The only thing the bank robber and the man on the bridge 10 years ago have in common is “moral hazard.” This is a banking term that describes how banks behave so immorally that it’s basically a risk for them to try to be moral. The man on the bridge gave his money to a bank to invest, and he took out new loans to pay the old ones. Then the market crashed, and it turned out nothing was secure. The bank insisted that nothing is risk free, and the man shouldn’t have given them his money.
Banks, the novel makes clear, are the real bad guys of the story—they play games with people’s dreams and money, and they never have to answer for their crimes. Further, they go so far as to blame customers, like the man, for being naïve enough to trust them. The market crash, again, likely refers to the 2007-08 Great Recession that began in the U.S., in part because of not enough regulation in the banking industry.
The man went to a different bank to borrow money to pay his debts. But the woman there said he had suffered “moral hazard.” She explained it as two people sitting on a creaking branch, and the person sitting closest to the trunk has the saw. The bank, she said, was going to saw off the branch to save itself, condemning the man. She then refused to loan him money. When the man said it wasn’t his fault, she retorted that he shouldn’t have given the banks his money.
The woman’s metaphor highlights just how immoral banks are: in this scenario, it’s nothing to banks to condemn customers to death or injury while blaming them for trusting the bank to keep their word.
The robber has never heard of moral hazard, but the robber’s mother once said that you can make God laugh by telling Him your plans. The robber understood, even at age seven, that their mom never planned to get drunk but always did anyway. The child robber swore to never drink and never grow up; they succeed at one of those things. The seven-year-old robber also learned about moral hazard that Christmas, when their mom kneeled down and said “it” wasn’t their fault. Slowly, the child realized that the money they got from selling magazines so their mom could buy Christmas food didn’t go to food, and their mom drunkenly said the robber shouldn’t have given her money. The bank robber still thinks about how it’s impossible to hate your mom.
The robber becomes increasingly sympathetic as readers gain more insight into their childhood and backstory. The robber didn’t have a parent they could rely on, though the implication is that children should be able to rely on their parents—just like customers should be able to rely on banks to take care of their investments. Still, despite experiencing their mother’s neglectful behavior, the robber believes that it’s somehow impossible to hate one’s parent. For now, at least, the robber frames love between parents and children as something innate and fixed.
The bank robber and the robber’s mom were evicted from their apartment a few months later. The robber vowed to not become a parent. When they became a parent anyway, they swore they wouldn’t be a “chaotic parent.” God laughed. The man on the bridge, meanwhile, wrote the woman at the bank a letter, writing “exactly what he wanted her to hear.” He jumped that day, and the woman has been carrying the letter in her purse for the last decade. Today, she meets the bank robber.
The robber seems to believe that they’re a “chaotic parent” like their mother because of whatever led them to rob a bank, events that are still a mystery to the reader. The woman at the bank seems to be dealing with immense trauma and guilt for what she perceives as her role in the man’s suicide. She also becomes the connecting link between the bridge, the man, and the robber.