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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Moral Hazard

Kate Jennings

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To purchase Moral Hazard

Title: Moral Hazard
Author: Kate Jennings
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 175 pages
Availability: Moral Hazard - US
Moral Hazard - UK
Moral Hazard - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : brisk, often solid style, but dark tale too simply told

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 27/4/2002 Helen Brown
The Economist . 31/8/2002 .
London Rev. of Books A 22/8/2002 Christina Gombar
The LA Times B- 13/6/2002 Kai Maristed
New Statesman A 15/4/2002 Amanda Craig
The New Yorker . 15/7/2002 .
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 30/6/2002 Lisa Zeidner
Salon A+ 20/6/2002 Charles Taylor
San Francisco Chronicle . 30/6/2002 Jane Ciabattari
The Times . 13/4/2002 Glyn Brown
TLS . 29/3/2002 Margaret Stead
The Washington Post . 13/6/2002 Jonathan Yardley

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but most very positive

  From the Reviews:
  • "Jennings has worked as an executive speechwriter at a number of Wall Street banks, and her observation of the language they use is acute. (...) She is less convincing on the subject of finance itself. (...) Mike's cynical breakdowns of the markets provide more of an insight into the novel's most intriguing character than they do into economics." - Helen Brown, Daily Telegraph

  • "Moral Hazard is a sad, moving and rather bitter novel." - The Economist

  • "Jennings does get it right, capturing the hectic, oppressive, high-adrenaline ambience while sparing us the gee whiz." - Christina Gombar, London Review of Books

  • "The fall through the trapdoor of fate. The parallel construction of private moral hazard unfolding in tandem with free-market turpitude. Reference to an actual '90s hedge fund comeuppance -- altogether, an intriguing premise for a novel. Moral Hazard reads as its promising draft." - Kai Maristed, The Los Angeles Times

  • "It sounds trashy, but it isn't. (...) Jennings's crisp prose conveys pain beyond honesty. (...) This is an extraordinary novel: pleasurable and powerful, mordant and harrowing. Like Christina Stead, Jennings is an Australian whose native wit is combined with the energy of America (.....) Moral Hazard will be appreciated by those inside the financial world and by those who try to ignore it." - Amanda Craig, New Statesman

  • "(H)er unsentimental chronicle of the progress of a disease is what makes this fine, short novel almost unbearably sad." - The New Yorker

  • "Moral Hazard is a meditation, not a page turner -- a tone poem (.....) The material about Bailey's battle with Alzheimer's is somewhat less successful." - Lisa Zeidner, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Sharp, spare, and utterly unsentimental, Kate Jennings' Moral Hazard lays out, in its meticulously composed 175 pages, the definitive treatment of contemporary workplace alienation. (...) Jennings strikes exactly the right balance between satire and compassion, seeing her characters as flawed human beings and yet rendering them with scalpel-like precision." - Charles Taylor, Salon

  • "By yoking Alzheimer's and the collapse of Niedecker, Jennings risks making the novel overly contrived, with no room for the characters to breathe. She saves Moral Hazard from that trap via Cath's all-too-human mix of self-interest and altruism, and her unsentimental approach to the tragedies she faces." - Jane Ciabattari, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "What is explained in depth, though, is the world of money markets, something that Jennings understands, having worked there. The talk of derivatives, commodities and "fat tails" makes for a difficult read, but it is worth persevering for the snapshots of New York before September 11" - Glyn Brown, The Times

  • "At a time when length seems to be regarded as a prerequisite signal of literay weight, Moral Hazard stands out as an elegantly slim volume. Jennings (...) brings to her novels an understanding of how to distil narrative down to its essence." - Margaret Stead, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(I)ntelligent, quietly passionate (.....) Jennings has found, in Wall Street, the raw material for a novel that transcends its seemingly mundane (and arcane) subject matter." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Moral Hazard explores not one but two horrors of the modern world: international high finance and Alzheimer's disease. The narrator, Cath, has an older husband, the artist Bailey (a designer and collagist), who succumbs to the dreaded disease. This forces her to take a high-paying job, since her freelance writing gigs certainly aren't enough to support her and her ailing husband. She winds up working for the fictional investment bank Niedecker Benecke as a speech- and other writer. (Author Jennings has worked in a similar capacity, at Merrill Lynch and J.P.Morgan.)
       In a great rush, Cath describes her years working in the world of high finance -- and the decline of her husband. Thirty-six short chapters move back and forth between the two stories, across the years, the one focussing on a small, personal tragedy, the other on a business that affects countless people across the world.
       Moral Hazard is an indictment of modern high finance -- morally bankrupt, with a misguided belief in the market, ultimately as helpless (and disgusting, in every respect) as the Alzheimer's patient in the final stages of his disease. The absence of memory is part of what ruins them both -- the individual and the investment bank -- as is the unwillingness (or rather: inability) to see the world as it is. Cath convincingly shows the cloistered Wall Street ivory tower dwellers to be as Weltfremd as the Alzheimer's patient.
       All in all it is a very ugly story. As she herself admits, in the second sentence of the novel: "Bloody awful, all of it." (There's an enticement to the reader .....)

