Kate Jennings

"Moral Hazard"

(Reviewed by Bill Robinson JUL 09, 2002)

Moral Hazard by Kate Jennings
This is a tale of serious exploration, of travel through the bleak and dismal jungles of high finance and declining health. Cath, the narrator, is reminiscent of Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. She makes a seven-year journey into the amoral morass of big-time money management. Simultaneously, she treks the harsh, inevitable road mapped by Alzheimer's disease.

Read excerptCath is a New Yorker in her mid-40s. She is a freelance writer, a proud product of the freethinking and concerned 60s. She reads. She thinks. She feels. She cares. To her, big business is something to be tolerated. Corporations are soulless enterprises. When the story begins, Cath has married Bailey, a man 25 years her senior. Bailey is a designer, an artist, a free spirit. He is an idealist and eternal optimist. He brings out the best in the often cynical and solitary Cath.

Despite the difference in age, Cath tells us that Bailey ("Sweet Bailey, dearest Bailey") "saw the point of me, not always discernable, and I would have loved him for that alone." It was, by all accounts, a happy union of kindred spirits living in contentment in a small apartment on New York's Upper East Side,

However, this idyllic existence is not to last. Bailey is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. To earn enough money to cover mounting medical expenses, Cath, "through connections," secures a job as an executive speechwriter at Neidecker, a large, fictitious New York investment bank. Her seven-year journey into dark interiors begins.

Through a series of strained but successful interactions with superiors and co-workers, Cath manages to carve out an uneasy, but nonetheless stable niche in the business world. She finds herself in a place where "risk" is bought and sold, where ephemeral "instruments" called derivatives, barely linked to reality, can make or break an individual or a company, where "today's numbers" are all that matter.

Author Jennings through Cath has captured the essence of corporate culture. After a short time on the job, Cath observed, "I had gained a whole different view of New York skyscrapers. I looked at them and didn't see architecture. I saw infestations of middle managers, tortuous chains of command, stupor-inducing meetings, ever-widening gyres of e-mail. I saw people scratching up dust like chickens and calling it work."

Bailey's slow decline is described in equally poignant and graphically painful prose.

Moral Hazard is a slim volume. This is one of its shortcomings. It often reads like a series of loosely strung together diary entries. The potential for greater depth is always present, but it is too rarely plumbed. However, the duel narratives, Cath's job and Bailey's illness, hold interest. Jennings has given Cath a singular voice that speaks directly and personally, as if to an old friend.

Early on, a co-worker advises Cath that the only way to last at Neidecker is to assume the role of anthropologist, participant observer. This proves good advice allowing Cath to survive in the no-person's-land of high finance. However, this stance, mirrored in a distancing from Bailey's demise, keeps Cath removed. This often makes it difficult for her fully to engage the reader's sympathies.

Moral Hazard does venture deep into cold and consuming hearts of darkness, however the trip is made somewhat too quickly. But then, perhaps the whole idea for Cath was to get in and out fast, to exit with speed, to avoid becoming engulfed, to keep her head above water. Conrad's Marlow, ever leery of the dangerous downward pull of moral quagmires, moral hazards, could relate.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt of Moral Hazard at MostlyFiction.com

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About the Author:

Kate JenningsKate Jennings, born in 1948, grew up on a farm in outback Australia 400 miles from Sydney. She attended Sydney University during the sixties and was involved deeply in the radical politics of the times, including the founding of the feminist movement in Australia.

She moved to New York in 1979. She has worked as a freelance writer and senior speechwriter at an investment bank. Her writings have appeared in publications including The New York Times Book Review. Her novel Snake, narrowly missed being shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

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