Finance as a novelistic plot engine
January 3, 2014 10:12 AM   Subscribe

An unpublished interview with novelist Sol Yurick by BLDGBLOG's Geoff Manaugh. "[S]uppose we think of The Iliad as one big trade war. Troy, as you know, sat on the route into the Black Sea, which means it commanded the whole hinterland where people like the Greeks and the Trojans did trading. The Trojan War was a trade war." (previously on the 2013 passing of the writer of The Warriors)
There was an essay I wrote for The Nation on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, in which I panned the novel. But what I realized, even at the time I was writing it, was that, in a certain way, the story in that book—the true story it was based on—wasn’t just a random killing. It was a revenge killing. It was about two people who are, in a sense, dispossessed. But the person who got killed—not the family so much, but the farmer himself, Clutter—was no ordinary guy. He was no ordinary farmer, but a well-to-do guy with 3,000 acres and some cattle and maybe an oil-pumping system. He was important. He’d worked in government and he’d worked as a county agent. I won’t go into the history of the county agents and their ultimate role in making agribusiness as we know it today. But he was important enough in 1954 to have been interviewed about a kind of global crisis in agriculture in the magazine section of the New York Times.

This wasn’t the story Truman Capote told. Capote was given an assignment by the New Yorker and he went and he did it. He didn’t know or understand any of this background. He didn’t talk about the role of this guy. Not that this guy was the ultimate villain—this Clutter person—but, the fact is, he had a very key role. If he was important enough to be interviewed in a section on changes in agricultural policy in the New York Times Magazine, that means he’s not just nobody. The fact that he conjoined the outlaws, the killers—the fact that they conjoin, in a sense, with the Clutters—I think is a piece of, you can almost say, Dickensian chance. It’s like how some novelists will start out with two or three random incidents that are not connected at all and then mold them together.
posted by spamandkimchi (15 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The Trojan War was a trade war.

When examining the motivations of nation-states and the wars they choose, it all comes down to economics, whether the king needed more revenues, or enterprises needed cheaper labor, better trade routes, or more raw materials. It's a fun exercise to look at the history of a war and find the key economic factor that drove it.

He didn’t know or understand any of this background.

Yurick doesn't really make a case for the killing to be motivated any differently than Capote portrayed it. I would be interested to know if Yurick could have elaborated on this idea more.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:55 AM on January 3, 2014

Agree with Mental Wimp. If you give an economist Romeo and Juliet to read he will tell you it's about power asymmetry, exploding offers, and opportunity costs. If you give the same play to a communist, she will tell you that it shows how the working class is kept down by the landowners. These are just filters to interpret and make sense of a life's randomness.
posted by ibme at 11:02 AM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Trojan War was a trade war.

There's a lot of excellent intriguing scholarship supporting this very hypothesis, notably Barry Strauss' The Trojan War: A New History. While some his book is based on supposition ("The Myrmidons were like this, so they'd probably do this") it still gives an excellent look at the strategic economic location and (thus) power of Troy and why it would be such a tempting target for the Greek pillagers.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:02 AM on January 3, 2014

When examining the motivations of nation-states and the wars they choose, it all comes down to economics,

It can come down to personal ambition, or religion, even just pique. (NB that the notion of Trojan War as a trade war is not original to Yurick. Robert Graves made the same point years earlier.)

Agreed, however, on the Clutter murder thing. He's getting too abstract, which is fine in literature but not so much in real life crime. Absent the money that was supposed to be in the house, the crime would never have happened.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:06 AM on January 3, 2014

OK, but the putative presence of money at the Clutters's and the murderers' desire for that money are not random things that are totally unrelated to their respective class positions and interests.

It would be interesting to read that Nation article.
posted by enn at 11:11 AM on January 3, 2014

IndigoJones: "When examining the motivations of nation-states and the wars they choose, it all comes down to economics,

It can come down to personal ambition, or religion, even just pique.

