Geri Molloy is a success in her career, a well-paid trader on the floor of an investment bank, but in private her life and her sanity are falling apart. She has reached a point where she is hell bent on self-sabotage, drinking too much, eating and sleeping barely at all, unable to let go of an old relationship and reaching a dangerous level of burn-out in her job. The novel follows her through the inevitable consequence of this trajectory, a three-day personal Armageddon that coincides with the start of the 1991 Iraq war.
In this book, Aifric Campbell begins by taking a long, slow look at the frenetic pace of the banking arena. The first half of the novel covers a mere three hours but gives the reader a taste of the intensity and the aggression of the environment. It’s a man’s world out there, drenched in testosterone, full of schoolboy humour and unkind jokes, and all about the power of the alpha male. Geri works in the trading sector, where quick minds and responses are all important. Alongside them but separated out are the geeks, the maths geniuses working on models that will eventually replace traders on the floor, and this implicit competition is also a battle between very different kinds of men, a sort of unaccepted knowledge that one day, the meek will inherit the earth. Above this layer are the managers, and above them still, in lushly carpeted and richly silent offices are the investment bankers. It is a clear hierarchy despite the squabbles and the jostlings for position that take place every day.
Geri is fully a part of this system and accepts it. She has an extreme form of mental agility with maths, a gift she calls a ‘circus trick’ and of which she is very dismissive. But it has made her one of the most important traders on the floor, despite her gender. And yet, Geri is still treading a precarious tightrope – her relationship with complex and reclusive billionaire, Felix Mann is the real key to her ongoing success, but it is a relationship based on a sadomasochistic exchange. Felix works with Geri because she will submit to his various tortures, whether it’s memorising passages of Kant, or eating highly unpalatable Asian delicacies. When the book opens, Felix is pressing hard for Geri to move full time to Hong Kong. But Geri is unwilling. The only decent part of her life is her relationship to her dog, Rex, whom she would have to give up. And she still hankers over her lost lover, a high-flying investment banker named Stephen, who seems to manage the sort of genuine ice cool that Geri is too psychologically messy to access.
The Iraq war sets off a train of events for Geri concerning an engineering firm manufacturing ammunitions, Vulkan Valve, in which Felix Mann has a significant stake. She has to go to Hong Kong to elicit a ‘simple answer to a simple question’, which she is aware will come at the price of her compliance to Felix’s desire for her relocation. Drunk, exhausted and torn between the people who all want to pull her puppet strings, this is inevitably the time when Geri bumps into Stephen again, and from this point on events snowball into a bizarre and intense crisis and the novel really takes off.
I admit it took me a while to get into this book, but once the complex set up at the start pays off, I found it a powerful and highly provocative story. But what I couldn’t decide is where to locate the true focus of the book’s moral universe. Is this a story about the sick world of banking, or is it a story about one sick woman’s crisis? If Geri were a less damaged person, would her success have been smooth and untroubled like that of the men who work around her? And where does the Gulf War fit in? On the one hand, the war is just a way for bankers to make more money. But on the other, war is a game played between men, for immensely high stakes, in which the outcome is either win or lose. In these respects it is structurally similar to banking, which functions on the same principles. Both arenas play by different rules to the ordinary world, or rather, they ditch the rules, all the ethical, mindful, sensible ones, in the thrill of the chase and the pure blazing desire to exert the mighty hand of command. Geri realises by the end of the narrative that no matter how many times you might win, there will inevitably come a moment when you lose; that is the way with dangerous games. Men may be able to live in a state of constant warfare, but can women?
Ultimately, Aifric Campbell can’t decide whether banking is good or bad (and it turns out that she was the MD of Morgan Stanley herself, a position she was forced to abandon after a severe post-natal breakdown). It’s unclear how much gender matters here, and when we finally learn about Geri’s past, it seems evident that she was ripe for an abusive job in any case. But On The Floor does manage to put all these provocative questions out into the narrative, and asking them is more important than finding pat answers. I felt sure that we would be in for a run of novels about banking, this is the second I’ve read in the past couple of months, and I’m glad to see them. What’s intriguing so far is to see banking shown in a harshly critical light, but to watch the plots evade serious consequences of their unethical and immoral actions. It’s like the authors know there’s something wrong, but cannot imagine change. I’m looking forward to the next wave, when we begin to realise that banking is not a force of nature, but a conspiracy of choices that keep the rich very rich indeed. Those books stand to be most intriguing.