By now we know money can’t buy happiness. But why can’t it even bring reprieve from financial worry? Can anyone find freedom and meaning in our capitalist paradise, or is the human obsession with money pathological and insurmountable? These questions run through all twelve of the stories collected in Net Worth.
Montreal writer Kenneth Radu, who has published multiple novels and collections of stories and poetry, here presents characters from all walks of life dogged by an obsession that colours every perception and determines every action. In the opening story, “Lottery,” a middle-aged woman realizes her winning lottery ticket will upset the delicate balance whose importance she only now appreciates. Like many of Radu’s characters, she has achieved financial security through sacrifices that leave most unable to enjoy it. Other characters illustrate how excess frugality turns to miserliness (“TrustFund,” “The Midas Touch”); their foils, children of privilege made feckless by profligacy and unearned wealth, are shown capable only of sitting around waiting for an inheritance (“Expectations”).
The third-person omniscient narrators itemize characters’ concerns and motivations with the thoroughness of an auditor. But long sentences grow turgid under the weight of clauses haphazardly arranged. “Well what did she have to hide aside from unused sexual gizmos in her night table and a couple of porn discs her husband had brought home from Germany during which she had fallen asleep while watching.” Huh?
One happy exception is “Residential Requirements.” The nursing home employee who preys on female residents is so clever, and somehow decent, even in his transgressions, that we cannot help feel admiration and affection intermingled with disapproval. Another strong story is “Final Tally”: a small-town boy whose family belongs to an end-times cult takes control of his life through the parallel disciplines of weight-lifting and financial management. Here a resonant wealth of detail renders a believable character struggling to find himself in an eerily stifling small town.
When a book is this committed to its thesis, it’s hard not to test it against our own experience. Is money as dehumanizing in real life as in Net Worth? I don’t think so. The struggle of getting by on minimum wage can be more humanizing than dehumanizing. More remarkable than how people are crushed by financial forces is how they somehow rise above them. Human resilience in inhuman conditions is something art captures well. But there’s more humour and humanity in a single episode ofShameless than all of Net Worth; more insight and compassion in Matthew Desmond’s masterful Evicted, a work of social science that reads like the best fiction.
Perhaps one grows used to the style, or maybe the stories do get better as the collection progresses. By the final story, “Keats’ Walk,” I was moved by the tale of a recently widowed man confronting his mortality and insignificance as he walks alone in a foreign country: “drowsy with fatigue and surfeit,” trying to compose “a kind of fractured ode to the richness thereof, and his time’s end.” Perhaps it is not money but this twilight reckoning that is Radu’s artistic homeland. I wish he’d gotten there sooner. mRb