It’s possible we are reaching a limit on how much we can hear about the compounded crises of the past year. An ad for sweatshirts that read “Liquor: the glue holding this 2020 shitshow together” showed up in my feed right in sync with the internal fear that the fast approaching 2021 will be more of the same. My former professor’s advice to writers this year was not to feel obligated to write the current moment, a moment that is marked by so much uncertainty. “Instead,” he says, “try to write work that finds the beauty and explores the depth of uncertainty.”
Eula Biss is a master of uncertainty because she doesn’t seek to claim mastery over it. This has allowed her work to become prophetic. Her three most recent titles look like a roadmap of the vast, hellish landscape that is 2020. COVID-19? Biss’s 2014 title On Immunity: An Inoculation features pandemics, vaccinations, and human interconnectedness. When protests over police brutality and the regime of white supremacy raged across the country, I thought of Notes from No Man’s Land from 2009, a reckoning with race in America. Her latest, this month’s Having and Being Had (Riverhead Books), deals with the minutiae of capitalism as many Americans flounder in an enormous and unusual recession.
Having and Being Had is a loose collection of short, nonfiction vignettes, most just a few pages long, divided up into four sections: consumption, work, investment, and accounting. Some individual pieces bleed into one another seamlessly while others are confounding in their placement. Some are like tight comedic sets, with a punchline at the end that feels more like gut punch. Others simply make you turn the page and keep reading until the point circles around tens or hundreds of pages later. Present through each are Biss’s hallmark leaps between disconnected, everyday happenings, like her son trading Pokémon cards, and the works of economic thinkers (David Graeber pops up frequently), theorists, poets, and artists.
Themes of precarity and security, service and servitude, and what it means to work echo throughout the essays. She diligently searches for language divorced from economic value for the different types of work in life. “Work, if we are fortunate, is rewarded with money, but the reward for labor is transformation,” Biss writes, referencing Lewis Hyde’s definitions of each term. Immediately she inverts the connotations based on another scholar’s interpretation: labor is toil, work is accomplishment.
This comfort with contradiction is what makes the book both frustrating and thrilling. There is no drive to tie a neat bow. Like Maggie Nelson and Annie Dillard, Biss is able to hold many different truths at the same time. Hypocrisy is called out not as a “gotcha” but to show that life is complicated. Even Marx educated his daughters in the trappings of aristocracy, she points out. He just wanted them to have a better life.
As always, she acknowledges her vantage point, most notably in this book by the conscious choice to always use exact figures. Readers learn her income, her husband’s income, and how much they spent on their house. It is a “direct refusal of what I understood to be the rules of polite conversation around money,” as she puts it.
Such transparency makes her trustworthy. But there are times when Biss’s ambivalence seems to show class blindness rather than enlightenment. In one example Biss is reading The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith during her son’s skating lessons, when another mom asks her outright if she thinks capitalism is bad. “I don’t know what it is to me, in my life in work,” Biss writes as her response. “I’m not neutral so much as undecided.” In this age, is it really possible not to know? Certainly the uninsured who are refused medical treatment or the workers denied bathroom breaks in Amazon warehouses while Jeff Bezos sets new records for wealth every day know whether capitalism is bad.
The very next essay ends on a note that suggests she knows more than she lets on: “We shouldn’t ask our rich to be good, in other words, we should ask our economic system to be better.” Readers turning to Biss for answers will be disappointed. But those who can handle a good honest grappling, with all its requisite disappointments and insights, will leave with a new view of hairline fissures in the system that hide in plain sight. v