APRIL 20, 2015
IN HIS RECENT COLUMN for Esquire, “A Thousand Words About Our Culture,” Stephen Marche argues that “the forms of genre — science fiction, fantasy, the hardboiled detective story, the murder mystery, horror, vampire, and werewolf stories — have become the natural homes for the most serious literary questions.” He cites authors “of a more explicitly literary bent” who “have explored genre with more and more regularity”: Colson Whitehead with Zone One, Chang-rae Lee with On Such a Full Sea, Emily Mandel with Station Eleven. For Marche, “realism has narrowed,” and pointing to books like The Marriage Plot, The Interestings, The Art of Fielding, and Freedom, he concludes “the landscape” has mainly come to center on the “social struggles” of Ivy League graduates — on “privileged people with relatively small problems.”
Marche is a novelist himself (Raymond + Hannah and Love and the Mess We’re In), and his remarkably subversive third novel, The Hunger of the Wolf, places his views on genre and literature within his own fictional narrative. Instead of blurring the distinctions between “literary” and “non-literary” fiction, Marche deftly challenges the meaning and usefulness of such distinctions: an embittered young writer sets out to uncover the supernatural secret concerning the men in a family of rich media moguls.
The Hunger of the Wolf opens near the present day, when hunters in the Canadian woods of North Lake discover Ben Wylie, “the eighth-richest person in the world,” dead and naked in the snow. The news soon reaches the narrator, Jamie Cabot, a struggling, Manhattan-based journalist at an age in his “mid-thirties” when “you realize that the one thing life inevitably does is go wrong.” Jamie’s voice echoes that of Marche’s biting cultural commentary, but in contrast to the author, the character’s caustic musings on New York City’s class, wealth, and art scene stem from his inability to “make it” there as a writer. He sees himself, always quite hysterically, in the “fairly typical position” of trying “to belong to cliques” he for so long “despised.” Jamie wants nothing else, though, than to stay in New York, and when his boss fires him after the 2008 crash, he worries less about the financial straits that await him and more about “the chance of losing the city”: “The greatest gift of New York,” he says, “is that it requires no justification to live there.” Like many artists having a rough go in the Big Apple, Jamie ignores all the credible reasons to leave, and when his “situation” eventually “deteriorate[s] to the point where [he is] making coffee and writing in bed,” he fantasizes about finally selling a career-defining piece. He has a vested interest, specifically, in the deceased Ben Wylie, not only because he hopes to “monetize [his] fascination” of the man into a profitable exposé, but because his parents live in North Lake, next door to a house the Wylies own. When Jamie was growing up, he and his family served as the home’s caretakers.
Yet despite his close proximity to wealth, coming of age in this Canadian town “bred in [him] a sense of [his] remoteness, [his] status on the periphery of the world.” He “was raised to irrelevance the way that Catholics are raised in the Church,” and he believes it strange that “people [he knows], even casually, matter.” Comparisons to The Great Gatsby will arise, but Jamie Cabot is not as privileged a bystander as Nick Carraway. Though his grandfather “helped lay the foundation of the Wylies’ cottage,” and though his “mother straightened the doilies on the arms of their sofas,” Jamie never intimately knew them. His father referred to the Wylies only as “the family,” and his mother “may have never mentioned [them] by name.” In his adolescence, Jamie “thought of them [only] as ‘the money,’” and it isn’t until his adulthood, on the verge of his financial ruin, that he speaks to a Wylie. And he has to be in New York to do it. Jamie meets his old neighbor at a birthday party hosted by his high society friends Leo and Kate. In the study of the couple’s “voluptuous, eccentric, sandstone four-story in SoHo,” the two argue about how to interpret Paul Klee’s The Wolf, hanging above Leo’s desk. It’s a brief conversation, and they never see one another again.
