Questioning Values, With a Twist

Author Martha McPhee was brave enough to admit just how grueling life as a "successful" writer is -- what unfolds is a guide for self-reckoning.

Dear Money

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade
Length: 352 pages
Author: Martha McPhee
Price: $25.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-06

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 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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.