Karl Taro Greenfeldís novel "The Subprimes"
(Harper; 320 pages, $25.99), the division between rich
and poor has opened into a chasm thatís funnier than
it should be. New freeways bring the 1 percent to their
homes in Malibu while the underclasses ó everyone
whose credit is subprime ó use the hopelessly slow 405
for the three-hour drive between Westwood and LAX.
Social programs have been privatized: Public housing
consists of a weeklong voucher to Motel 6. Meanwhile,
the wealthy Pepper sisters and their Christian ally,
Pastor Roger, drill for Americaís last drop of oil.
Into this comes Richie Schwab, a semi-employed
journalist with a habit of making bad decisions, and
Sargam, a motorcycle-riding heroine who helps homeless
families create a settlement in an abandoned development
in the Nevada desert. Greenfeld, who lives in Pacific
Palisades with his family, spoke to us about the book by
Palisades is a pretty ritzy neighborhood. Does that make
you a prime?
Palisades is the town I grew up in. I donít see myself
as a prime because I was grandfathered in. My childhood
friends, some of their dads were auto mechanics; they
had blue-collar professions. That isnít the
demographic of Pacific Palisades anymore. I lived
through that change. My daughter now goes to Pacific
Palisades High School where I went. Iím seeing
firsthand the changes in almost every strata in this
community, and that is profound. Thatís one of the
reasons I made fun of it in "The Subprimes."
When did you start the book?
I started in 2011, very aware of the credit crisis, this
wave of foreclosures, these ghost towns that had sprung
up throughout the Southwest, and then finished it in the
context of disappointment with Barack Obama and
disappointment that Occupy didnít amount to more than
In your book, Sargam becomes a leader of the underclass.
Is that wishful thinking? If you could rewrite history,
would you give Occupy a hero?
I began to wonder what would a truly transformative
person, or hero, be like in this day in age. We had this
great, multiracial promise-giver in Obama, but our hopes
were a bit misplaced. Heís certainly a very successful
product of our meritocracy, but he hasnít really been
that transformative figure. I began to step back and
wonder, what would that person really look like? If that
person turned up, would she even be recognizable in the
context of our meritocracy right now? We expect our
transformative figures to have gone to Harvard law. To
have been straight-A students. To have decent credit
scores. I began to think: No, a truly transformative
figure emerges as someone who doesnít have any of the
markings of success or virtue as usually recognized by
our society. Like Jesus Christ. That character I had in
mind way before doing the book. What would a messiah
look like, and how would she be received?
during the 2012 Republican debates, I thought: What if
you take the economic policies these guys seem to
support ó eliminating the IRS, ending public
education, the EPA, the FDA, privatizing Social Security
ó and see what America would look like.
That sounds very serious, but the book makes the
I knew there were funny riffs in it, but I saw the
overall arc as kind of tragic. What Iím saying, what Iím
predicting (fictionally, at least), is going to happen
to America if we continue on this road of aggressive
private-sector domination of economic policy. Yes, I
think it reads funny, it certainly has a lot of
narrative drive, but I think thereís a larger, sadder
note in there. It surprised me when I gave the book to
my editor and was told itís like a comedy.
Did you have any models for the ultra-rich,
ultra-conservative Pepper sisters?
I started with the pastor, and then I thought, he
himself is an ideologue but he doesnít have economic
clout. Then I created these two sisters who may resemble
a very prominent pair of formerly libertarian and now
deeply Republican petroleum tycoons.
How about Richie Schwab, who, like you, is a writer
living in Pacific Palisades?
One of the things that happens when youíre writing a
novel set in the near future is you also start to
speculate, "What would happen to me? Who would I
be, and what would happen to my family?" Obviously
the family is different. ... But I made the decision to
do an exaggerated near-future version of my life and how
messed-up that might be. There are similarities. My day
job has been, ironically, to be a business writer for a
lot of publications. I spent a lot of time covering some
of our greatest and most accoladed capitalists. I
thought it would be interesting to have a business
writer gradually coming to terms with the fact that heís
essentially a propagandist for a system that is crushing
Is "The Subprimes" then a kind of penance, a
novel written on the side of those who were crushed?
I donít think writing a novel can have enough impact
in the world these days to be considered penance. To be
considered off-setting of whatever damage I might have
done. Again, Iíve never been a rabid free-market
cheerleader myself; I wrote for the Nation for years and
so forth. But I think, oneís fiction is always
somewhat a response to oneís own life.
Is fiction, satire, a good place for social commentary?
I donít know. Thatís what Iím doing in "The
Subprimes," and I canít answer whether itís the
right approach or not. Certainly, most good fiction has
an element of social commentary inherent to it. Fictionís
durability, in part, is because it offers social
book Iím overtly admiring [in "The Subprimes"]
is "The Grapes of Wrath," which for me was
always if not the great American novel, a great American
novel, because of how it "entertains," was a
page turner, was beautifully written but also clearly
had a political agenda that I also admired.
Although "The Subprimes" presents a broken
society, it also reveals people pooling resources to
form a more equitable community. One character calls it
"people helping people," another tries to use
the word "socialism" and gets shut down.
If you look at the total victory capitalism won over
what had passed for communism, it means the entire far
left of the political spectrum has become a bad word.
Everything from progressivism to the far left, all the
way to communism, has been vilified. To call someone a
Socialist is such a bad rap because of the total victory
Do you see things happening in real life now, say,
environmental crises and massive privatization, and
think, "No, no, I was just making that up?"
I worry real life will eclipse this book very quickly.
Whenever youíre writing about the near future, youíre
always going to get some things wrong and some things
right. Iím hoping Iím going to get a lot of stuff