Last October, with the Greek bond crisis emerging as a danger to the European economy, Michael Lewis wrote a piece for Vanity Fair about an order of monks accused of manipulating the crisis to bilk the Greek government out of billions of dollars. It’s 12,000 words about bonds, corruption, politics and markets, yet it moves like an amusement park ride. How does he pull it off?
The first clues arrive in the opening sentence:
After an hour on a plane, two in a taxi, three on a decrepit ferry, and then four more on buses driven madly along the tops of sheer cliffs by Greeks on cell phones, I rolled up to the front door of the vast and remote monastery.
This delivers the usual Lewis flash — and hints at three less obvious but equally crucial elements: a deft but disciplined use of the first person, an agile manipulation of a standard trip-to-Oz story form, and fluid variations of narrative distance.
Complex stories often demand simple structures; otherwise the reader gets lost. Lewis settled on the venerable first-person journey (think Homer’s “Odyssey,” Dante’s “Inferno,” Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” almost any Cormac McCarthy), and it serves him well. Its solidity simultaneously anchors and frees Lewis even as its familiarity reassures the reader. We quickly come to understand we’re going on a journey to the center of this monastery and its mystery. Since we know we’ll always return to this journey with a friendly guide, we don’t panic when Lewis takes a detour. His choice illustrates something John McPhee stresses in an invaluable Paris Review interview: “If your structure really makes sense, you can make some jumps and your reader is going to go right with you.”
And jump Lewis does. Few writers more skillfully shift time, place, and narrative distance. Consider, for instance, how he deploys his first-person presence. Although Lewis often writes from the third person, here he declares the first person right off, essentially inviting us to join him on his quest. With an invitation like his first sentence, who’s going to decline? Even after he makes himself a wee bit ridiculous (and you can’t be much else while trying to talk your way into a vast and remote monastery wearing running shoes, khakis, and a mauve Brooks Brothers shirt), I’m still with him, because I feel out of place myself. And he’s got me dying to see how these monks shook down the government. He makes his amazement and curiosity mine, too.
Alternating his first person approach with a more standard reportorial voice, Lewis moves fluidly between narrative and explanation. Switching from scene to explication, or from main story to backstory, is damned tricky; it exposes the novice and marks the master. Lewis can leave a scene and return again smack in the middle of a conversation and get away with it.
At that moment, out of nowhere, Father Ephraim walks in. Round, with rosy cheeks and a white beard, he is more or less the spitting image of Santa Claus. He even has a twinkle in his eye. A few months before, he’d been hauled before the Greek Parliament to testify. One of his interrogators said that the Greek government had acted with incredible efficiency when it swapped Vatopaidi’s lake for the Ministry of Agriculture’s commercial properties. [This was the move that enriched the monks.] He asked Ephraim how he had done it.
“Don’t you believe in miracles?” Ephraim had said.
“I’m beginning to,” said the Greek M.P.
When we are introduced, Ephraim clasps my hand and holds it for a very long time. It crosses my mind that he is about to ask me what I want for Christmas. Instead he says, “What is your faith?” “Episcopalian,” I cough out.[*] He nods; he calibrates: it could be worse; it probably is worse. “You are married?” he asks. “Yes.” “You have children?” I nod; he calibrates: I can work with this. He asks for their names …
He shifts narrative distance with similar fluidity, zooming in and out the way a good director varies framing and lens length. Sometimes he’ll park the camera and just watch. These alterations usually move story, build structure, or reveal something. At one point, Lewis is talking with Father Arsenio, the No. 2 monk. Arsenio exudes warmth, charm, intelligence and a frightening omniscience – the Godfather in a merry mood. Amid this Lewis looks out the window to the sea and spends two sentences wondering why the monks never swim. His distraction and aside amuse; they also express his estrangement from the monks’ mysterious discipline.
The end sneaks up. By now Lewis has taken me on and off and all over the island and half of Greece and then back again, and I’m still having fun. He preps me for the finale, though, with a sentence that signals the end of the trip (“The day before I left Greece …”) and opens a reportorial passage about demonstrations and other signs of doom. Then a typographical break gives way to the final section – a single, short paragraph. Here he draws on everything he’s already invested to do something he hasn’t yet done: He gives us a moral lesson. The surprise at finding this direct, distanced indictment only increases its power.
Even if it is technically possible for [the Greek] people to repay their debts, live within their means, and return to good standing inside the European Union, do they have the inner resources to do it? … On the face of it, defaulting on their debts and walking away would seem a mad act: all Greek banks would instantly go bankrupt, the country would have no ability to pay for the many necessities it imports (oil, for instance), and the country would be punished for many years in the form of much higher interest rates, if and when it was allowed to borrow again. But the place does not behave as a collective; it lacks the monks’ instincts. It behaves as a collection of atomized particles, each of which has grown accustomed to pursuing its own interest at the expense of the common good. There’s no question that the government is resolved to at least try to re-create Greek civic life. The only question is: Can such a thing, once lost, ever be re-created?
He doesn’t need the first person for this. For 12,000 words we have shared his disorientation and then his dismay. Now we rush forward to share his outrage – and even as we set the story down, realize we, too, are implicated.
Lewis is so entertaining that it’s easy to miss that he’s writing some of the sharpest, deepest, and most memorable indictments of our global financial corruption. He’s like the Jon Stewart of print: Loose, but drum tight. Funny, but dead serious.
*Lewis lies; he’s not Episcopalian, and we know it because he earlier told someone he’s an atheist. Relating this lie is another sly, splendid use of the first-person: it speaks to Ephraim’s power to both charm and intimidate.
David Dobbs, author of “My Mother’s Lover” and three other books, writes on culture and science for publications including The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, National Geographic and Slate, and at his Wired blog Neuron Culture. He’ll be discussing Lewis’ writing at a workshop at the National Association of Writers meeting in Flagstaff, Ariz., on October 15.
For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.
Photo of David Dobbs by Alice Colwell.