Morrow, 2007, 294 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-125272-3
What? Another heavily-fictionalized account of an East-Coast young man making a lot of money? It must be time for the latest Ben Mezrich book!
Oh I kid, but I kid with the Stockholm-syndrome grin of someone who now owns all of Mezrich’s non-fiction bibliography. I may have issues with his repetitive use of fictional narrative devices to dope otherwise perfectly interesting non-fiction accounts, but when truth-seeking confront entertainment, I usually break in favour of having a good time: Mezrich’s books are a lot of fun to read.
Faithful readers will be happy to note that Mezrich expands his horizons a bit with this latest entry Rigged, which tells the sort-of-true story of a Brooklyn-born finance analyst who gets hired by the New-York based Mercantile Exchange, where he gets to put together a proposal to create the Dubai Mercantile Exchange. The protagonist is named David Russo, but he’s loosely based on John D’Agostino, who gets to minimally fact-check the narrative in a signed afterword.
This being Mezrich’s fourth non-fiction book, it’s interesting to note how carefully he now acknowledges the novel as having heavily fictionalized components. Unlike previous works, which tried to elide the fictive manipulations, Rigged recognizes up-front that some things have been changed or added, from an amalgam of antagonists to a tightening of events to, most likely, a number of ominous threats made against the protagonist. There’s also quite a bit of lowest-denominator exposition-setting: It’s a bit insulting to read about two finance professionals discussing the basic point of mercantile trade; while readers don’t necessarily know those details, it’s ridiculous to pass the exposition as on-the-job training between two guys who really should know better. (On the other hand, oh, that’s how oil is traded.)
But if it’s so fictionalized, is it better, then, to consider Rigged primarily as fiction?
Not really, because if Rigged is dramatized as a novel, it doesn’t necessarily make good fiction. The plot threads are coarse, the characters are dull, the threats are strictly low-grade (the blackmail scheme is particularly obvious) and the book doesn’t quite know what to do with its second viewpoint protagonist, a young Dubai trader from who proposes a project to our lead character. As financial fiction, it would be weak beer, and not even Mezrich’s rapid pacing, anecdote-heavy plotting and pleasant prose could patch up the lack of substance and simplistic structure. No, the book has to somehow convince us that it’s about something real if it has any chance of surviving in our minds.
Too bad that there isn’t more to Rigged (a dull title, barely alluding to oil rigs and not at all to market manipulation) than a description of the trader life and a look at Dubai that feels repetitive to those who have already read other similar non-fiction accounts. There’s plenty of yuppie macho posturing in the book and an allusion to the increasingly computerized nature of exchanges, but it seems like a throwback to a time where the trading floor reigned supreme. (1983’s Trading Places is referenced more than once). Modern finance is a game of automated high-frequency trading where even the physical location of computer servers can be crucial –it would be interesting to see Mezrich write about that, but in order to do so, I suppose that he’d have to find a way to feature a Boston-educated whiz kid making tons of money.
It may be that Mezrich’s formula is wearing thin. Rigged uses so many of the same narrative devices (the threat; the mentor; the money-fuelled excesses) that it feels familiar even when it tackles a different kind of money-rich environment. The foundation of the Dubai Mercantile Exchange is an important moment in financial history, but it seems like an afterthought to the kind of material already covered in movies like Boiler Room or plenty of other non-fiction titles of the past few years. Mezrich’s money-is-interesting formula dissolves in meaninglessness if you don’t subscribe to its core value. Add to that the uneasy balance between fact and fiction (Do I want information, entertainment or a disappointing mixture of both in which the presence of one nullifies the other?) and Rigged, albeit readable, still ends up feeling like the slightest of Mezrich’s non-fiction.
One notes, with some amusement, that his next book, The Accidental Billionaires, would leave the financial world behind to tackle the newest social media zeitgeist. The one after that, Sex on the Moon, goes on to describe a moon-rock heist. As you may expect, I have already bought them both.