       Jennings has an engaging style. Her writing is forceful, breathless, very much to the point. There are very few long sentences in this novel, and very many very short ones.
       Still, all does not begin well. Coffee from a Wall Street shop is described as:

(...) a powerful propellant. Not to be trifled with. Drink enough Pasqua coffee and you were orbiting.
       Ah yes, wonderful hyperbole. Isn't there an oversight committee that could fine authors for its inappropriate use ?
       Eventually Jennings gets on sounder footing (and in certain areas -- the ridiculous world of high finance -- hyperbole is the only lingo that rings true) -- but not before tripping up a few more times. Discussing "quants" -- the "math pointy-heads" -- Cath hazards on the origins of the term: "from the word 'quantum,' I'd guess." Why she would guess this is unclear. If she had at least invented a reason -- maybe some uncertainty-principle related one or something -- it might pass. But surely almost anyone who merely passes by Wall Street would guess that the root of the word lies instead somewhere in the quantitative analysis these pointy-heads do.
       Cath's tale of the dastardly and unworldly doings in high finance are also, too often, simplifications -- or flat out wrong. An early example suggests:
Well, it helps to look at derivatives like atoms. Split them one way and you have heat and energy -- useful stuff. Split them another way, and you have a bomb. You have to understand the subtleties.
       These subtleties flew right over our head. For one, heat is energy (and nothing but energy). Second, "a bomb" is merely something that releases a great deal of energy (and -- this is the bomb-boom part -- does so very, very quickly; burning a pound of paper, for example, apparently releases more energy than exploding a pound of dynamite -- the difference being that the energy-release from the exploding dynamite is done within a fraction of a second, while it takes ages for the paper to burn). We are also unfamiliar with the different ways of splitting atoms she refers to. Does she mean a contained nuclear reaction as in a nuclear power plant, versus an uncontained one as in a nuclear bomb ? But in both these the actual process of fission (atom-splitting) is, of course, the same. And the amount of energy that is released is the same (at least if comparable amounts of fissionable material are "split"), etc. (There are differences -- but these have to do with other things: the type and amount of fissionable material involved, how much is allowed to "split" over any period of time, as well as the fact that nuclear bombs are usually set off through the use of a very large conventional explosive.)
       Derivatives and financial markets are complex things, and Jennings can't be bothered to go into details. Fair enough: it would probably unbearably bog down her narrative. Instead she offers quick sketches and simple impressions, easily skewering high finance -- but too often her imprecision is unacceptably vague and general. Which is too bad, because she is often right on target, too, and she expresses herself nicely and sharply. Post-Enron (and other recent debacles) many sentences hit nicely close to home: "It's midnight. Do you know where your retirement money is ?"
       Cath's view of the investment banking world is a properly critical one. She doesn't allow herself to become co-opted by it, and her often jaded and wry observations are fairly entertaining. The characters at her workplace are largely cartoonish -- in part because it is almost impossible for her to have any personal sort of relationship with these people -- but that is, for the most part, appropriate. Wall Street is a cartoon world.
       The clamouring by all the investment bankers for less government regulation, and their apparent complete faith in the great free market, are nicely countered by what, post-Enron, is obvious: some (and probably a great deal of) regulation is necessary in order for the market to be free (at least in this world). A few good examples are used: the default by Russia, for example, disappoints the investment bankers, with the CEO moaning: "What happened was inconceivable. It broke all the rules." This from a person who wants there to be no rules. The investment bank bozos are, like all bankers, not true laissez faire believers -- the philosophy they propose is only one of laisser moi faire.
       Jennings does a good job of describing the foolish investment practices that are so common. Hedge funds get some special treatment, but there are numerous other catstrophes-in-waiting that she points out (or at least points, in passing, to).
       The story isn't ideally balanced with the Alzheimer's-half, and Jennings doesn't do quite enough to combine the two -- in particular in pointing out how similar the situations are.
       Cath remains a devoted wife, and she shows readers also just how ugly and awful Alzheimer's quickly becomes. It is a difficult subject, and -- those with Alzheimer's afflicted loved-ones or sufferers themselves be warned -- Jennings is unsparing in her descriptions. Unlike at her workplace, in this sphere she is, ultimately, willing to take action. She talks ethics with a doctor, and she mentions her reading list: the first name on it is Peter Singer, and so readers know where this is headed .....
       As she warned early on: "Bloody awful, all of it." The book is, in fact, very close to being too ugly to read.

       Jennings' style is often impressive: she tells a mean tale. But her choice of (and command over) subject matter isn't ideal. Perhaps she knows these two worlds well: she does nicely caricature Wall Street life, and she does convey the sheer awfulness of the rot of Alzheimer's. But she gets too many of the Wall Street details wrong and she oversimplifies too much of high finance -- and the Alzheimer's story is simply one of misery, finally brought to a very unpleasant and, for some -- us, certainly --, disturbing conclusion.

       A talented writer, perhaps simply trying to do too much here.

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Moral Hazard: Reviews: Kate Jennings: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian author Kate Jennings was born in 1948. She moved to the United States in 1979 and has worked as a writer for Merrill Lynch and J.P.Morgan.

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© 2002-2021 the complete review

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