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Contemplating a book called Money and Fiction, one imagines that pretty much everything has been said on the subject. Surely by now the masses of commentary following in the wake of Jane Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, and the great French realists have sufficiently elaborated our sense of how their characters imagine money, desire it, use it, feel its absence; have elaborated, as well, the centrality of money in the plots in which they participate. Reading John Vernon's book, however, one realizes how much has remained to be said, in a general, structural way, especially by an intelligence so attractive as Vernon's and a method so richly eclectic.
The sophistication of the book is a function, in part, of its dual focus: it is concerned both with money and the representation of reality. If wealth could consist of gold, land, or paper, Vernon speculates, then it would seem that the first two would have been the more "real," paper being nearly weightless, promissory, "fictional." On the contrary, the novel in the nineteenth century represents a growing response to the reality of wealth as paper, in an equivocal way because, although paper increasingly seems the most real of the three, it is the most chimerical, at once the occasion of romantic dreams and an indication of the limits of their realization. Gold, Vernon points out, is solid, inert; it is to be hoarded. Paper money is flighty, to be spent, hence Madame Bovary, Rosamund Lydgate, Becky Crawley, and the vast number of spendthrifts and debtors of the nineteenth century, for whom money is at once real and illusory. As with gold, the imagination of land, the continuity of the estate, is characteristic of the vestigial feudal world about to disappear in Jane Austen's Persuasion, so that by the time of Trollope, land has been transformed into a commodity, with a price tag, to be mortgaged and sold. And so it is that Vernon begins to lay out a sense of the real in nineteenth-century fiction with a method derivative of the Marxists but consistently more phenomenological than economic.
The question of money soon leads Vernon into a chapter on the material world. Objects, he argues, "are no longer part of a continuum of human existence, a means absorbed into human life. The means has become an end." It is the overwhelming plenitude of things in Balzac that provides Vernon's best example. Yet the ambivalence that pervades the imagination of money applies as well to objects. Bought on credit, things, as any number of characters in nineteenth-century novels know, can be repossessed. And even Balzac, especially Balzac, keeps always before his reader a peculiar sense of things as fake, counterfeit, oddly disgusting.
After an eccentric but immensely suggestive chapter on eavesdropping as a predominant point of view, Vernon moves on to a brilliant analysis of the altered sense of time and plot, of expectation and resolution, that pervades the nineteenth-century novel as a result of its altered sense of money. Whatever his emphasis, [End Page 838] however, he returns, again and again, to the idea of reality as "a disruptive force, as a kind of stubborn inertia that resists being taken up by the language of fiction and domesticated." It is an idea that forms the basis for his last chapter, on the modern novel. Because fiction in the twentieth century shows a greater awareness of its own artifice than fiction before, it is inevitable that modern novels display an increased tension between the material world and our representations of it. Thematically, however, Vernon finds that the much fewer number of novels about money—Wharton's, Fitzgerald's, Updike's—tend to register the values associated with money as satire, the energy of the subject having been largely exhausted. And thus the Epilogue closes the gestalt in a book that is remarkably original and brilliantly executed.
With Jeffrey Meyers' Disease...