Nearly everybody who reads—newspapers, magazines and websites, in addition to fiction—recognizes the plight of the midlist novelist. Not the brand-name superstar, whose annual connect-the-dots release invariably shoots to the top of the bestseller list. Not the highly touted newcomer, whose debut captures the fancy of so many critics, with raves spawning a flurry of other raves, a consensus that will likely curdle with the sophomore effort. Not even the literary trophy novelist, whose renown far exceeds any recent commercial success, but whose prestige adds luster to the publisher's catalog.
No, the classic midlister is no household name, except in the households of some book reviewers, and perhaps in those of the few others who avidly monitor book reviews. Such a readership might represent a cult fandom and guarantee sales in the low thousands. Enough that some imprint, though maybe not the same one, will publish the author's next novel, without expectations on anyone's part that it will fare much better.
Martha McPhee's fourth novel wouldn't be so funny if it didn't ring so true. As the narrator of Dear Money, India Palmer has published four novels, none of which has sold more than 5,000 copies, and has written a fifth, which she had “come to hope…would be the winning ticket in the literary lottery where art met commerce.”
Though it would be a mistake to reduce India to an authorial stand-in, the delicious irony of McPhee's novel is that it deserves to be her own lottery winner, the breakout book that attracts a popular readership exceeding those drawn by the critical notices and prize nominations for her earlier work. Yet her novel recognizes what a daunting challenge this is, how the publishing industry and celebrity culture make it easier for a tabula rasa newcomer to achieve such attention than for an author who has already established a track record.
Finding herself “consumed by want,” India suffers even more because she and her artist husband have become close friends with a wealthier couple who can easily afford the standard of living to which the novelist guiltily aspires. Their expansive social circle encompasses a playboy financier who tempts India into something like an affair, only one where the lust is for money.
McPhee has a lot of fun with a couple of archetypes—a Pygmalion transformation of the novelist into a financial high roller and a “city mouse/country mouse” exchange of ambitions—but what makes this novel work so well is that India continues to engage the reader's empathy, even affection, as she forsakes literary high-mindedness for filthy lucre. The novel reflects just how much of an industry publishing is, and how success in financial speculation involves crafting a compelling narrative.
Upping the metafictional ante is the question of whether India's bond-trading experiences will inspire her to write another novel--maybe even one as culturally subversive as McPhee's.