Luca Pesaro’s Zero Alternative is a Dan Brown-style thriller, with a ruthless conspiracy of high-financiers chasing an ultra-effective prediction algorithm, a foreign-legion enforcer with a sadistic bent, a nihilistic hacker group, the chain-smoking derivatives-trading hero hoping to walk away from high finance after one last big trade, and a hot stripper who may or may not have a heart of gold (or maybe just shouldn’t be trusted.)
My favorite part of the novel may not be other people’s favorite. I particularly enjoyed the early chapters, tracking a tense morning of options trading and political infighting with our hero Scott Walker. The author traded options for a living. As a result, he doesn’t do hand-waving fake Wall Street-stuff with his trading descriptions. He has clearly sweated (and I assume chain-smoked through) these same P&L swings, the fights with managers, the adrenaline surge, the banter with subordinates, clients, and competitors.
With even a cursory knowledge of the finance world we recognize fictional stand-ins for Goldman Sachs,1 Wikileaks, Blackwater, George Soros,2 and the protagonist’s bank, which I’m going to guess is Deutsche Bank.3
Interestingly, since the driving element of Zero Alternative is a hunt for ultra-predictive-software, the novel’s plot predicts by a couple of years the market turmoil caused this Summer by Brexit. Both the author and the protagonist Scott Walter are Italian, so the EU-departing country is Italy, but the effect is the same. Pesaro and protagonist Walker share a few other biographical similarities, beyond nationality. They also went to the same high school.
Which makes this a good time to mention that Pesaro and I also went to high school together. I’m pretty sure we haven’t met up in 25 years, but our school The United World College of the American West – including the famous Montezuma Castle – makes an appearance in the crucial final fight scene of the novel. I’m guessing Pesaro hasn’t been on campus for 15 years, because he left the Castle in Zero Alternative in the unrenovated state of disrepair it was in when we attended the school, suitable only for forbidden late-night haunted-castle raids with headlamps and illegal bottles of hooch. Or maybe he has been back, and took literary license because it added to the spookiness of the scene.
Also interestingly, unbeknownst to me, Pesaro and I shared a kind of similar path. Like almost everyone from our school in that time – an idealistic, somewhat anti-capitalistic culture – we share mixed feelings about high finance. There’s the thrill and the attraction to it, including appreciating colleagues, adrenaline rushes, pay, meritocracy, and the essentiality of it all. But there’s also the sense that things can get off track systemically, as well as maybe a corruption at the level of the individual soul. I don’t think I’m reading too much into Luca’s novel to think he’d agree with that. In his acknowledgments page he thanks “all the good, weird and interesting people I’ve met through all my years in Finance – bankers are not all bad, believe me.”
At Bankers Anonymous, we believe you.
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