Andrew Ross Sorkin on the financial crisis

An interview with the Samuel Johnson Prize-shortlisted author.

This year's shortlist for the Samuel Johnson non-fiction book prize has been announced. Among the nominations is Too Big to Fail, an account of the collapse of Lehman Brothers by the New York Times journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin. Republished below is Jonathan Derbyshire's 2009 interview with the author -- and you can read Paul Mason's review of the book here.

Too Big to Fail is based on remarkable access to the main players in the financial crisis.

It's very important that the reader is able to see what these people thought and said to each other during this calamitous period. And I think that when you get in the room with them and you get to hear what they were thinking, there are moments where you'll wince and cringe and, in some cases, get immensely frustrated with them. There are very few heroes in this book.

Those involved seemed to sleepwalk towards catastrophe. Why was that?

It's a story of greed, at some level. And it's a story of hubris. It's about a grab for power. I actually think that, in the end, the dollar figure is not necessarily the motivating force. The money is almost a scorecard for everything else. When you see these people in their moments of panic, I'm sure they're thinking about their wallets, but they're also thinking about the power that they have. We talk about institutions that are too big to fail -- I think the story is as much about people who think they are too big to fail.

You argue that Dick Fuld, chief executive of Lehman Brothers, was driven much less by greed than some of the other main players.

Dick Fuld has been villainised, but in the context of this book, he's more of a tragic figure. Remember, Fuld had a billion dollars of stock in the company -- he had more skin in the game than anyone else in the world. And yet he rides it down to $65,000. What does that say? I don't know. And I wouldn't say I'm sympathetic with him per se, but the reason I suggest he's a tragic figure is that there's a big likelihood that we'd have villainised every other CEO had the government not saved them.

Fuld blamed the collapse of Lehman on short-selling. Was he right to do so?

It's very hard to blame the short-sellers for this debacle. There's no question that they exacerbated the problem but, in many ways, there were good reasons to short stocks and I don't think that was what put pressure on these companies. Look at the hedge-fund manager David Einhorn: he saw the writing on the wall earlier and better than most other people. It's the people who have an incentive to find the problem who usually find the problem.

You appear to credit the former treasury secretary Hank Paulson, and his successor, Timothy Geithner, with having foreseen the disaster.

You have all these people who see the train barrelling down the track. And yet they still don't completely get out of the way. You can give them credit for having spotted the train -- that's great. But do I think they mitigated the disaster? Well, that's a larger question. It's hard to argue that they didn't bring us to the brink. But you could also argue that they took us back from the brink. So, for me, it's a much more mixed record. You can't simply credit these people with having foreseen the disaster. You can give Paulson credit for talking about the need for a resolution authority, which he did in June 2008. Tim Geithner is someone else who seemed to be talking about this a lot. But as for actually doing something -- that's another matter.

What about the wider historical context to the crash of 2008?

Many of the seeds of the debacle were sown ten years ago, with some of the issues around monetary policy, sub-prime mortgages, deregulation, the lowering of capital requirements at banks -- all of those things contributed to this. So by the time my book begins, many of the problems are already baked in. What you're watching here is people at the moment of emergency. I originally thought the book would just cover September 2008. But once I started doing the reporting, I realised that the treasury was trying to orchestrate a deal for Lehman with Barclays as early as the spring. It made me rethink the scope and narrative arc of the book.

And politics matters, doesn't it? The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, for example, was crucial.

The repeal of Glass-Steagall allowed the casino to be attached to the bank. Expanding home ownership exacerbated the problem. As did the decision to keep interest rates low for long periods of time. So you have the regulators clearly not minding the store and Wall Street taking advantage of rules that aren't properly enforced.

Andrew Ross Sorkin, the author of "Too Big to Fail", is the chief mergers and acquisitions reporter for the New York Times

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era