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Cards on the table: I was one of those people who read “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” French economist Thomas Piketty’s scathing, 800-page indictment of late capitalism in all its dysfunction, from start to finish with breathless excitement. How strange to have picked up a new book by Eula Biss, an essayist of a very different kind, and felt much the same way.
Piketty brings staid economics to life by grounding his work in history, bringing his charts to bear on both global events (World War I) and stark facts on the ground (the rent being too damn high). Biss’ new book, “Having and Being Had,” enlivens her own critique of capital in the 2020s by delving into the trouble we all avoid discussing — and then staying with it.
A middle-age, middle-class white American writer and professor, Biss lays bare her own privilege from the start, describing her first purchase of a home. Contra Piketty, her book is composed not of sweeping theories but of short essays. Loose in its greater arc but always tethered to an awareness of the insidious influence of capitalism, each essay originates in conversation or personal observation. This allows her to explore the candid ways we reveal our own biases around money, class, wealth, property and work.
If there is not an exact category for this type of book, that’s by design. Biss’ works of nonfiction, beginning with “Notes From No Man’s Land” in 2010, followed by 2014’s bestselling “On Immunity,” expand the definition of personal essays. She is not afraid to disclose personal details, but she isn’t writing memoir; she is illustrating points. What guides her writing is careful attention to language and behavior, cause and effect.
One of Biss’ critical subjects is the exemplar of this particular brand of essayist, Joan Didion. Biss begins by cataloging her own false Didion sightings — behind the wheel of a minivan, in line at a pharmacy. She mentions a fight with her mother over Didion’s wealth before coming to a tentative conclusion: The common class criticism of Didion — that she “doesn’t interrogate her privilege” (not unlike many of her male peers, including Norman Mailer, John McPhee and Tom Wolfe) — might be the very thing that allowed her to examine the counterculture objectively, from a distance.
Recognizing Didion’s personal evolution as a writer who first took refuge in her class before making it one of her core subjects, Biss seizes on Didion’s famous sentence, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She reminds us that this is no needlepoint bromide about the power of storytelling; it’s a cynical line about the lies that enable us to live in a fallen state of hypocrisy.
As she frequently does, Biss goes on to dig deeper, expand the thought: “The lies we want to believe tell us something about ourselves.” We can’t escape the ways in which our economic and social systems implicate us in great inequality and injustice. In both her scrutiny and her style, Biss implies that the only way to address our complicity is full transparency.
It’s not uncommon for essayists to be “in conversation” with writers (like Didion) who came before them. But Biss takes that sense of collaboration further than most. She retains firm control over her own lines of inquiry, but — fittingly for a critique of capitalism’s warped and warping individualism — she allows others to amplify or shape her thinking. Many essays begin with a line of conversation from a colleague or friend that leads to a book that preoccupies Biss, which she then reads closely to explore a specific theme. Biss drives the story forward, but she isn’t alone at the wheel.
Using quiet anecdotes about her neighbors, family and friends and references ranging from “Scooby-Doo” and “The Americans” to Emily Dickinson, Dire Straits’ video for “Money for Nothing,” street photographer Vivian Maier and IKEA, Biss examines capitalism in the Trump era through our fixations and anxieties. She cites these examples lightly without slowing the pace of the book. Considering the Fourth of July tradition of fireworks, she muses, “maybe what we’re celebrating is not independence, but precarity.” She also suggests that “we should all keep a memento of the Titanic just to remind ourselves how safe disaster feels.” I’d argue that “Having and Being Had” is a reminder that even discussing our contemporary chaos is an act of awakening and a call to action.
Ultimately, this is not a book that aims for catharsis or redemption. “I don’t know how to end this book, I tell Robyn,” she notes in her eavesdropped-conversational style. “There’s no end, there’s no resolution. No, of course there isn’t, she says. The only way to end it would be to burn your house down.” In this moment, narrative climax or neat conclusions seem like quaint artifacts from a slower, less fragmented era. What matters most right now is survival. And so the book begins with a conclusion: “There are limits, I say, to what mass production can produce.” The opening statement puts the “late” in late capitalism.
Biss examines these stories of ideas in order to help us live with our fate — asking, among other questions: To what degree can we come to know our passions as something free from consumerism? How can we live a life of dignity — with flashes even of luxury and indulgence — without sacrificing ourselves through work without joy or income beyond purpose? Regarding her vocation as a teacher of writing, Biss notes, “The service I’m doing for my students, I tell them, is teaching them how to find value in something that isn’t widely valued. And I think it’s a gift to give another person permission to do something worthless.”
Again, she poses an idea through possibility: “Maybe the value of art, to artists and everyone else, is that it upends other value systems. Art unmakes the world made by art.” Long may Biss enjoy at least enough market value to make art out of whatever subjects she chooses.
LeBlanc is the books columnist for the Observer.
Having and Being Had
Riverhead: 336 pages, $26