Small Actions

When I was reading The Turner House (after just completing The Big Short), I was struck by how similar these two texts are. Both, even though they approach it from different perspectives, are centered around the 2008 housing crisis. Both books also take us through the stories of many different individuals, such as Eisman, Vinny, and Mike for The Big Short and Cha-Cha, Tina, and Francis for The Turner House. Additionally, both books do not seem to follow the structure of Freytag’s Pyramid, for events such as the climax, inciting incident, and resolution seem to differ for each characters’ narrative (Cha-Cha’s narrative, for example, would have a different climax from the narrative we are given of Francis). Yet, despite their similarities, The Turner House seems to include a narrative about choice in situations where there is a loss of control that The Big Short’s narrative is missing. By using character actions and reinterpreting the flood metaphor, The Turner House reminds us that while individuals can’t always control what happens in their surrounding circumstances, they do have the power to control how they react.

One interesting thing I noted was that both books incorporate floods in some way. In class, we discussed how The Big Short incorporates a tower (“tranche”) and flood metaphor. Michael Lewis detailed how Salomon Brothers divided payments on home loans to resemble levels of a tower, stating: “The buyer of the first tranche was like the owner of the ground floor in a flood: he got hit with the first wave of mortgage prepayments. In exchange, he received a higher interest rate” (7). The flood here is described as something that destroys and damages property. The Turner House doesn’t depict the flood in the same way; instead, it’s shown as something that sweeps people along and represents a loss of control. Flood imagery comes into play with the description of Lelah’s thought process as she’s gambling. The narrator reveals Lelah’s reasoning as she’s sitting at the roulette table: “The remaining $180 was still more than [Lelah] had in the bank, but what could you get with that? Not much. If you walked out with $180 when you could have had $600, you didn’t walk away the victor” (Flournoy 51). Lelah’s thoughts here are similar to a flood because it shows her being swept away by her gambling addiction. Much like the flood water that flows and pulls things along, Lelah’s restraint and thoughts are quickly spiraling out of control. This is indicated by how a similar statement is reiterated after Lelah loses some more money: “Forty dollars was like no money at all, so she might as well let it play” (Flourney 51). Flood imagery in The Turner House thus connects to a lack of control or situations where one’s control is undermined. After making this connection to the flood in The Turner House, I began to wonder if this interpretation of the flood could be applied to The Big Short

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it can. Aside from the flood imagery associated with the tranches, there’s another significant moment related to floods in The Big Short. At the end of the book, Eisman, after witnessing the collapse of the housing market, remarks: “‘It’s sort of like the flood’s about to happen and you’re Noah. You’re on the ark. Yeah, you’re okay. But you are not happy looking out at the flood. That’s not a happy moment for Noah” (Lewis 227). Eisman comparing the situation around him to a flood indicates that floods in The Big Short can also (like in The Turner House) be associated with the loss of control. The rest of the world was very much swept along in the financial chaos created by the collapsing housing market. We (the class) saw something similar when we watched “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Mickey was very much left drowning in the water (in a situation out of his control) and was also shown being visually swept away into a spiral/whirlpool. 

Realizing the flood narratives in both The Big Short and The Turner House pointed to situations with a loss of autonomy made me curious about the bigger implications regarding choice: what happens to choice when one is stuck in situations where one has limited control? I think the one moment in The Big Short that indicates pretty accurately how Wall Street and many big financial names responded to a lack of control is Eisman’s interaction with the CEO of Bear Stearns: “‘Whose fault is [it that the market was collapsing]?’ Eisman had blurted out. ‘This is how you guys wanted it. So you could rip off your customers.’ To which the new CEO replied, ‘I don’t want to cast blame’” (Lewis 230). As indicated here, one response to being stuck in a situation with a lack of autonomy is blaming others or blaming other things. We see something similar with Mike Burry, who attributed the circumstances and problems of his life to his glass eye: “It was hard for [Mike Burry] to see where his physical limitations ended and his psychological ones began—he assumed the glass eye was at the bottom of both” (Lewis 33). Whether this is ethical or not or accurate or not is a separate issue; the important thing to recognize is that blaming is a very human reaction to situations where it seems like there isn’t much one can do. The Big Short thus perhaps suggests that blaming others and holding others accountable is all that one really can do in situations of no control.

When I first reflected on the book, I thought the characters in The Turner House seem to support The Big Short’s emphasis on blame. During the confrontation scene between Troy and Cha-Cha on Yarrow House, the narrator indicates that Troy blames Cha-Cha a lot, stating: “It seemed clear then [to Troy] that Cha-Cha, whether directly or indirectly, had been behind many major disappointments in Troy’s life” (Flournoy 269). However, The Turner House ultimately seems to suggest an alternative action: not blaming others but rather taking self-accountability and self-action to do what one can (however limited that may be) in situations of no control. This is shown pretty well in Tina’s argument with Cha-Cha where she reminds Cha-Cha of how he acted when they couldn’t make love in a previous night because of his body: “‘Guess what, Cha? That’s been the story of my life since menopause! But do I blame you and ruin things? No, I blamed myself. I got hormone pills and crazy bottles of lube…” (Flourney 293). As indicated here, Tina doesn’t blame Cha-Cha for their lack of intimacy but rather blames herself and pushes responsibility on herself to mitigate the situation on her part. She recognizes she doesn’t have full control over her body and aging, that she can’t force herself back into her prime, so she does what she can in reaction to it. This theme of self-accountability and self-action is shown by Cha-Cha too, for Cha-Cha is really only able to start making peace with his past and his father once he accepts he needs to confront the haint (Flourney 317). Cha-Cha can’t control whether or not he sees the haint; he can only control how he deals with it.

The Turner House thus seems to include a narrative about the importance of self-acknowledgment and self-action that The Big Short doesn’t have: that, even if we sometimes can’t control what situation we are in, we can control how we react to the situation and what we do onward to (possibly) mitigate the loss of control. Yes, it’s important to hold others accountable for their actions, like Eisman is to Wall Street, but perhaps that only gets one so far if one isn’t also willing to actively do something. The Turner House thus might indicate a slightly more hopeful narrative. Even in times of crisis where everything seems out of control, there’s always something you can do to make things better even if that action is small and doesn’t solve the problem (or even if it’s an action that only helps yourself). This relates to expulsion, too. Lelah in the book leaves her apartment with an hour and a half to spare to maintain her pride and the notion of control. Her doing so doesn’t solve her problem (the lack of control she has over her housing situation), but it makes her feel better, so it’s worthwhile all the same.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.