Sebastian Faulks' A Week in December is a seven-day tour of modern London written in Dickensian style. Charles Dickens' rich cast of 19th century characters dealt with class conflict, wealth, poverty and true love. Faulks' modern-day characters deal with terrorism, greed, the Internet and — because some things never change — true love.
The satirical story unfolds in 2007 over the seven days before Christmas. Readers follow the characters all over the city and its suburbs — often underground on the famous Circle Line train.
True to form, the long cast of characters turns out to be linked to one another: There's a hedge fund manager and his drug-addicted son, a lawyer, a book critic, a train driver, and a successful Muslim businessman and his religiously minded son, who is deeply conflicted about the true message of Islam.
The backdrop of the book was inspired largely by Faulks' own experience — he tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that he began thinking about the alternate reality of the banking world about 10 years ago, when he noticed that his London neighborhood of Notting Hill was filling up with bankers. (Back when he moved in, the neighborhood was made up mostly of artists and musicians.)
"I was having dinner with people earning $10 million a year," Faulks says. "This was strange to me and it was completely divorced from any reality that I understood."
He began writing A Week in December well before the financial markets unraveled.
"So much money was being made by banks and hedge funds," Faulks explains. "This was long before the credit crisis, and I began to understand that these vast fortunes were being made by trading things which didn't exist."
Faulks took a break from researching material for the novel to write Devil May Care, a sequel to the late Ian Fleming's James Bond series. When he returned to A Week in December, his storyline was overtaken by real life events; the financial boom was over.
"Instead of talking to this guy who was helping me about how much money was made and how it was done, he kept on looking down at his hand-held computer saying, 'Oh my God, another bank is going broke,' " Faulks recalls.
In keeping with 19th century novels, Faulks assigns punning names to some of his characters — particularly the villainous hedge fund manager, John Veals.
"I got his name from a real estate agent. I liked the name 'Veal' because it's a bit like venal, and of course veal is a kind of bloodless meat and these things to me suggested the character of John Veals. He is an extremely cold, bloodless, rapacious, calculating, ruthless, greedy son of a gun."
Many of Faulks' characters lead livelier lives in virtual worlds: They lead parallel lives in online gaming, play fantasy football, and get sucked into reality television programs. Faulks says he recognizes it in his own children — their eyes glued to hand-held screens when they're on family vacations.
"What A Week in December is about is the way that this whole city, London, has become detached from reality," Faulks explains.
The abstract nature of the financial world only reinforced for Faulks "the whole idea of a city which had completely lost touch with reality and preferred to live with its head up its rear end."
One character who is struggling with his identity is Hassan al-Rashid, son of pickle magnate Farooq al-Rashid. He's so disillusioned that he's easily swayed when a friendly extremist contacts him via a social networking Web site called YourPlace.
"This young man ... is led astray by demagogues and politically motivated people who want him to do a terrible thing — commit a terrorist outrage," Faulks says. "It is an extraordinary phenomenon to have homegrown terrorists in your country. ... And it is a kind of sadness I think that if you are a true believer in a certain fundamental way of looking at Islam then you are always going to be dissatisfied with the political structures that you find yourselves in because none of them really fit with the purity of the way of life that you aspire to."
He says that Hassan's character — a potential suicide bomber — is ultimately a victim, whereas Veals — a hedge fund manager — is a true predator. Faulks' book is full of good and evil, greed and generosity, and a few romances.
"It's a dark and angry book and it has dark and serious things to say about the way we live," he says. "I wanted there to be sunlight at the end. When you climb out of the Circle Line train, you emerge into the sun."