death, is told in forthright prose undercut with dark humour.

It reads like an insider’s guide to investment banking — its risk-taking, its greed, its unwritten rules, protocols and unfettered belief in the market — based on the author’s own experience working for Merrill Lynch. But it’s also an honest look at the challenges facing those who must look after loved ones* with chronic illnesses while juggling their own lives and careers.

It’s not hard to see the parallels between both worlds.

I was commuting between two forms of dementia, two circles of hell. Neither point nor meaning to Alzheimer’s, nor to corporate life, unless you counted the creation of shareholder value.

The morality of greed

In fact, Bailey’s slide towards the loss of self could also mirror Cath’s own changes in values, her need to “play the game” to get ahead, to understand the tickings of the financial world and the increasingly risky behaviour of those around her.

While Moral Hazard is set more than a decade before the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, the cracks are already there and the shadow of the Barings Bank collapse, caused by employee Nick Leeson’s unauthorised trading, looms large, so when Mike tells Cath about a hedge fund that is likely to collapse, she has a moral dilemma: follow protocol and keep quiet, or speak out and tell her superiors?

She is similarly conflicted when Bailey insists she euthanise him should he become too ill even though they both know this is against the law.

Interestingly, in economics, moral hazard occurs when a business increases its exposure to risk because it does not bear the full costs of that risk. The concept could also apply to Cath’s care of her husband whose behaviour becomes wildly unpredictable and unmanageable as the story progresses, so much so that she has to put him into full-time care and hand over responsibility to others.

There are other metaphors in this short, sharply observed novel — the way the financial authorities bail out failing hedge funds, for example, and make no changes to the rules could be seen as if they, too, have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Portrait of office life

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Moral Hazard is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year. As well as its twin themes of illness and finance, I loved its portrait of office life, a subject that is rarely addressed in fiction despite the fact so many of us spend our working lives sitting at desks surrounded by others sitting at desks.

And it’s a lovely counterpoint to Jennings’ debut novel, Snake, which was set in the Australian outback as far removed from New York’s financial district as it is possible to get!

For another take on Moral Hazard, please see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums.

*  Jennings’ husband, the graphic designer Bob Cato, died of complications from Alzheimer’s in 1999, so those aspects of the novel must surely be based on experience, too.

This is my 10th book for #AWW2021 and my 11th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it secondhand last year. 

14 thoughts on “‘Moral Hazard’ by Kate Jennings

  1. I read this years ago, 2004, I think, when we chose it for our book group.
    I seem to have lost track of her since she’s been in the US, so I looked her up at Goodreads and discovered that she’s written a book about two dogs that she acquired during her grieving period. It doesn’t seem to have gone down well with pet owners who bought it because of the cute dog pictures on the front cover.
    But I also discovered that she’s the subject of one of the Writers on Writers series. Which is high praise indeed, I reckon.

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    • I looked on your blog for a review, Lisa, but couldn’t find one. I’m not sure I’d be interested in reading a book about her dogs (!!), but I wouldn’t mind hunting out “Trouble”, which is a collection of her essays etc. published in 2010.

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      • No, I don’t have one because I didn’t start blogging till some years later. I’ve dug out some old ‘reviews from the archive’ i.e. from my journals, so I might see if I can find the time to do some more of that because I read some really, really good books in those days!

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  2. I think this is very autobiographical kimbofo, which is not to say that it’s not also great fiction. So glad you appreciated it too – and thanks very much for the link. It’s great to give these excellent older books another airing!

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    • Thanks, Sue, I’m sure it is very autobiographical. It sounds like she has lead a very interesting life.

      I wasn’t aware this novel had been reissued by Text Classics until I did an image search on Google. My edition is a cute little hardcover by Picador which I purchased secondhand last year solely on the basis that I had read Snake and loved it so thought this would be good too! I had no idea it had won the ALS Gold Medal in 2003.

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  3. We know how to regulate banks, savings institutions should be separate from speculative ones. In the US I think this was known as the Glass-Stegall Act. But, speaking of moral hazard, directors win when things are up and don’t lose when they’re down, so have a vested interest in being able to speculate with our savings, which I think they’ve been able to do since Pres. Regan, and still can, despite 2008.

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  4. I read this shortly after it was published in the UK and still have my tattered, coffee-stained proof which is an indication of how much I enjoyed it. It stood out as being very different from the many titles pitched to me when I was a book reviews editor, and still does.

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  5. Pingback: Vale Kate Jennings (1948-2021) | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  6. Pingback: Monday musings on Australian literature: Kate Jennings (1948-2021) | Whispering Gums

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