Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Prisoner's Dilemmas

Fiction has its limits, and economics seems to lie at the outer frontiers. The Shylocks, the Roarks, the critters in Animal Farm, in as much as they are meant to represent in literature the infrastructures and underlying principles of economics, fail horribly at doing that. It isn't their fault; it is impossible. A single character can only represent a small corner of the tableau of a particular economic scheme, and so each descends into his own allegory without ever capturing the real picture. Pip inheriting his money is as much a representation of a "literature of capitalism" as Tess going from dairy maid to reaper; a banker, a merchant, an aristocrat are just these and nothing more.

Why? Because capitalism is a system. It's made up of something called "rational actors". "Rational actors" are not the same thing as people, and fictional people, especially, are in general not "rational actors". They go about, each the protagonists of their own stories. But capitalism is the great aggregator of everyone's interactions with everyone else's; it does not allow for a protagonist. Capitalism has no center and "equilibrium" has no stories. Equilibrium is rather boring, and so are "rational actors"—no one wants to read about those (unless you like reading economics papers I suppose, which one might argue are an interesting sort of fiction themselves).

Yet there remain enough places where these problems might be avoided. Whence the Literary Bankers, you ask: they are all in Russia. In the contemporary Russia of fiction there’s all the middle-class existential ennui that in the West gets rather trite, but next to it you find also a particularly hellish breed of nastiness. Russian capitalism is far from equilibrium. Add to all this the strange romance of snowscapes and onion domes, and the surrealism that comes out of it all certainly lends itself to revealing some interesting things. A place as grotesque as alluring: isn’t that the basis of fascination?

The actors in A.D. Miller's novel Snowdrops, a Man-Booker Prize finalist from last year, are the closest thing to rational actors as seen in recent fiction (don't worry, they're interesting characters, too). Barrister Nick is engaged to be married, and Snowdrops is a confessional to his bride-to-be about the years he spent working in Moscow. "You're always saying that I never talk about my time in Moscow or about why I left. You're right, I've always made excuses, and soon you'll understand why."

We understand, because we can sense the squalor lurking beneath the glamour. We know from the beginning that the "snowdrop" of the title is not the early-blooming white flower, but its alternative definition: "Moscow slang. A corpse that lies buried or hidden in the winter snows, emerging only in the thaw." We can sense from the beginning that Nick's client, "the Cossack" is hardly an honest merchant. Nick knows it too—"lipstick on a pig," he tells us—but what can you do with suspicion? Can you predict what actually will go right or wrong? Something is clearly troubling about the Cossack's pipeline deal, but you can only do your job, fill out the right paperwork, and hope you have taken the right precautions.

It is a bit obvious to say that love is the absence of precautions—but that's the point, isn't it? To fall in love is to expose all one's vulnerability, and Nick, vulnerable Nick, quickly falls into love with beautiful, seemingly vulnerable Masha, whom he meets along with her sister Katya, extricating from a mugger in the subway. 

"She loves me too, I think," Nick says to a journalist friend. But like Nick, we cannot be sure. Are we to trust, as Nick does, or are we to be on our guard? "Listen," Nick's friend replies, "if she [tells you she loves you], she'll meant it. She'll mean it at the moment she says it. But twenty minutes later she'll mean it when she nicks your credit card. They mean everything." 

The cynicism does not seem entirely out of place. "Has she got you to buy her anything yet? Diamonds? Car? Tit job, maybe?" No: but soon enough Masha and Katya are introducing Nick to their aunt, Tatiana Vladimirovna, and have a favor to ask. Tatiana needs help acquiring an apartment on the outskirts of town, closer to the country; would Nick help with the legal process for it? "It's not a lot of work," Nick reasons. "It won't cost me anything."

But what is the cost of anything? Nick can’t answer that question—no single person can, because it depends on the actor at the other end of the equation. In a working marketplace, those on each end of the bargain come together, and determine an acceptable price; they each know the cost of the exchange relative to each. The Putin-era Russia of Snowdrops, however, doesn't work like that. 

A. D. Miller (not to be confused with another British author also named Andrew Miller) himself was The Economist's Russia correspondent during the time Snowdrops is set, and the setting of his novel is written to be "both accurate and distorted," but one imagines cannot be far from the mark. Here, no one can be certain what exchange entails.

In its way, the Russia of Miller's Snowdrops is a society swallowed up in a game of the prisoner's dilemma. "Most [Russians] had a sort of automatic national pride, I'd discovered, even if they all wanted for themselves was to get the hell out of there and head for Los Angeles or the Cote d'Azur." Mother Russia is the prison, Russians its prisoners, and money the figurative policeman, holding the key to each man's escape. 

In a classic arrangement of the prisoner's dilemma game, each prisoner has a choice—either to betray his fellow prisoner by placing blame squarely with the other, or to play "trust" and accept the blame himself. If both prisoners play "trust," they both face a light sentence (i.e. are marginally rewarded); if one plays "betray" and the other plays "trust", the latter is heavily punished while the betrayer goes free; if both play "betray", both are punished. Neither prisoner knows what the other is choosing. 

In Snowdrops, Nick plays both. His seedy pipeline deal with the Cossack is an unapologetic pursuit for profit, betrayal against the public faith and the rules of fair economics; he plays trust in offer his services to do the paperwork, and arrange the payment for Tatiana Vladimirovna's apartment venture. But what are the other players playing?

The novel's denouement reveals, hauntingly, a place where playing "trust" leads only to punishment, for so much of society seems to be playing "betray", and playing it better—i.e. dealing out harsher punishments for those who trust, and greater rewards for the betrayer—than even the during the days of siege at Leningrad. "That particular Russian everyday war, the war of everyone against everyone else," Nick tells us. And yet, when the last man betrays, the punishment for all of society will be meted out with the greatest severity.

Though the story is told by Nick, in first person, we realize that this is not his story. It is the story of all the players of the game. It is the expression of an economic system through fiction. Yet it remains human; amidst all this are the things that make the system possible— an undeniable attraction, an unfatalistic attitude of hope the characters exude. "As long as we are alive, it is possible that one day we will be happy," Nick's Russian neighbor tells him, even as he frets about the disappearance of a friend, and the doleful state of his city. "Life is dangerous," says Masha, "no one [has] survived it yet."

The possibility of happiness, of danger, of the extremes of trust and betrayal—these are the siren song of Miller's Moscow. In such an environment it is impossible to hold steady to what we like to call morality. But it is impossible to betray everyone, all the time, and live still in any semblance of society. So in such a place, we become by turns vulnerable and duplicitous. We become, as Nick says of Masha’s sister Katya, "sort of innocent and grown-up at the same time.”

"You know what you need, Nick?" his journalist friend tells him. "You need to lose your moral bearings. Otherwise you're done for"; because "Russia... is like Lariam. You know, that malaria medicine that can make you have wild dreams and jump out of the window. You shouldn't do it if you are the kind of person who gets anxious or guilty, Nick. You shouldn't do Russia. Because you'll crack."

There is the grotesqueness, too: the topsy-turvy mixing of such an unpredictable world, an unknowable order of things, and the shock of revelation when the snow melts away. The Russia of Snowdrops—however colored by fiction, however close to the real thing—is undoubtedly as grotesque as it is alluring; where there is both, is that not also what allows the possibility of evil?

Posted by Boer 

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