4 out of 4 stars
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The subtitle of Garth Hallberg's The Piketty Problem sets the tone right from the outset. "The Robots Are Coming, The Robots Are Coming" is a line that made me smile before I had even turned to the first page. The subtitle also refers to an important theme of the novel: the replacement of low-paid workers with robots. Hallberg's novel is - first and foremost - very funny. It is also serious, as the introduction makes clear. Hallberg claims his book as a descendant of a once-popular literary genre: the social protest novel. Using Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century as a point of reference, Hallberg weaves an entertaining tale of several characters in America during the run-up to the most recent presidential election. (If, like me, you have not heard of Piketty before, he is an economist whose major idea is that in America the over-zealous love of capitalism has led to an unfair situation where the vast majority of the country's wealth rests in the hands of the richest 1% of the population.)
I am no economist, but Hallberg made this idea (and several others of Piketty) incredibly accessible and educational. I was impressed by the skillful and effortless inclusion of such a heavy, potentially dry, subject into the narrative. The plot never suffered. Nor, surprisingly, did the dialogue, which often contained discussions of Piketty's ideas. The novel opens with four characters from very different backgrounds discussing these very ideas over dinner. They are George Dealy (a misogynistic McDonald's franchisee owner), his wife Suzanne (whose politics are much more liberal than her husband's), Suzanne's best friend from school, Francesca (a sophisticated European with a string of lovers), and Hugo (Francesca's latest boyfriend and keen disciple of Piketty). The tension between the two ideals of unbridled capitalism and a fairer distribution of wealth (through the method of raising the minimum wage) is set up right at the outset, and remains in place throughout.
Dealy represents the 1%, only concerned with increasing his wealth, and the other characters are all opposed to his refusal to raise wages, and his plans to create the "McDonald's of the future" by replacing employees with burger-making robots. An underground movement emerges in time to stage a protest at the opening of Dealy's new restaurant. Suzanne joins the group after becoming romantically involved with a local man, Steve Harris, who is even more obsessed with Piketty's ideas than she is. Along with Harris' daughter and her boyfriend, the core of the political cell is formed with the intention of disrupting Dealy's plans. Without giving away any spoilers, the plot builds in intensity as we come towards this climax, and I loved the way Hallberg built up a feeling of inevitability as the net tightens. Another pleasure was how every character was connected to the others in increasingly intricate and claustrophobic ways: Harris begins to work for Dealy, while sleeping with Suzanne; Harris' estranged wife turns up on the scene unexpectedly; and Suzanne keeps her relationship to George a secret from Harris' daughter and her boyfriend. Things quickly become deliciously tangled, but never hard to follow, as we don't have too wide a cast to keep up with - just the same handful of characters in shifting configurations.
One final character is Harris' father-in-law, who is visited by Harris a few times during the action. It is not initially clear what role this elderly man with dementia will play, but Hallberg's ability to describe his experiences and perceptions is impressive and heartbreaking, and he comes to play an important part by the end of the novel. I was blown away by the range and quality of Hallberg's prose: he had a real gift for creating very individual characters that you wanted to find out more about.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of the book, however, was the narrative style. Hallberg's writing is so lively and engaging. Puns and wordplay play a huge part in this book, as do all sorts of little verbal quirks and tics unique to its different characters. Hallberg's playing about with language - without ever taking away from a strong plot or becoming too "experimental" - was a real delight. I found myself smiling on many occasions and relishing his wonderful turn of phrase and one-of-a-kind humour. The book was superbly edited, too, which was especially impressive due to the unconventional use of language in many cases. My only warning would be that it is for a mature audience, particularly due to the sexual themes. While there were never explicit descriptions, this aspect still played a key part in the plot, and so it is only suitable for an adult readership.
Garth Hallberg's The Piketty Problem was a well-balanced fusion of opposites to create a really satisfying whole: a funny tone mixed with a serious message, and a plot both highly personal and highly political. With expertly-created characters, a fast-paced plot, and a totally unique writing style, this book was a complete winner for me. Its topicality was the icing on the cake: contemporary America was very clearly seen in its pages, and Donald Trump loomed as large as the giant inflatable Ronald McDonald (Ronald sounds very like Donald...) that floats above Dealy's restaurant. I give this book a full 4 out of 4 stars and recommend it to anyone who likes a deft plot, great characters, humorous writing, or something to think about once you have finished reading. I can't recommend it highly enough!
The Piketty Problem
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