By Gary Krist
Extravagance is a gimmick novel that works. The gimmick is an ingenious parallel narrative that tells a single story, with the same characters, taking place in 1690s London and 1990s Manhattan. So the hero, Will Merrick, is a young man come to the big city to make his fortune on the stock market in both cases. In London he gets involved in the promotion of a special type of winch for unloading merchant ships. In New York it’s the IPO of a new Internet technology.
The trick for a book like this is to be seamless in its juxtaposition of past and present. Krist’s back-and-forth narrative works perfectly. A trip to a rave merges with a visit to a London mental hospital. A round of golf becomes a shooting party. Horses are SUVs and Wall Street is ‘Change Alley. It doesn’t take long before you start to provide your own historical or modern equivalents even where Krist doesn’t, translating everything into the book’s dual vision.
Given the technical difficulties that such a novel presents, it’s not surprising to find the story itself a simple thing. Surrounded by family, friends and potential lovers, young Will gives in to the forces of Mammon. But what profits it a man to gain the whole world (by riding a stock market bubble), if he loses his soul? Krist presents the story the way he does mainly to drive home the point that the sacrifice of what are social virtues – family ties, friendship, love – for selfish interests is pretty much a historical constant. This is probably true, but it doesn’t leave us with anyone to identify with. In the end, no one in the book is immune to the lure of easy money except a security guard who loves to listen to classical music on an old radio. And he is, after all, a security guard.
The other point made by the double narrative is that the stock market has always been an irrational beast. (In case we miss this one, Krist has the modern Will Merrick reading Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds at the conclusion of his adventures.) Again, this is probably something most people today would consider pretty obvious, especially after the recent tech meltdown, but Krist is wise not to introduce profound or original historical arguments into what is an already complicated mix. For all its side interest as a social-historical commentary, Extravagance is basically a light-hearted comedy. It is bright, sophisticated entertainment that captures the energy and movement of a glittering age, then and now.
Review first published December 14, 2002.