Full reviews of Trading Futures

Robbie Millen, The Times, 26 March 2016
Trading Futures could be called the baby boomers’ lament. It’s 2008 and Matthew Oxenhay is celebrating his 60th birthday. Superficially, he has much to celebrate: a well-paying City job and his home life — wife, suburban house — is pleasant. But “the bastard fact is that Judy considers this a triumph, and I consider it a failure”. He has a bad dose of midlife crisis.

So the self-loathing Matthew gets drunk, makes a speech itemising the various failures of his friends and his family, before going for the big one and insulting the boss, “a grinning toady”. He’s not sacked; the modern office is a place of euphemisms so he’s “offered” the role of “senior consultant” (commission only). Life spirals out of control and the dipsomaniac Matthew acts ever more erratically and tries to rekindle a relationship with an old flame, an attempt to recapture his youth and the optimism of the Sixties.

What starts as a light and droll Reggie Perrin-style novel about the fall of a middle-aged everyman, a “perfect makeweight in an identity parade”, becomes, by the end, surprisingly dark and intense. We see the crack-up through Matthew’s eyes, which also allows for some wittily caustic observations about modern living. “A collection of weird people selling stuff doesn’t quite have the same allure as ‘farmer’s market’, so accuracy had been trumped by marketing once again,” Matthew says; on another occasion he reflects on the middle-class love of the French countryside: “Manufacturing had been outsourced to China, culture to Italy, efficiency to Germany, optimism to America. Now nostalgia had been outsourced to France.”

I’d hesitate to speculate on the mental state of the author Jim Powell; but one suspects he is well attuned to the inner life of malcontented men in their sixties. His well-received first novel was published in 2010, at the age of 61, after a career as an ad-man and then —midlife crisis or what? — a potter. It’s well worth spending an afternoon of grey-haired, paunchy angst with this admirably slim encore.

Sunday Times, 27 March 2016
Not in any hurry for his midlife crisis, Matthew is 60 when he realises that he doesn’t have the life he wanted. A city futures trader who votes Labour and got away for years with letting the weather make his decisions (buy coffee if it’s raining), the hero of Powell’s glum comic novel is now drinking too much, sick of his job, and quietly unhappy with his marriage. Then one day in Tate Modern he runs into Anna, a woman he remembers from 40 years earlier when they were teenagers listening to Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, and suddenly everything seems possible. This is one of those novels that is really a catch-all vessel for the writer’s observations about life, spiced with some neat one-liners. It has a Reginald Perrin charm about it and an unexpected twist in the tail, but it stays affably bleak to the end.

Carla McKay, Daily Mail, 11 March 2016
At 60, Matthew Oxenhay looks back on his life and doesn’t like what he sees: a wife and children to whom he is largely indifferent, a house in Barnet ‘that several decades of meaningless endeavour had procured’, and a career in the City that had made him pots of money but given him no satisfaction whatsoever, especially now he has been passed over for the top job.

At his 60th birthday party, he flips and tells the assembled company, including his boss, just what he thinks of them.

It’s all downhill from there, but entertainingly so – at least at first. With his gallows humour and observational wit, Jim Powell gives us a vivid portrait of a man in meltdown. In the first half, I thought I was reading male menopause lit, a genre bound to become ever more popular, but, in fact, it’s altogether darker and more interesting than that.

Carl Wilkinson, Financial Times, 7 May 2016
With echoes of Reginald Perrin and John Lanchester’s Mr Phillips, Jim Powell’s second novel follows the rise, but mainly the fall of 60-year-old English banker Matthew Oxenhay.
Matthew has worked in the City his whole adult life, since willingly offering himself as “the meat in the grinder of a huge sausage machine, churning away into oblivion” in his twenties. It has made him wealthy, but not, he finds, happy. Instead, he — along with the industry itself — is spiralling into crisis.

From Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic to Alex Preston’s This Bleeding City, the financial crash has inspired a number of novels that draw on the financial world’s language of trades, hedges, stocks and futures. This lexicon of money appeals to novelists looking to draw lessons or parallels, and Powell’s novel is in this same vein. Matthew has spent his career as a successful futures trader, but in an ironic twist he’s also traded his own future in the process. After years of riding high, he is left with the realisation that he is nothing more than a gambler riding a serious run of bad luck.

