Questioning Values, With a Twist

I was unfamiliar with the work of Martha McPhee until I learned she’d been on book tour in my hometown of San Francisco. Intrigued by the description on the bookstore website, I decided to do some investigative reporting. The reading, held at Booksmith in San Francisco, was titled “Writing about The News,” to reflect the book’s subject, economic boom and bust. But McPhee’s book really reflects a different kind of news: news about people’s dreams, news about New York City and most importantly, news about writers.

Dear Money is the story of a novelist, India Palmer, in New York City who appears to be successful but is actually struggling. (After all, a novelist without a “struggling” is like a hot dog without a bun.) India has won several awards and published four books, but ultimately she needs more money.

In short: India is living the reality of what it means to be a writer, and McPhee is not afraid to say exactly what that means. She spoke at the reading about proceeding with unease and uncertainty, wondering if revealing the man behind the curtain was really the right thing to do. With so many aspiring artists following that Yellow Brick Road towards the city of success and satisfaction, is telling the truth an act of nobility or betrayal?

Indeed it is. And India’s journey serves to take that bit of truth and expand it into an investigation of heart, mind and creativity. As she questions her choice and her own instincts, a parable unfolds that serves to guide the soul-searching of all people, not just writers.

She meets a bond trader who assures her that anyone, including her, could learn to be a bond trader. India decides to accept his offer to train her. She lands on Wall Street in the eye of the real estate storm and manages to become quite wealthy, if only a shadow of her former self. McPhee read several passages from the book and in the span of an hour not only did her work resonate with me, but I was convinced that she has woven a carpet of our current collective conscious.

The larger theme seems almost too big to tackle: money vs. art, but McPhee’s prose and story were both buoyant with immediacy and mine fields of nuance. It hit me at first when she describes India watching her husband and her wealthier friend’s husband digging a sand castle. Both men are fit, enthusiastic and handsome. But as they stand up, India notices that her own husband seems have to become more sandy and more mussed up by the endeavor. McPhee doesn’t say it, but that fear — that fear of shabbiness, of being honest in polished world — is a thousand times more potent and urgent than the abstract reality of accumulated wealth.

Even money and art are not really about money, or art. The diverse struggles for affluence and recognition all stem from a deeper need for safety, participation, community, and reason. “Dear Money” is a term used when a loan is difficult to obtain, or interest rates are absurdly high, due to lack of resources in a particular country. Dear Money, at its heart, is about a culture in which there never seems to be enough of anything to go around, and nothing seems attainable because the cost of building it — emotional, financial or physical — is just too great.

McPhee highlighted that herself at the reading, when explaining that she had to stop writing her book when the market crashed because India traded in real estate and the real estate industry was…well…you know. She said that she picked back up four months later when she was finally reminded that, “I wasn’t writing about money.”

Ultimately, she is writing about anything “dear”: the money, art, the poetry, or what-have-you. Dear Money has captured that battle to achieve it in a way that causes us to look beyond the obvious and into the ambiguous.