And, both of your are right.

Iraq War II: It was about the oil.


Iraq War II: It was about GWB avenging himself upon a madman who threatened his father, and proving he could "complete his father's mission", doing the old man one better. "Then he'll be proud of me!"
posted by IAmBroom at 11:12 AM on January 3, 2014

> The Trojan War was a trade war.

This is not some stunning new insight, this is a century-old cliche. From HD Newsletter, Vol. 3-4 (1990), p. 38: "For Bury, Walter Leaf, and many other scholars, the Trojan War became a trade war."
posted by languagehat at 11:25 AM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you haven't already, pick up a copy of Yurick's "Behold Metatron: The Recording Angel". Written in 1985, it presaged much of what we witness in our networked world today and is still prescient.. I have seen few works like this one, and could never figure out why it didn't become more widely read. It's almost as if Yurick visited the future and came back to write about it - amazing.
posted by Vibrissae at 11:28 AM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Trade Wars 2002 BC. The original door game.

Okay, more like 1200 BC...
posted by flyingfox at 12:01 PM on January 3, 2014

Of course. It is always all about the Benjamins. I always said 50 Shades of Grey was about big business screwing over their workers, negotiating by inflicting more pain than what they want and presenting an illusion there is no escape so when the workers revolt and bargain for a so-called better deal, said naive workers kid themselves into thinking they got a better deal than they did -- all while producing exactly what the boss wanted all along...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 1:20 PM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

[S]uppose we think of The Iliad as one big trade war.

Please don't tell me George Lucas has turned his eye to the Greek classics.
posted by the bricabrac man at 1:42 PM on January 3, 2014

Guy goes off to war and the war lasts ten years. And then it takes him another ten years to get home. His wife, waiting for him and pushing away the slackers who want to fiddle with her, waits all those years and is now embraced by the hubby she had not seen for 20 years. But his dog, very very old, sniffs him out and they too are reunited. All's well that ends well. And the war itself? all those people died because some aristocrat named Paris stole a wife. Hell, no, we will go cause it is a war worth fighting!
posted by Postroad at 2:06 PM on January 3, 2014

Just a minor clarification in response to ibme: as the interview demonstrates, Yurick has read his Marx. Economists are not a separate category from communists, and Marx was an amazingly insightful economist in his time, just as much as Adam Smith and David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. (Seriously. Read Volume 1 of Capital with David Harvey's YouTube notes, for starters: it's worth it.) Part of the point Yurick is suggesting is that there are numerous and diverse economic systems, transactions, motivations, and enterprises. There are Marxist, Marxian, and communist economists (hello, UMass Amherst econ department!) who produce examinations and explanations of economic activity (including, e.g., work by Duncan Ironmonger on unpaid household labor, Timothy Mitchell on USAID in Egypt, and the substantial literature on the cooperative economics of fisheries management) that are just as substantial and compelling (if not moreso) than those offered by the doctrines of mainstream (and to date seriously compromised) neoclassical economics.
posted by vitia at 2:37 PM on January 3, 2014

I did a very short essay on fabric in the Odyssey because I had just read Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years - Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times and on reading the Odyssey, was struck by how much cloth and cloth-making ran throughout the story. The pivotal scene for me was Odysseus bathing naked and then being found by a princess and her women washing the stored linens, which was in historical context, a staggering display of wealth and power held by the princess, not a woman doing laundry. Cloth and the value of it economically made the presence of women far more powerful in the narrative for me and converted me into a very minor reader and collector of Homeric studies.

Sure everyone brings their own filters to literature, but the assumed economics behind a piece are a huge piece of information to ignore. Learning or discovering the costs and financial structures in a fictional, especially a historical piece, make it richer and more interesting to read.
posted by viggorlijah at 3:59 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Without commenting on the overall thesis, the cited passage is a fantastic bit of magical reasoning. Utter bollocks.
posted by lodurr at 8:17 AM on January 4, 2014

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