Six months later, Jamie does, however, see The Wolf again, “sitting on a pile of books” in the Wylies’ Alberta house. On a visit to his family after the death of Ben Wylie, Jamie decides to break into the Wylie house and rummage through the family’s neglected belongings. Inside, he wanders through all of the rooms, and he finds “all the personal papers, the private history of the Wylies, the record they kept to help each other through their inherited sickness […] tucked inside other books, in furniture crevices, inside a blue trunk that served as an ersatz coffee table.” He takes “every paper” he can “suss from the nooks and crannies” back with him to Manhattan, and here the story shifts: it begins to transition between recounting how the Wylies form the immensely profitable WylieCorp, and how Jamie strategizes for a firsthand scoop — an interview with Ben’s adopted sister, Poppy, the only adult Wylie with “the narrative advantage of being alive.” In pursuit of the young woman, and hopefully a very profitable truth, Jamie hilariously navigates through Manhattan’s penthouses, bouncing with Leo and Kate from one party that “smelled of cocaine farts” to the next. Eventually he unearths “the private history” about the Wylies, and he puts together an incredibly clear family tree stretching three generations, from a Depression-era Pittsburgh to Mao-ruled China to modern-day Wall Street, that includes a considerable bit of sensitive information: the Wylie men are werewolves.
WylieCorp’s roots lie with Ben’s grandfather, Dale, in Champlain, Pennsylvania, a fictional steel town along the Monongahela River. His family runs a boarding house, renting rooms to 12 girls. As children, the lycanthropic “sickness reveal[s] itself” to Dale and his brother, Max, one night in 1905. Under the supervision of their parents, Dale and Max retire to the basement, strip naked, and step into a shared cage for three days each month. Reaching only the 10th grade, they quit school and get to work. Dale learns the craft of salesmanship. After he impregnates one of the boarders, Kitty, he marries her and leaves Champlain to go sell on the road. Dale starts “to make his fortune for the simplest reason there is: he has to.” Out west, he collects radio licenses and machines, launching a spending spree on stations, newspapers, and printing factories, the most horizontal of integration. His business strategy prompts a cash flow that will grow over the next hundred years. When he meets his son, George, for the first time (he misses the birth), he shows his family Larchmount Crescent, the new mansion he bought in Champlain. Under the almost exclusive care of women, George passes his youth there, as does Ben. During their respective childhoods, the father and son lead fairly similar lives: they attend Hamilton College, a boarding school “where the wealthiest coal and steel families from Pittsburgh [buy] their children’s placement at Harvard and Yale”; then, they study at Harvard; later, they expand the business throughout the United States and abroad, gradually leaving WylieCorp in the hands of others.
Other than their hidden metamorphism, the Wylie men’s nature isn’t much of a mystery, and it can be summarized, too, through the manner in which Jamie compiles such extensive facts about their lives. In a brilliant move, Marche has the Wylies’ secret rest, literally, in their things: in their sofas, their novels, their suitcases. Even The Wolf, an artwork presumably worth millions and loaded, at least to Ben, with a particular symbolism, has been tossed alongside the rest of the objects in an unkempt room. At the very end of the Gilded Age, Thorstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, introducing the terms “conspicuous consumption,” the notion that acquiring luxury goods can publicly reveal one’s wealth, and “conspicuous leisure,” the idea that a person can visually show his or her social status through activities in opposition to labor (taking, say, lengthy and exotic vacations). In the 1890s, Veblen’s criticism was a response to the ongoing actions of those who amassed their fortunes during the Second Industrial Revolution, the nouveau riche — the characters who fill the pages of Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James, the high society men and women, usually American expatriates in Europe, who once sat for the portraits of John Singer Sargent: in James’s The Portrait of a Lady, Gilbert Osmond views everything, including his daughter Pansy and his wife Isabel, with aesthetic functions, as art objects to show off his societal position; in Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward D. Boit, two of the four Boit daughters stand in the darkness, seemingly overtaken by an ornate Japanese vase.
