Scope and Humble Comprehension: Why English Matters

            The Turner House and The Big Short are such drastically different works that it is difficult to compare them outright. In discussing if The Turner House is integral to understanding The Big Short, I certainly think that it helps to place a well-developed narrative at the crux of the crisis to understand how the crisis impacts individuals. We are all indeed individuals—not vast numbers ascribed to the “lower-middle class” or other denotations of status used in The Big Short. Cramming a narrative the size of The Turner house into every one of the numbers mentioned in The Big Short is nearly impossible, or would at least take a lifetime to document and understand with any degree of accuracy. The story telling aspect of The Big Short is remarkable given its task to explain the 2008 crisis in a succinct manner, evidenced in part by our struggle as a class to refrain from discussing the individuals present in the non-fiction work as “characters”. However, the scope of The Big Short is many degrees larger than The Turner House, which aims to flesh out how one family struggles as individuals and as a unit through evictions and unreasonable mortgages. Each text can stand alone outside of this course, but both are necessary to understand each other more fully, a point that ties in the danger of a single story, suggesting strongly that its counterexample of the importance of a multitude of stories is also true to better understand the depth behind large decisions, many of which we have attempted to dive into already in this course, including The Old Man and the Storm, King Lear, Inside Job, and David Cay Johnston, to name a few.

            On its own, The Big Short is a staggeringly dense yet digestible narrative outlining an exceedingly complex situation. This text offers more information than most texts I’ve read of its size. For what its worth, it balances telling a story with information about finance decently well despite my needing to supplement the reading with substantial research, mostly done on investopedia as per our course recommendation. The text had a goal, and it achieved it in a fairly succinct way—real people were given character descriptions, arcs, and conflict in a literary sense. At the same time, financial terms and issues were described through artful story telling such that a complete understanding of terms was not always necessary to understand the text. Specifically, the chapter “In the Land of the Blind,” which discussed Michael Burry and his artificially created narrative beginning, contained a lot of financial lingo that I did not fully understand when I read it, nor do I fully understand it now, yet I did then and do now have a sense of what the narrative wants to convey in terms of the story: This guy is really smart, and he saw things before anyone else did that engaged in moral hazards for sure. This is a gross understatement of both Michael Burry’s intellectual ability as well as Michael Lewis’ ability as a writer to craft his financial knowledge into a condensed and digestible form as one chapter, but for my purposes of studying the 2008 crisis with an English major’s hat on rather than a finance major’s, it will loosely suffice for now. Perhaps these far-reaching financial terms make up why I feel that Angela Flournoy’s novel is necessary to fill in the gaps in story telling, but more on that later.

            The Big Short is ultimately a telling of one side of the 2008 crisis. As such, it takes an informational approach the text, peppered with many direct quotes from the individuals who were involved in the crisis (in thinking about my own writing, I’m self editing out the term “characters” when discussing The Big Short because, as we discussed in class, these individuals are real human beings, despite Michael Lewis’ presentation of them as relatively understandable characters with limited description paired with Lewis’ fairly omniscient position as author and narrator. This text throws my brain for a loop in this way, as I’m sure it has for many others). These individuals could all have autobiographies that are each multiple times as long as The Big Short, yet Lewis has crafted all of their lives into a single narrative of the crisis itself that spans just over 250 pages. This choice cost Lewis the ability to fully explore the individuals at play. For example, during Vincent Daniel’s (or “Vinny’s) introduction into Steve Eisman’s life, there are only a few sentences devoted to Eisman’s son Max’s death. I had to read the section over a few times just to believe it had happened. This monumental occasion is filled with tradgedy, confusion, even anger, altering the course of Eisman’s, and everyone in his family’s, life forever, arguably changing the world because it changed Eisman’s disposition. Yet, for the sake of the narrative moving forward, there are only a few sentences explaining the situation, two sentences explaining how Steve changed to realize that tragedy could and would hit anyone at any time, and the story moves on from page 12 as if it hadn’t skipped a beat. This is just one example of many instances where the story sacrifices some personal depth for the sake of “getting on with it” and moving towards the crisis, as if it were a literary cog in the wheel of the plot turning towards the Freytag-Pyramid-oriented climax scratch to the literary itch that was picking up this book. In contrast to the plot-driven narrative of The Big Short, The Turner House relishes in the finer details of personal lives and struggles to weave a tale of family into the larger discussion of what actually happened on the ground away from Wall Street to those whom the explicit and implicit laws of society did not favor, laid out in The Big Short on page 20 as “Fuck the poor.”.