His decline begins in 2008 at the time of the crash when, not long after getting spectacularly drunk at his own 60th birthday party and dishing out some home truths to his guests (his boss included), Matthew — once in line for his bank’s top job — is made redundant. He takes it badly: rather than inform his wife, he dresses for work each morning and heads out, briefcase in hand. Matthew then positions himself outside his old office bidding his former colleagues good morning and returns again later to wish them a good evening as they leave for the day. A complete mental breakdown can’t be far off.

Thrown into this period of crisis is Anna, an old flame from his carefree, pre-City youth when life was full of Bohemian promise. He endeavours to strike up an affair by engineering a visit to her cottage in Somerset. Will she offer the chance to correct old mistakes and set his life back on course?

But, where the banks were too big to fail, Matthew is not. In fact, the light, humorous tone of his first-person narrative belies the fact that there is unlikely to be a bailout at the end. The mordant tone that initially adds pique to Matthew’s flippant style slowly shifts to consume him, and by the end — perhaps unsatisfactorily for the reader — clouds Matthew’s whole future.

Powell is very good on the sense of lost youth, nostalgia and what might have been. “There is never the measure of time we believe there to be,” ponders Matthew when he meets Anna again. “We fail to do things, confident there will be time later, to find the moment gone.” Despite this note of gloom, this is a novel that is at once honest and cautionary.

Nicolas Ungemuth, Le Figaro, 21 May 2016
A 60 ans, Matthew n’a pas la forme. Alcoolique, viré de son job à la City, il n’ose en parler et fait mine d’aller tous les jours au travail, où son ancien boss accepte de lui prêter un bureau vide pour tuer le temps at ne pas attraper froid. Ses enfants l’ennuient, sa femme aussi: “Si deux personnes qui se trouvent au même endroit entament un voyage en commun, et si l’une commence à marcher selon un angle différent d’un seul degré par rapport à l’autre, au bout de trente-cinq ans, durée de notre mariage, toutes les deux se retrouveront séparées de plusieurs kilomètres.” Alors qu’il erre dans Londres, il rencontre Anna, qu’il pense reconnaître: en 1967, il l’a aimée et a passé un après-midi avec elle à écouter Waterloo Sunset, des Kinks. Anna ne le remet pas, Matthew ne dit rien, mais n’en pense pas moins: serait-ce le proverbial nouveau départ? L’occasion d’accomplir ce qu’il avait prévu quarante ans auparavant, le moment de ressortir les vieux disques de Donovan? Le sexagénaire part conquérir son rêve de jeun homme au fin fond de la campagne anglaise, mais les choses ne se passeront pas comme prévu: quand on est une épave, forcément, c’est plus complique. A la manière d’un Tom Sharpe dépressif ou d’un David Lodge cynique, Jim Powell envoie un roman tour à tour hilarant et glaçant, d’où émerge, au fil des pages, un constat sur la vie qui n’aurait pas déplu à Cioran. Ce n’est pas un manuel d’optimisme…

[At the age of 60, Matthew’s life has no shape. Alcoholic, fired from his job in the City, which he doesn’t dare to admit, he pretends to go to work every day. His former boss agrees to lend him an empty office to kill time and keep him from the cold. His children bore him, his wife too: ” If two people stand in the same place and set out on a shared journey, and if one starts walking at an angle that is one degree different from the other, after thirty-five years, which is how long we’ve been married, the two of them will be miles apart.”

While he wanders through London, he meets Anna, whom he thinks he recognises: in 1967, he had fallen in love with her and had spent an afternoon with her, listening to the Kinks and Waterloo Sunset. Anna does not seem to recognise him; Matthew says nothing, but does not stop thinking about it. Could this be the proverbial new start? The opportunity to accomplish what he yearned for forty years ago, the time to get out the old Donovan discs? The 60 year-old goes to meet his own young man’s dream in the depths of the English countryside, but things don’t turn out as planned: when you’re a wreck, matters are inevitably more complicated.

Like a depressive Tom Sharpe or a cynical David Lodge, Jim Powell gives us a novel that is alternately hilarious and chilling, from which emerges an observation on life that would not have displeased Emil Cioran. This is not a guidebook to optimism…]

Le Figaro online, 21 May 2016
À soixante ans, Matthew Oxenhay contemple son existence avec un regard désabusé et une ironie mordante. Depuis quelque temps, il traverse une phase difficile où l’alcool et son goût pour la provocation masquent difficilement son mal-être. Renvoyé de son poste de trader à la City il y a quelques mois, il n’a encore rien dit à Judy, son épouse modèle. Sa carrière, sa famille, ses amis… rien ne le satisfait plus aujourd’hui, et cette existence, dans le fond, ne l’a jamais vraiment fait vibrer.

