The Burning by Thomas Legendre

Get out your "The End is Nigh" sandwich-board again
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The Independent Culture

This has proved a busy year for doom-mongers. The scientist James Lovelock strapped on a "The End is Nigh" sandwich-board for his book, The Revenge of Gaia, suggesting that we have so grievously damaged the Earth that it now threatens us with the ultimate punishment of extinction. He seems to have passed it on to Kurt Vonnegut, who, like Lovelock, believes that it's too late to turn back and save the world, and is even more pessimistic about the reduced state we will soon be thrown into.

Now comes The Burning by Thomas Legendre, a first novel that features many of the same arguments put forward by Lovelock and Vonnegut, albeit modulated by the fact that he is not a cranky eightysomething. He uses the same analogy for the planet's situation as Lovelock, suggesting that the earth is a human being with cancer, and the fact that everything seems more or less fine now is no indication of how things really are.

Legendre's protagonist, Logan Smith, is an economist with a simple theory that he wants to communicate to others in the face of an overwhelming lack of interest: he holds that neoclassical economic theory, which believes that the free market is the best method of determining value and maximising wealth, is irresponsible and dangerous because it represents the economy as a perpetual motion machine unconstrained by the laws of thermodynamics. For such a system to continue to work, Logan discovers, we would need the resources of two and a half more earths. As GNP measures only the total output of goods and services, it ignores the proportion of output devoted to necessities versus luxury goods (bypassing questions of wealth) and fails to account for either the proper functioning of ecosystems, such as the hydrologic cycle, or their degradation, because such processes don't interact with the markets.

Although Legendre's novel is largely polemic, and seems to exist mainly to allow his protagonist to deliver this theory, this does not detract from the incredible quality of the work. It's extremely hard to make campus novels work, especially one driven by economic and environmental theory in which the main characters spend much of their time facing an audience of students or peers in tense lecture-room scenarios.

As a work of fiction, it compares favourably with Zadie Smith's On Beauty, which performed a similar trick last year with humanities subjects. Logan Smith never becomes a cypher or a boring do-gooder and the drama of his intellectual life is balanced with an equally interesting sub-plot concerning the breakdown of his relationship with his wife, Dallas, a former croupier and compulsive gambler, as he falls for a fellow faculty member, who unbeknown to him has been impregnated by Deck, a former friend and intellectual rival after an unpleasant one-night stand.

Like many authors, from George Eliot to Ian Fleming, Legendre is clearly fascinated by gambling, but unlike most he manages to capture the reality of everything from craps to poker slot machines without romanticising this way of life. Dallas's decline to the bottom and back again, involving several tawdry sex scenes, are some of the most affecting passages in the book, stripped of the usual machismo that accompanies much writing about gambling.

Legendre seems really to understand and sympathise with the psychological compulsion that drives obsessive gamblers, but avoids the mystical or existential overtones that have marred even the best books and films about this condition, such as Paul Auster's otherwise brilliant The Music of Chance or Robert Altman's California Split. He also manages to make equally sympathetic the characters who do find some sort of emotional solace from gambling, and those for whom it is anathema. There is a place for luck in his fictional world, but Dallas's eventual salvation comes at a brutal cost.

What's most impressive about The Burning is that as well as being one of the few novels of ideas which actually gives the reader something to think about beyond the standard nihilism usually found in such books, Legendre is brilliant at three-dimensional descriptions, bringing to life everything from soda cans to distant constellations. His narrative grip never slackens, even in moments of dense economic theory, and The Burning provides enormous emotional and intellectual satisfaction. It seems unlikely there will be a better debut this year.