I read Karl Taro Greenfeld’s The Subprimes in the midst of Seattle’s hottest summer in a century, so it was easy to imagine the characters in this laugh-out-loud satire surviving the burning dust of an expired exurb. I have a specific interest in climate change as a narrative force, and the novel’s slow strangulation of the environment makes for a lot of black humor. For instance, endangered whales beach themselves on both coasts, and they become a kind of living—and dying—parentheses enclosing an America gone crazy with Ayn Rand ideology.
Greenfeld’s near-future is an economic dystopia, but most dystopias are utopias for someone. In The Subprimes, the beneficiaries are in-power libertarians led by the inheritors of Republican Senator Paul Ryan, the failed vice-presidential candidate who lends his name to “Ryanvilles,” squatters camps of individuals and families—the eponymous “subprimes”—who lost their homes after the Great Recession. In this world, everything is privatized, even the police and fire departments, and woe to the citizen whose mortgage is in arrears. The cops will ignore your 9-1-1 call if your credit score is too low.
The religion of free markets is personified by Pastor Roger, a televangelist who fills a mega-stadium with followers, but never quotes a single Bible verse, certainly not inconvenient admonitions of a Savior who hung out with the poor. For Roger, the poor get in the way of the fracking. Opposite the preacher is the white-jacketed Sagram, a motorcycle-riding Moses who leads a group of subprimes to the exurb and coaxes milk and honey from the bank-owned ruins. Good and evil duke it out at the base of a Babel-like tower to the gods of oil, ending with a miracle as enigmatic as any in the Old Testament.
The Subprimes wanders some, as if the narrative is in its own kind of wilderness. Sagram, the protagonist, starts out as a flawed heroine, a version of the “man with no name” in Western genre movies who visits revenge on the greedy or leads the disorganized, dispirited community to victory over the wicked. Unfortunately, Greenfeld squanders the opportunity by turning her into a Christlike figure surprised, but unchanged by her own powers. She never pays a price for violence visited on authority early in the book. That might happen in real life, but in fiction, it’s a major loose end.
Nonetheless, The Subprimes’ bites are a comfort to people who wonder if justice will ever come to the perps responsible for the Wall Street-caused economic meltdown of 2008. At least we can imagine that justice is eventually served, in fiction, if not reality.