Car, à vingt ans, ce n’était pas de cette vie-là qu’il rêvait. Mais Matthew se dit qu’il est sans doute trop tard pour changer. Pourtant, lorsqu’il rencontre par hasard Anna, dont il était tombé éperdument amoureux quarante ans plus tôt, Matthew voit en elle l’occasion d’un nouveau départ, la possibilité du bonheur. Peut-il reprendre les choses là où il les avait laissées et devenir celui qu’il rêvait d’être ? Ou bien toutes ses illusions se sont-elles envolées avec le temps ?

Ce roman incisif et dense réserve autant de surprises que la vie elle-même. Comme Matthew, le protagoniste sarcastique et sensible de Moi, ma vie et les autres, le lecteur embarque pour les montagnes russes de l’existence et passe du rire aux larmes. Entre comique grinçant et mélancolie douce, Jim Powell excelle à évoquer ces moments libérateurs où le cours d’une vie entière peut changer.

[At the age of sixty, Matthew Oxenhay contemplates his life with a wry regard and a biting irony. For a while, he has been going through a difficult phase, where alcohol and his taste for provocation have failed to mask his unhappiness. Dismissed from his job as a trader in the City a few months ago, there is nothing left to say to Judy, his stereotypical wife. His career, his family, his friends… nothing satisfies him any more and, at root, this way of life never really did make him feel alive.

At the age of twenty, it was not of this life that he dreamt. But Matthew tells himself that it is probably too late to change. However, when he accidentally meets Anna, with whom he had fallen madly in love forty years earlier, Matthew sees the opportunity of a new beginning, the possibility of happiness. Can he pick things up where they left off, and become the person he had hoped to be? Or have all these illusions vanished with time?

This incisive and compact novel holds as many surprises as life itself. Like Matthew, the sarcastic and sensitive protagonist of Me, My Life and Others, the reader embarks on the roller-coaster of life and goes from laughter to tears. Between rasping comedy and gentle melancholy, Jim Powell excels in evoking those liberating moments where the course of a whole life can change.]

Jackie Wilkin, WI Life, April 2016
Succinct, sardonic and packed with sparkling one-liners, Jim Powell’s Trading Futures is a scalpel-sharp dissection of baby-boomer angst. Matthew Oxenhay at 60 is a modern Gulliver, tied down by a life he would have laughed at when he was 20. He’s been passed over for the top job in his City firm. His wife still loves him, with difficulty, but to friends and children he’s an embarrassment.

When he bumps into a teenage sweetheart, she seems to hold out a lifeline, a prospect of changing his life by going back. But can he really re-write the script and regain control? Of course not. Matthew’s interior monologue grows increasingly desperate as his life unravels like a ripped sleeve.

Highly recommended.

Sophie Herdman: Herald Scotland, 17 March 2016; Irish News, 17 March 2016; Yorkshire Post, 26 March 2016
Matthew Oxenhay leads a 2.5 kids kind of life. He has a nice house in north London, a devoted wife, two children and a well-earning job in the city. There’s just one problem – this isn’t the life he wanted. As a student who dreamed of rebelling against the system, he took a city job as a drunken bet – or did he? Everything has seemed a little hazy since he lost his job and started devoting more time to his favourite pastime – drinking.

Indeed, Matthew is feeling pretty lost, until he bumps into a childhood sweetheart and the hopes and dreams of his younger self come flooding back. Matthew is a selfish and often unlikeable character, but by the end of the book, you feel a great affection for this angry and confused man. That’s testament to author Jim Powell – a talented writer whose previous careers include advertising, pottery and politics. Key to this book though, and the thing that makes it impossible to put down, is its strong and constant dark humour. It’s a short read, but entertaining, thoughtful and very witty.

Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 2016
Matthew is having a mid-late-life crisis. He lives in a London suburb and has been sacked from his job in futures trading after making several million pounds as “a gambler” – he will, for example, buy coffee futures only when it’s raining. He is also haunted by the memory of Anna, a teenage blonde with whom he remembers lying innocently talking in the grass one afternoon 40 years ago. The crisis has caused the sacking, with Matthew’s spectacular display of bad behaviour at his own 60th birthday party showing family and friends he has begun to crack.

This is a shrewd, witty, depressing book about youthful ideals and their loss, but some readers might have trouble sympathising with a healthy, intelligent 60-year-old narrator who still has plenty of money and the love of his wife in spite of everything.

Sue Broom, Nudge, March 2016
Here we have the story of a man in mid-life crisis, trying to evaluate what he has achieved over the years. Matthew has been working as a City trader, a professional gambler of corporate money, and it has bought him a very comfortable life. Now he is middle-aged and no longer values that safe, secure, suburban existence. Why hasn’t he achieved those things that in his twenties he thought he would? When the girl he lost forty years ago reappears and is available to him once again, Matthew is tempted to try to make amends for what now seems to him to have been the bad decision that sent his life off on the wrong path back then.

Not such an unusual story. What makes this one stand apart is the wit of its author and the calibre of his writing… I thought I would zip through it in no time, but hadn’t calculated for the density of the writing. Some absorbing ideas and an absolute joy to read from start to finish.

Some memorable images – the conveyor belt features more than once – and I was particularly taken with the one of the sausage-making machine on the penultimate page. If we don’t leap off the conveyor belt of conformity, we will be delivered to the mincer and turned into a mass-produced sausage. The teenaged Matthew can’t quite bring himself to jump and comes up with a compromise – sure, he will be a sausage, but a superior, hand-made one. Now he wonders how he could have thought that would make any difference to his life.

Matthew is an impressive creation. He knows he is behaving badly and why. He and we are amused at his wry self-justification. Not a man to make a decision and act upon it, he prefers at least the semblance of gambling. Heads this woman, tails that woman – oops, let’s make it best of three, or maybe best of five, or better still best of any number until it produces the secretly desired result. Behaviour all too familiar to me and I found that in laughing at Matthew I was equally laughing at myself.

Highly recommended to readers of a certain age.

Susan Osborne, A Life in Books, 23 March 2016
When I first picked up Jim Powell’s new novel I was looking for a bit of light relief after finishing Olivia Laing’s excellent but often harrowing The Lonely City. I thought it might be a much slimmed down version of John Lanchester’s Capital or Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money, a post-financial crash novel, which to some extent it is but it’s also about what can happen to us when our lives turn out to be far from what we’d hoped.

Sixty-year-old Matthew Oxenhay is driving along the A303 towards Barnet, leaving Somerset behind him. Whether he continues in that direction depends on his wife not answering her phone. If she does answer it, he’ll tell her he’s leaving her, turn around and head back to Anna in Somerset. He’ll make the phone call if five white cars pass him. Matthew is a chronic gambler, albeit an apparently respectable one, trading futures in the City up until a few months ago when he was downsized ahead of the looming global financial meltdown. He even got the job as the result of a backfiring bet with his fellow students way back in the ’60s, all of them intent on changing the world. Judy, his wife of many years, loves their settled comfortable life but Matthew loathes it. He’s now in the grips of an existential crisis, pretending to Judy that he still has a job, turning up to sit in the office which his old boss has tolerantly allowed him to occupy and drinking far too much. On an errand for his erstwhile employers, Matthew spots an attractive blonde roughly his own age, convincing himself it’s Anna with whom he fell in love one idyllic summer afternoon in 1967. When the two of them click over a drink, Matthew begins to entertain all sorts of ideas.

Matthew’s story unfolds through his own waspish, darkly funny inner monologue. He’s a ‘60s rebel for whom the very idea of a career as a futures trader would have been despicable all those years ago. He’s that uncomfortable mixture of self-loathing and arrogance, dismissing his wife’s careful construction of their comfortable life as dull and prosaic while ruing his own betrayal of his baby boomer ideals. It’s often very funny – there’s a particularly amusing scene with a lunch guest in which Matthew finds himself ‘defending crooked capitalist practices on behalf of the Labour party, while the brave Captain Ahab spoke for the downtrodden masses on behalf of the Tories’. In amongst all this, Matthew comes out with some observations it’s hard to argue with particularly on the subject of the City’s shenanigans. Sharply observed and grimly funny, in the end Matthew’s journey is a sobering one. There are a few unlikely coincidences but it’s good enough to suspend your disbelief. An enjoyable read then – if not quite the antidote to The Lonely City I was looking for – and who can resist a novel which contains the line ‘I think I mostly learn about reality from works of fiction’.