            The Turner House is a literary force to be reckoned with. This novel does what The Big Short cannot—infuse a major societal shift, the 2008 crisis, with all of the meaning and personality associated with individual and familial lives that must endure it. While The Turner House alone does not suffice to understand the 2008 crisis (nor does any one work, likely), it certainly does show the effects of a struggling city combined with a housing crisis on a national scale. The novel primarily discusses the lives of the eldest and youngest of the Turner children, Cha-Cha and Lelah, as they endure their own struggles amidst the crisis. Cha-Cha holds the proverbial keys to his parents property on Yarrow Street now that his mother is sick while Lelah has slipped back into the vacant house after being evicted from her apartment and succombing to her gambling addiction. The rich descriptions of Cha-Cha and Lelah’s struggles nested within a vast web of narrative including other family members, friends, occupations, violence, secrets—all of these things and more are woven into the setting created by the 2008 crisis that The Big Short aimed to explain while simultaneously leaping off of the struggles of housing discrimination that were a part of Detroit since at least when the father of the Turners, Francis, moved to Detroit in the 1940s. While it is impossible to fully encapsulate the gravity of the 348 pages of Flournoy’s debut novel here in this essay, the takeaway is that real people with real struggles were pushed further down into despair, debt, and difficult decisions, to keep the alliteration flowing. The obvious choice from an assets standpoint would be to short sell the house and get out of the mortgage, as the family owed the bank $40,000 for a house worth roughly $3,000, but the matriarch of the household wants the house to stay in the family, a sentiment to which many of the thirteen siblings agreed. The novel does not focus on the outcome of this particular struggle, but rather the struggle of the family members themselves amidst the looming potential loss of the house paired with the illness of their mother. These deeply personal lives and struggles are compelling to read and shape the reality of human life in a way that The Big Short misses at the expense of explaining the crisis on a larger scale.

            Perhaps now is the time to elicit the Dr. McCoy “both/and”. Neither of these texts is fully complete for our course objectives without the other, yet they can both stand alone and be appreciated for the lanes that they stay in. I enjoyed The Big Short because I felt like I understood the 2008 crisis a bit better than when I began reading it. I enjoyed The Turner House because I was brought back into the life of a novel which demonstrated human life and endurance despite the crisis looming in the background. The Turner House could very well have focused on the family’s plan on what to do with the house and followed up on more narrative endings in that regard, but that wasn’t Flournoy’s point. Joining these two texts together keeps an awareness of scope firmly at the center of the discussion. Bringing this scope to The Big Short frankly terrifies me, as it is almost impossible to imagine how many people were and continually are impacted by the decisions and outcomes laid out in the narrative. If each house has a story of any comparable scope to that of The Turner House, which felt like it could have lasted many hundreds of pages longer, then there aren’t enough trees on the planet to print out the collective story that could be told by the 2008 crisis. This course has allowed me to pick away at the extremely thin “crust” of the crisis, to compare this to a diagram of the layers of our planet in Earth Science class. No one narrative will do the job, yet doing justice to all necessary narratives is out of the scope of any single human’s ability, despite humans being the ones who all individually created and lived through the crisis. This is precisely why we need to care about English and the content of this course specifically—if we don’t keep scope in mind, then we risk losing the stories necessary to convey the gravity of decisions we make. Nobody can know everything that is going on, but if we don’t all do our part to learn what we can and remain humbled by what we don’t know, then we risk both ours and others’ lives and stories without reason or consent.

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