The most mind-boggling thing about Gary Krist’s new novel is not that it tells the exact same story with the exact same characters in two completely different times and places. Rather, it’s that Extravagance, a cautionary tale about the dangers of stock-market speculation and greed set in both 1690s London and 1990s New York, was largely written before the bubble burst.
“I was writing it when the market was still expanding,” says the 45-year-old Bethesda, Md.-based author. “Writing it was an act of faith. People were saying the old market rules no longer held true. And, meanwhile, there was this kind of national descent into shallowness.”
Krist is anything but a disinterested observer of Wall Street, however. In fact, he fell victim to market madness himself. “Yeah, I got caught up in the bubble,” he says. “I lost a tremendous amount of money. It was incredibly chastening.” Still, he believes that “there was some good in all the cant, a certain amount of vision, idealism. There was this shared dream of unlimited possibilities.”
His ambivalence is reflected in Extravagance, which is no scathing satire in the spirit of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, but a bildungsroman, with young William Tobias Merrick coming (simultaneously) to London and New York to make his fame and fortune. At bottom, Krist says, the book is less about stocks and bonds than “intergenerational conflict and its ultimate reconciliation. All of my books end up being about family, in one way or another, and in Extravagance the relationship between Will and his uncle is really at the thematic root of the story.”
Krist says he chose the 17th-century setting because the boom in engineering projects that swept London’s ‘Change Alley then was the closest corollary he could find to the madness evident on Wall Street in the ’90s. “It was a much better analogue than the others, such as the tulip boom of the 1600s,” he notes. “What happened in London in the 1690s was, in effect, history’s first hi-tech boom.”
To capture the halcyon spirit of those times, when “stockjobbers” frantically invested in such ventures as diving bells for scavenging sunken treasure and a “sucking-worm engine,” Krist spent several months engaged in the hard work of research. He took three trips to England, where he spoke with officials from the Bank of London, and read up on financial booms past in such books as Edward Chancellor’s Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation.
But Krist, best known for the D.C.-set thrillers Bad Chemistry and Chaos Theory, made sure he had some fun in the process. He says that he especially enjoyed coming up with his own fictional ‘Change Alley projects, including a “wondrous cream to prevent wrinkles” made from the “water of Abyssinian goats.”
When asked about Extravagance’s cover, which mirrors the skylines of 17th-century London and 20th-century New York, complete with the World Trade Center, Krist suggests that, in a sense, both times have become ancient history. “Things are so different now,” he says. “After Sept. 11, I considered holding the book back. Wall Street had
just been ravaged. But the traders just got up and dusted themselves off.
“It was,” he adds, “kind of inspiring.” —Michael Little
Krist will read and discuss Extravagance at 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 13, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. For more information, call (202) 364-1919.