With The Hunger of the Wolf, we’re square in Thomas Piketty’s new Gilded Age — with burgeoning inequality, rampant gentrification, and movies, like The Wolf of Wall Street, that make us question whether champagne is even worth drinking if it’s not popped on a yacht. The Wylies embody the most extreme version of the one percent: those with it all, but without a thing they desire to do. They’re the world’s “cheapest billionaires.” None of them support charity: “When Bill Gates asked the world’s billionaires to promise half their wealth away, the Wylies were never asked and never offered”; during an interview in 1963, Dale states outright that he is “not a giving man.” In the obituaries of Ben, the newspapers choose to show the “grainy” photograph of him at a 1988 shareholder’s meeting, wearing “well-worn budget sneakers and a suit seemingly borrowed from a middle-management uncle.” To the male Wylies, money is both everything and nothing. Or, maybe better put, it starts as everything and turns to nothing: “Every business is a tragedy, every last one. It either eventually dies or becomes so big that it belongs, truly, to nobody.” At first, Dale insists that “everything that happens in life means that you need to make more money”; later, after his mother, Marie, and his wife, Kitty, die on the same day in 1960 — there are whispers in Champlain of “suicide pacts,” “murder followed by regret,” “simultaneous accidental heart attacks” — he wonders if money actually “means nothing.” The epigraph of the novel, Adam Smith’s statement that “all money is a matter of belief,” becomes, as do most epigraphs considered in retrospect, quite fitting: similar to prescribing to a religion, money’s worth hinges on faith. It means however much you want it to mean. It operates much like a myth, a legend, a ghost story — much like a tale of men transforming into wolves.
What exactly the wolf “means” is, in the end, at the heart of Marche’s novel. None of the characters can ever offer a clear explanation about “the magical transformation”: “The Wylies didn’t understand themselves,” Jamie writes. “They knew no more about the meaning of their story than I did, probably less.” Dale and Max’s parents cannot understand the disease’s “origin or its purpose”: “They could no more comprehend the wolf than they could comprehend other everyday miracles like the birth of children or the existence of the stars.” According to a report Jamie reads in the Winter 1958 issue of The Journal of Pastoral Psychology, George visits a shrink, who deduces he has “a delusion of lycanthropy.” The psychologist, Roman Blom, considers “Freud’s famous Wolf-man case,” sexually framing George’s condition on the basis of the patient’s dream: running across a field, “he cannot tell whether he is chasing or being chased. When he notices that he cannot tell whether he is chased or chasing, [he] wakes.” Blom concludes that George’s “dream implies a fear and a wish simultaneously, a wishful fear and a fearful wish, embodied in the doubled desire of the wolf,” and that the “lycanthropy manifested itself as compensation for the father’s absence in prelibidinal life.” This “doubled desire” is not a contradiction, but a never-ending cycle. Like a Klee painting, it’s indiscernible. There’s no clear beginning or end. Is the city the wolf, or is the person? These binaries dominate The Hunger of the Wolf — “a wishful fear and fearful wish,” money as “everything” and “nothing,” the meaningless objects and the objects that hold the Wylies’ secret.
One binary in particular overrides all the others: the radio and new media technology as both “the latest cure for loneliness” and the cause of the Wylie men’s loneliness. The Wylies capitalize and thrive on quelling people’s loneliness, and in the process of capitalizing, thriving, and quelling people’s loneliness, they bring about their own: “George Wylie, though he [doesn’t] know it, [is] born lonely.” For most of his life, too, he searches for beasts like himself. As the Wylie men lose contact, as the father abandons the son, their interactions devolve into reportage. Notably, the family communicates most pressing material through letters: by mail, Dales learns about George’s birth from Marie; in a note to George, Dale relates how he and Max acquired a tract of land in Alberta through a widespread deal from the government, and after failing to cultivate any crops, ran with “a pack of nine” wolves instead; in lieu of a face-to-face conversation, George shares a handwritten message with Ben, detailing the lycanthropy he believes his son will soon develop. During his stay in Scotland in the 1960s, Dale offers to assist a woman of royalty, Lady Fallis, at the post office. Unintentionally, his good deed leads to a series of events that culminates in his purchase of The Record of London, “a deal that [will establish] him as one of the most powerful men in the world.” He learns of Lord Fallis’s interest to sell the newspaper, naturally, by post.