Ouida Taaffe, Financial World, April/May 2016
Since the 1980s, the financial markets have been associated with money, power and even some glamour. In principle, they should provide plenty of material for a swashbuckling novel. As Trading Futures reminds us, however, the markets are run by people and most people’s primary concerns are the day-to-day niggles and worries that everyone faces – not the stuff of tragedy, grand opera or high farce. The challenge for the novelist who writes about someone from the City, then, is whether they want the narrow(er) lens of social realism, or the sweep of myth.

Trading Futures is about the experiences of a man who made a very good living in the futures market – not because of some special genius, but because he was in the right place at the right time and wanted to make money. The narrator describes himself as “[looking] spectacularly normal…a well-fed Englishman at 60. A perfect makeweight in an identity parade.” He leads what is, in many respects, a normal life, though he says: “Any normal person would say we had an extravagant lifestyle. But normal people don’t work in the City or earn City money and by those standards we were frugal.”

In late middle-age, the protagonist is disappointed, sad and has probably gone through a nervous breakdown. This, though close to life, can be a dispiriting read – despite the fact that the writing is excellent and the jokes are funny.

In many respects, the narrator is part of a City that was exploded by the Big Bang – the CEO of his trading firm is called Rupert and is nice but dim. The book does not capture the sense of London as an international financial centre, with all the complexity and power and non-Englishness that entails – although focusing on the mind of the narrator is clearly a deliberate choice.

Much of the book is rightly critical of the greed and cynicism that can be seen in financial services. However, as has been pointed out with regard to the financial crisis, there is often a Casablanca element to people discovering that not everything in the City is socially useful (ie being “shocked, shocked to discover that gambling has been going on at Rick’s”). The City does have activities that are less than pretty – if not downright wrong – but most people know that. Just as most people realise that enormously high salaries can be a warning signal – particularly when they are found in markets that are supposed to drive efficiency and optimal price discovery.

Still, the main thrust of the book is a description of the life of a man, as he looks back from disappointed middle-age. There is a trauma that he has not dealt with, which may have been one of the reasons for him joining the City in the first place, and he is struggling to maintain relationships even with those who love him. He is clearly meant to be much liked by the people he encounters – even by his former boss – but this likeability does not always translate to the page.

Overall, that, at least for me, is the book’s weak spot. It is well constructed, knowledgeable and feels true to suburban south-east England and to time, but the narrator is not always easy company.

Melanie Gay, The National Rust, 31 January 2017
When it comes to writing about angst and misery some feel that women do this best. I disagree. Novelists like Edward St Aubyn and now Jim Powell can “do” self- recrimination, pathos, self-absorption, fragmentation of the character with humour and sensitivity.

Jim Powell has an interesting eclectic background. A history graduate from Cambridge he went into advertising ending as a CEO, was involved in Conservative politics standing as a candidate for Coventry, started a ceramic business and came to novel writing late but successfully with The Breaking the Eggs an account of the post-war Communist world seen through the eyes of a survivor of the Lodz ghetto. His second novel Trading Futures could not be more different. He has a most unreliable narrator Matthew whom we soon realise is in the throes of a breakdown, an alcoholic rapidly losing his grip on reality after he had been fired from his job as a coffee future trader.

What makes Matthew almost endearing is his humour and the respect for his wife Judy whom he wants to leave for a woman with whom he had an adolescent fling. The reader is privy to his innermost confused thoughts often formulated whilst driving with too much whisky drunk. The unreliable narrator is a well known device but it can have two difficulties. In the case of Shantaram the self perception may differ from the reader’s and secondly is it autobiographical? In Shantaram yes, in Trading Futures no. Interestingly Jim Powell’s wife is a literary editor and the career trajectory and collapse of Matthew are not the same. One interesting feature of the novel is the age of the narrator (60). This is no midlife crisis but a man surveying a life he finds unfulfilled in terms of the aspirations of his youth.

The story is taut. There is the ever present concern that Matthew will top himself and intriguing as to what is truth and what is fantasy. There are a couple of twists at the end which is left in suspension like a good French film.