In 'The Subprimes,' the 99% Fights Back

Taro Greenfeld’s new novel, although a parody, is just barely fictional. Harper Collins

American politics frequently proves to be more sordid than fiction. What dramatist would dare serve up a display of irony juicier than Larry Craig's 2007 indiscretion, when the stridently anti-gay U.S. senator solicited sexual favors from an undercover policeman in the men's room of the Minneapolis airport? What comedian could compete with the Republican National Committee's farcical campaign to "Abolish the IRS"? No critic could mock the conservative vision of our ruthlessly corporate nation more outlandishly than it mocks itself—so Karl Taro Greenfeld's new novel, The Subprimes, practically writes itself. The book, although a parody, is just barely fictional.

The Subprimes takes place in a grim future disquietingly redolent of the present. In the alarmingly plausible picture Greenfeld paints, the economy has been radically deregulated. Welfare has been abolished. Newly homeless families are given vouchers entitling them to eat fast food and stay in chain motels for a week or two, after which they're left to fend for themselves. All the formerly public services are privatized. The eponymous subprimes, the latest and bleakest iteration of the 99 percent, desperately seek piecemeal employment, taking short-lived refuge in "Ryansvilles"—makeshift communities named after an unsavory combination of contemporary politician-free-market-scold Paul Ryan and the "Hoovervilles" of the Great Depression. As subprime suggests, Greenfeld's poor are both demeaned and defined by their credit scores: They can't cross state boundaries or receive medical care until they prove their ratings are up to snuff.

The Subprimes proceeds via interwoven narratives, each of which centers on characters from a different socioeconomic class. From the most impoverished camp hails Sargam, an enigmatic subprime who takes it upon herself to transform one of the Ryansvilles into a real community—a site of resistance where inhabitants cultivate communal gardens and recover some measure of lost dignity. From the wealthy elite comes Gemma, who was rudely expelled from her bubble of luxury when her ne'er-do-well financier husband Arthur is charged with "securities fraud, grand larceny, scheming to defraud and forgery." Arthur is too hapless to understand the workings of the economy, or even the complex crimes he's committed. Luckily for him, the immensely powerful and conniving televangelist Pastor Roger decides that Arthur's case could rally American conservatives against the pernicious forces of over-regulation and the scourge of quote-unquote socialism. He hails Arthur on national television as a "Free Market Hero."

These disparate story lines converge when a massive corporation (owned by the Koch-like Pepper sisters) attempts to evict the audacious subprimes from their newfound home so it can do some serious fracking on the land. Sargam et al. resist and find themselves on the front lines of a militaristic, Ferguson-like showdown. The subprimes hold hands and sing protest songs while hordes of policemen enflamed by Pastor Roger bear down on them with tear gas. In the end, the subprimes prevail—and if there's hope for the subprimes in one town, maybe there's "hope for subprimes everywhere."

This concluding burst of optimism notwithstanding, confusion, cynicism and desperation seem like the new normal in Greenfeld's cowardly new world, even amongst the privileged. At one point, a whale washes up onto the shore near Gemma's house in the Hamptons. Nobody knows how to react. Gemma and her daughters look on helplessly, and "for some reason, one of the cops…[runs] down toward the water and [begins] waving his arms, as if the whale were a truck attempting to park illegally."

At moments like this, Greenfeld's prose is sharpened to a fine and fatal point. The results are often uproarious but barbed. In one memorable passage, Arthur, inept as ever, tries to explain energy independence to his daughters over an expensive lobster dinner:

"Energy independence is when, when we drive our cars or fly in a big airplane, or we cook those lobsters, you need gas or oil or something, and we want to cook that stuff ourselves, not let the Arabs or Chinese cook it for us—"

"Or Mexicans—" Ginny said.

"Exactly, or Mexicans. Because Americans, we want to cook our own food." Arthur wrinkled his brow. "Or no, we don't want to do that. But we want to have our own fuel to cook our food."

Greenfeld is not charitable to the bumbling financier—or, for that matter, to a malevolent Wall Street—but he's at his best when he's at his most brutal. The Subprimes succeeds when it's larger than life, presenting readers with a plumper version of our society, a fattened-up calf for the slaughter.

But the book sometimes falls short of its parodic promise, too often wavering between unconvincing earnestness and convincing critique. In the mouths of Greenfeld's caricatures, sincerity sounds like propaganda. "That's capitalism…that's the system we got. The big, the rich, the powerful, they can take whatever they want," one character says. "For the first time in my life I may have found something I believe in," a reformed cynic pronounces when the subprimes finally triumph to forge a bucolic, Rousseauian society.

For a work vivified by an electrifying rage, The Subprimes comes to an unsatisfyingly palliative conclusion. The romanticization of an idyllic, pastoral existence is too easy by a half.

Early in the novel, long before the unlikely victory of the subprimes, one character grapples with the imperative for change and the seeming futility of political gestures: "I'm coming to believe that we have to make a change. But how? Should we start giving out bumper stickers or something?" This admission of bafflement and ambivalence is more satisfying (and entertaining) than the sanctimonious and inspirational tone Greenfeld adopts at the end of the book. The real challenge is coming up with a political solution sensible enough to withstand well-founded skepticism but radical enough to alter our seemingly doomed course. The conclusion? The way forward is going to involve a lot of weirdness, a lot of beached whales, and sometimes we'll just have stand there, stupidly waving our arms.

The Subprimes by Karl Taro Greenfeld, 310 pp., HarperCollins, $25.99