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Nov 17, 2017

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Retro Reads (Vol. 5.4)
by Dawn Yun
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 5.4
There was one word for dot-com mania - zoom. And, of course, now we're living its antithesis - doom. Having worked for two E-commerce businesses in the last couple of years, I've personally lived the insanity. Since everything's cyclical, I thought it'd be interesting and informative to find past parallels in literature. The short trajectory of dot-comdom can be divided into two areas: money and the materialism that it purchased, as well as self-reflection and the inwardness that brings a return to ideals.
by Tom Wolfe
Bantam Books (1987)

Leave it to Mr. Wolfe to write a book that was the definitive tome of the boom-boom, greed-is-good Wall Street '80s. Bonfire was Wolfe's first foray into fiction and was a huge best-seller at the time. In the '80s, successful bond traders and bankers were the business hero equivalents of dot-com start-up founders. They were gods. They walked on water. Their financial seas always parted.

Hilarious for its lush New York City settings and its perfect capture of the patois of its dead-on characters, Bonfire accurately snagged a moment in time - a parallel universe to the recent dot-com world. Here our main character, Sherman McCoy, has it all. He's the top bond trader at a prominent Wall Street brokerage house, Pierce & Pierce. He has an attractive wife and a beautiful, private-school-educated daughter named Campbell. The McCoys live in digs so lavish they're featured in W and Architectural Digest. He hails from the right stock - his father was the top lawyer at a high-profile Manhattan law firm.

McCoy has patrician good looks - his most outstanding feature being a prominent, impossible-to-ignore chin. He makes a point of forcing his chin forward whenever he feels particularly superior.

McCoy is all about money. Wealth is his reason for living. His identity. The more he makes the more he wants to make. Being a hyper-successful bond trader means he can always earn enormous sums. "By five o'clock Sherman was soaring on adrenaline. He was part of the pulverizing might of Pierce & Pierce, Masters of the Universe. The audacity of it all was breathtaking. To risk $6 billion in one afternoon to make two ticks - six and a quarter cents per one hundred dollars - and then to make four ticks - four ticks! - the audacity? - the audacity! Was there any more exciting power on the face of the earth?

"The audacity of it flowed through Sherman's limbs and lymph channels and loins. Pierce & Pierce was the power, and he was wired into the power, and the power hummed and surged in his very innards."

Loins? Did someone say loins? A man of such financial might needs release. Hence his lusty affair with Texas-born-and-bred Maria Ruskin, the kept wife of a much older, wealthy man. She lovingly refers to her paramour as Shuhhh-mun. One seemingly inconsequential night, McCoy picks her up at the airport, but the tough Bronx is a long way from gilded Manhattan. He gets hopelessly lost driving his Mercedes roadster in a particularly bad part of the borough. Disoriented and confused, they finally find a deserted highway ramp that they hope will take them back to more familiar surroundings.

by Ayn Rand
Signet (1943)

A fallen tire blocks their path. McCoy jumps out to remove it and is suddenly approached by two young men who ask if he needs help. Terrified, he throws the tire at them. Maria gets behind the wheel and races to rescue her lover but accidentally hits one of the boys, who later dies. McCoy hesitates for a moment then jumps into the car. He wants to go to the authorities but she convinces him otherwise. That decision is his downfall.

A Brit has-been newspaperman named Fallow is determined to learn the identity of the hit-and-run driver. He does - wrongly, McCoy. The district attorney's office is resolute about making him the scapegoat for all that's evil in the world. The perfect face (not to mention prominent chin) of that evil - read the Wall Street super rich - is Sherman McCoy. His visage is endlessly featured on the evening news and in the tabloids.

By story's end, McCoy loses everything: his family, his job, his stature, his money, his friends, his home. But he gains, too. While his material surroundings shrivel away, his soul expands. Like all good morality stories this one is ultimately about redemption. In other words - greed is bad. As the economy shrinks it's just what we're rediscovering now.

In the dot-com world, individuality was sacrificed for the greater good - the almighty start-up. One's identity was completely shrouded in the company. It was a tradeoff - work long hours, have an inflated title, get overpaid and own stock options that in the end will make you a zillionaire. Hey, it's totally worth it because we're all company owners! Yeah, right.

Peter Keating would have fit right in. Tall, good looking and charming, Keating was willing to sell his soul. He would be whatever people wanted him to be as long as he became a successful architect, owned his own company and achieved all the fame, glory and money that went along with that stature.

Howard Roark was his opposite. Roark refused to sell his soul. In architecture school he would have just as soon get expelled as draw a building that was impure. So he did.

Separately, Keating and Roark lit out for New York. Keating with a prestigious job in hand; Roark with the resolute knowledge that despite having nothing, his dreams would one day be fulfilled. It would appear that Keating's the true success, mowing people down who get in his way, building alliances with those who can further his career and line his pockets. He builds high-profile buildings, gets his name in the papers and becomes wealthy in the process.

Roark's early success is anything but. He approaches a once-prominent, now-ridiculed architect for work. He gets the job, but there isn't a lot to do. Still, he learns much from his mentor. Like the purity of the buildings that he knows how to build, his soul cannot be compromised. His ideals cannot be changed. He will bend to the will of no one. (Can you imagine a VC buying that?)

Keating's mentor is one Ellsworth Toohey, a newspaper columnist and the most selfless individual he has ever known. But Keating isn't all that bright. After all, how can a newspaper columnist be selfless? Far from being altruistic, Toohey -- like all good writers -- really wants to rule the world.

"Give up your soul to a council - or give it up to a leader. But give it up, give it up, give it up. My technique, Peter. Offer poison as food and poison as antidote. Go fancy on the trimmings, but hang on to the main objective. Give the fools a choice, let them have their fun - but don't forget the only purpose you have to accomplish. Kill the individual. Kill man's soul. The rest will follow automatically."

But the role of ruler of the world is already taken by Gale Wynand, a once penniless product of Hell's Kitchen who goes on to become the owner and publisher of the Banner, where Toohey and one Dominique Francon are employed. She's the beautiful, intellectual, self-reliant daughter of Keating's employer.

Keating, who's been dating Toohey's long-suffering niece for years, is crazy about Dominique, though they have nothing in common. Every man's in love with her. But none understand her. Nobody could ever really be with her. Except Roark.

The three -- Roark, Francon and Wynand -- despite different ways of coming at it, represent the story's moral center. All understand each other implicitly and will do anything for the other. Roark ends up achieving prominence, while Keating's fortunes decline. As he's done since they were in college, Roark anonymously helps Keating design a project. But there's a caveat. Not a single line must be changed on his architecture plans. Keating agrees. It's a promise he cannot keep. The project gets made but bears little resemblance to what Roark envisioned. Our hero knows he has no choice but to do what he must. He dynamites the buildings. The public is in an uproar. That the structure was a housing project for the underprivileged is beside the point. To Roark, the building was simply wrong. Impure. Unethical. It had to go.

Don't settle for less. Stand by your ideals. You are right! These are the book's themes. As we move from a grandiose moneyed time to one of perspective and introspection, it presents the perfect opportunity to consider what it is that we do and what is it that we really want to do. The key is to spend our time wisely and in a way that is nourishing. The times are definitely changing - and maybe that's not such a bad thing.

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