The Wylies, then, are not only “Wall Street myth[s], icons of the cold indifference of the marketplace,” but also strangers to one another. To them, the “world [is] not people or places or substances. The world [is] numbers.” They reduce their lives — and their lives are reduced — to monetary values. “George’s contribution to the eternal difference about whether the rich are different from you and me is this: The rich should be different from you and me but they’re not”; when the hunters come upon Ben’s corpse in the snow, they don’t realize, at first, that “curled naked in the killing cold lay twenty-seven billion dollars.” In other words, “the money sucked all possibility of genuine recognition into its void.” In the simplest sense, Marche wrangles with the competing conceptions of “success,” and it’s easy to recognize his hyperbolic juxtaposition between the genuine simplicity of the Canadian wilderness and the widespread shallowness of skyscraper-filled Manhattan: Jamie’s mother, for instance, considers success as achieving “an afternoon nap every day”; Jamie’s friend, Kate, basks in the “ancient profession” she holds in New York of “bringing together those who are interesting in themselves with those who are interesting because they have money.”
But all these views are not, in reality, anything new. For Marche, what ultimately differs between the Gilded Age of the late 19th century and the one occurring now is not necessarily the definition of success but how the Wylie-like elite — and those in pursuit of it — are represented. In his essay “The Literature of the Second Gilded Age” for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Marche contextualizes Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century within the realm of American literary fiction today: “The glory of Henry James and Edith Wharton was that they looked sideways at the structures of power. The look is now determinedly upward. In place of tragic realism, the social novel has become a restrained, aspirational product.” The easy-to-market “genre” novel might be more attractive to a wider audience, but the “literary” novel has the more slippery purpose of providing “another way for rich people to subtly distinguish themselves” from people who are just as rich as they are. Marche’s use of the werewolf as a plot point and a metaphor can initially register as somewhat perplexing: random, trite, and overdone. The Hunger of the Wolf, that is, would be entirely compelling without it. So would, too, his seemingly arbitrary narrator, the overused artist figure who writes in order to stay residing in the place he loves, not in order to attain some higher truth. Jamie would find himself lost in James Joyce’s The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or even Ben Lerner’s 10:04. He constructs art not to comment on society but to move up in society. His goals, however improbable, are purely aspirational: He isn’t rich, but he wants to be. His decision not to depart arises in the moment he observes a fellow Canadian writer, an editor for Vice, walking down the street, “I am forced to contemplate the possibility,” he admits, ‘“that if I had not seen Jean Pelledeau […] I would still be married and living in Toronto.” Writing, for him, is competition. It’s capitalistic.
In their respective ways, all of Marche’s previous fiction — Raymond + Hannah, Love and the Mess We’re In, and Shining at the Bottom of the Sea — have dealt with some element of form, and though The Hunger of the Wolf may appear to be his most straightforward attempt, it’s nonetheless a continuation of his canon. It’s not simply, nor should it be labeled as, completely cautionary or reactionary. It’s beyond a warning masked in satire: as a physical entity in the marketplace, his new novel becomes a bold critique in and of itself. After all, it could be mistaken as an “aspirational product,” except that it mocks the very people doing the aspiring, the very people — to borrow a term of Ben Wylie’s — yearning for “conspicuous distinctions.” By combining a genre trope (a werewolf) with a literary one (the artist narrator), Marche has made a fictional space to discuss those gilding our age. He approaches a topic that has otherwise been dominated by literary fiction, addressing questions about art, class, and the distribution of wealth. What if the social novel evolves beyond a point of distinction among the elite to a signifier for anybody’s social climb? Can the path of the “literary” novel be altered? Are genre novels better suited to discuss “the most serious literary questions” because they appeal to a wider demographic?
Marche’s contribution to the subject should not be overlooked. It’s no reach to claim that it’s significant. He might not have the answers, but at least he is asking the questions. At least someone is again looking at the structures of power sideways.