Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager is a series of interviews conducted by n+1’s Keith Gessen between September 2007 and late August 2009. (The interviews first appeared on n+1’s website.) The interviewee, as the title suggests, remains anonymous, going by the moniker HFM (Hedge Fund Manager). n+1 is a highbrow literary journal, and what at first may appear to be a questionable exercise—a literary type interviewing a mandarin of the finance world—turns out to be a shrewd one. Gessen admits up front his ignorance about finance and about the particulars of the subprime crisis, and asks broad questions. His interviewee runs with them. HFM is articulate, expansive, and surprisingly erudite. His answers to Gessen’s questions are like prepared lectures, in that he speaks in paragraphs but never rambles. (Gessen, in a state of sincere wonder, tells him that he has “a beautiful mind.”) Though much of what HFM discusses remains recondite, you get the sense that he is spelling things out about as simply as possible.
The book’s main virtue is that it’s not a piece of reporting; in a sense it’s a slice of oral history. The relative clarity of HFM’s explanations, as well as his bluffness (that he remains anonymous is paramount), together suggest that Diary may represent the ideal form for comprehending the financial chaos of the past few years. It’s most likely a one-off event, but I don’t doubt that interviews of a similar scope with employees from banks mired in the subprime mess, with economists and government regulators, with subprime mortgage brokers and building contractors, and, of course, with the people at the bottom, the people who lost everything due to varying mixtures of greed, gullibility, and great expectations, would constitute a telling contribution to the literature on the crisis.