Monday, July 26, 2010

How Michael Lewis uses the language of comic books in The Big Short

I recently finished Michael Lewis's "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine" and was struck by how he takes mundane locales, unlikable geeks, and opaque transactions and transforms them into an epic clash of larger then life figures in exotic locales.

Essentially, "The Big Short" explains how a few almost entirely unlikable figures predicted that people would default on their mortgages at almost unimaginable rates. Those few traders then made a lot of money by gambling more than they could afford to lose and hoping that the world economy's would collapse. They're hardly the type of heroes you'd usually want to identify with in a book. But look at how Lewis describes the key players in the book. Are these people traders or X-Men?

Steve Eisman, whose formative moment came when a night nurse accidentally smothered his infant son:

"Nothing bad ever happened to Steven. He was protected and he was safe. After Max, the angel on his shoulder was done. Anything can happen to anyone at any time." From that moment, [his wife] noticed many changes in her husband, large and small.
Mike Burry, who had a glass eye since he was a very young child:
In his glass eye, he found the explanation for other traits peculiar to himself. His obsession with fairness, for example.

Even though he was ferociously competitive, well built, physically brave, and a good athlete, he didn't care for team sports.

His obsession with personal honesty was a cousin to his obsession with fairness.
Mortgage Trader Greg Lippman:
"He scared the shit out of us," said [a trader]. "He comes in and describes this brilliant trade. It makes total sense. To us, the risk was, we do it, it works, then what? How do we get out? He controls the market; he may be the only one we can sell to. And he says, 'You have no way out of this swimming pool but through me, and when you ask for the towel I'm going to rip your eyeballs out.' He actually said that, that he was going to rip our eyeballs out. The guy was totally transparent.
Lippman's assistant Eugene Xu:
[H]e was generally spoken of as "Lippman's Chinese quant." Xu was an analyst employed by Deutsche Bank, but Lippman gave everyone the idea he kept him tied up to his Bloomberg terminal like a pet. A real Chinese guy - - not even Chinese American - - who apparently spoke no English, just numbers. China had this national math competition, Lippman told people, in which Eugene had finished second. In all of China. Eugene Xu was responsible for every piece of hard data in Lippman's presentation. Once Eugene was introduced into the equation, no one bothered Lippman about his math or his data. As Lippman put it, "How can a guy who can't speak English lie?"
Partners Jamie Ma and Charlie Ledley:
Jamie Ma was tall and strikingly handsome and so, almost by definition, had the air or a man in charge - - until he opened his mouth and betrayed his lack of confidence in everything from tomorrow's sunrise to the future of the human race. Jamie had the habit of stopping himself midsentence and stammering - - "uh, uh, uh" - - as if he was somehow unsettled by his own thought. Charlie Ledley was even worse: He had the pallor of a mortician and the manner of a man bent on putting off, for as long as possible, definite action. Asked a simple question, he'd stare mutely into space, nodding and blinking like an actor who has forgotten his lines, so that when he finally opened his mouth the sound that emerged caused you to jolt in your chair.
Jamie and Charley about their broker Ace Greenberg:
"We were like, 'So how is it that Ace Greenberg is our broker?'" said Charlie. "I mean, we were nobody. And we'd never actually met Ace Greenberg." The mystery grew with their every attempt to speak with Greenberg. They had what they assumed was his phone number, but when they called it someone other than Greenberg answered.

At length they talked their way into a face-to-face encounter with the Wall Street legend. The encounter was so brief, however, that they could not honestly say whether they had met Ace Greenberg, or an actor playing Ace Greenberg.
Naturally, the heroes visit exotic locales. Jamie and Charley's office is described as "charmingly unfinancial - - a dark room in the back with red brick walls that opened onto a small, junglelike garden in which it was easier to imagine a seduction scene than the purchase of a credit default swap."

And one chapter, titled "Spider-Man at The Venetian" takes place in what sounds like a sorcerer's tower:
Like all of Las Vegas, The Venetian was a jangle of seemingly random effects designed to heighten and exploit irrationality: the days that felt like nights and the nights that felt like days; the penny slots and the cash machines that spat out hundred-dollar bills; the grand hotel rooms that cost so little and made you feel so big. The point of it all was to alter your perception of your chances and your money.
There are even magic weapons - - Jamie's and Charley's business was so small, that they had difficulty doing business with the larger Wall Street Firms. "There was this impenetrable fortress you had either to scale or dig underneath." To deal with those firms, they needed an ISDA, or International Swaps and Derivatives Association." Jamie and Charley called it "The hunting license."

All in all, the book is an impressive example of how a skilled writer can turn almost anyone and anything into a tale of high adventure. "The Big Short" is $15 at Amazon.

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