Saturday, November 5, 2011

Book Review: The Fear Index by Robert Harris

I’ve been a big fan of British writer Robert Harris since a friend lent me a copy of Fatherland, an alternative history novel in which Germany won World War II. Since then, I’ve consumed Harris’s other books like kids munching candy on October 31st – quickly, and with joyous abandon. But that is not to suggest that his novels are a mere sugar high. On the contrary, Harris meticulously researches his topics, creates substantial, memorable characters and crafts a three-dimensional world that I immerse myself in for a few hours each time I pick up one of his books.

So it was with great satisfaction that I stumbled across the pre-order listing for a new Harris novel a couple of months ago – The Fear Index. Annoyingly, it won’t be released in the US until January 31st, 2012, but help was at hand: my good friend, Mr. Paul Hunt, dispatched his mum (deliberate spelling, American readers!) to her local bookstore in what Paul calls “God’s Country” – that’s the English county of Yorkshire, for the uninitiated. As luck would have it, she not only got the book the day it came out for half price, but it was also a signed copy. Huzzah.

For the sake of those who may read the book, I will endeavor to avoid spoilers. Here’s the synopsis, which is nothing you can’t find on the jacket: Dr. Alex (for some reason the pre-order page lists him as “Max” – did the US publisher really change his first name because Alex, or heaven forbid his full name, Alexander, is too British?) Hoffman is a brilliant scientist working for CERN, the organization that runs the Large Hadron Collider. An ambitious London banker hears about Hoffman’s experimentation with computing models, and recruits him to co-found a hedge fund in Geneva. Not just any fund, mind you, but one in which the trades are conducted by an algorithm based on the VIX, of “Fear Index”, which measures market volatility.

All is going well for their company – unheard of year-on-year returns of more than 80 percent, several billionaire investors ready to pump more money in, and, for Hoffman, marriage to a beautiful and creative woman. But when a violent intruder breaks into his house, Hoffman’s world and the numbers he has put his faith in to build it start unraveling at a dizzying pace. He becomes totally isolated from all he holds dear and Harris offers two, equally distrurbing possibilities for this: either his protagonist is losing his mind, or someone’s trying to make him think he is.

As with every Harris book I’ve read, I was pulled into the plot from the beginning? Why? First, believable and inherently flawed characters whose specialties are not my own – as anyone who knows me will attest, I know little of science or economics. In fact, I’m the type of guy that has to put his 401K on autopilot, as anything else would, I fear, wipe out the meager sum therein in record time. As for science, as my good friend, Mr. Paul Avery, may recall, I once scored 28 percent on a physics exam. Yikes.

Second, Harris has evidently been to Geneva many times, and brings a city I have regrettably never visited to life, from the chill breezes coming off the lake, to the grandeur of the stone-façade buildings, to the pretentiousness of the artsy crowd who prance through its galleries.

I’ve already mentioned the fast pace of this novel, which rattles us through 24 hours of chaos, but it would be ineffectual without Harris’s ability to build suspense. Thankfully, he dials up the tension without resorting to the graphic violence of, say, Stieg Larsson to cap it off (a trend in today’s thrillers that I find troubling). For a sample of what I’m describing, check out this excerpt from The Daily Telegraph.

Timing is also key with this book and indeed, Harris paused his work on volume three of his Cicero trilogy (check out part one here and part two here) to write The Fear Index while we’re still feeling the reverberations from the financial crisis. I have just about forgiven him for this transgression, despite my own concern that I’ll be waiting until 2013 for the concluding volume. Curses.

OK, so back to the book I’m supposed to be reviewing. I also liked how Harris takes his time to drip feed revelations about Hoffman’s character and past throughout the text, rather than, as a rookie writer might, telling us everything up front. Harris also capably shifts his point of view (the most overused and annoying phrase on Project Runway, which Nicole has roped me into watching with her!); from Hoffman, to his wife, Gabrielle, to Hugo, his business partner. (Incidentally, is the name Hugo not seen as too British by the American publisher? I’ve never come across anyone by that name in my ten years in Kansas City. There are far more Alex’es here than Hugos). By seeing the world through several sets of eyes, I was drawn deeper into the book – hence the 2:00 a.m. bedtime on my second night of reading it. It took me three nights to finish The Fear Index, but I could’ve pushed through in two evenings or, possibly, in one transatlantic flight. War and Peace, this is not.

My only reservation when starting to read The Fear Index was the foreknowledge that Paul Greengrass (who directed the excellent Bourne Trilogy) had already optioned the script and that Harris is writing the screenplay. Much as I admire Mr. Greengrass’s work and respect Harris’s artistic integrity, I was concerned that the latter had written this book with the intention of getting such a deal, and the big bucks that accompany it – a suspicion not dispelled with Harris’s acknowledgment of Greengrass in the front matter. This is not the first Harris book to come to the big screen – Roman Polanski pulled in the talents of Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan for The Ghostwriter, which I enjoyed.

However, The Fear Index hooked me on page one and, while I can see how certain elements were conceived with the big screen in mind (sorry, have to keep that promise of no spoilers!), the book is not a cynical vehicle to get Harris to a Hollywood deal. It stands alone as both a taut, engaging narrative and a timely critique of the flighty and unpredictable financial market.

In summary, I pose three questions to you:

1) Do you enjoy exciting yet intelligent thrillers with intriguing characters?

2) Would you like to know more about the stock market without reading dull economics books?

3) Have you got 12 spare hours over the next few weeks?

If the answer to either/all of the above is yes, then I implore you to get a copy of The Fear Index, sink into a comfy chair, and read the book cover to cover in as few sessions as possible.

1 comment:

  1. Now all we need is for him to get on and complete the Cicero trilogy!