Essays

Sweet Bitterness: Why We Need More Novels About Work

By posted at 6:00 am on July 14, 2016 10

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1.
Season three of Peaky Blinders has a sexy, comic-book, super-villain version of a Russian Duchess. She is marooned in England after having fled the Bolshevik Revolution, and her sadistic wiles drive home a moral that is central to the gangster genre: Sure gangsters are cruel, but they are nothing next to the corruption of established power. The “Blinders” may have gotten their name from the razorblades they slice into their enemies’ eyes, but their ferocity is decidedly working-class. They have to clock in every day and break not just heads but their own backs and hearts on the labor required of a gypsy family that wants to rise above its station. Meanwhile, the Fabergé femme fatale, whose secrets are way more sinister than anything hiding in the Blinders’ newsboy caps, stays clean under an enamel of imperial stateliness.

covercoverSuch unambiguous class bitterness is refreshing. It’s exactly what’s missing from recent American novels about decadence. Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, Emma Cline’s The Girls, Edmund White’s Our Young Man, and Sari Wilson’s Girl Through Glass are good novels, but they are all one gangster-moral short of reckoning with the 1 percent.

One way that these novels manage to be about decadence without also reproaching conspicuous affluence is by ignoring work and aestheticizing idleness. Another way is by setting the stories in a distant, socio-politically empty version of the 1970s — a world of rotary phones, full ashtrays, and irresponsible parenting that is all but untouched by Watergate or stagflation. Ausubel’s novel is about parents who accidentally abandon their children after learning they have lost their inheritance. Cline and Wilson’s debuts are about young women charmed by evil forces that nearly destroy them but somehow eventually earn the young women’s tacit respect. And Edmund White’s novel is about an immigrant’s struggle to, well, be a supermodel despite the fact that he is in his 30s. With the exception of Mira, Wilson’s bunhead-turned-visiting-assistant-professor-of-performance-studies, none of these novels’ main characters work.

covercovercoverIn the context of our very New York-centric moment of 1970s nostalgia, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty reads like a Woody Guthrie song (albeit one about rich people) — a tall, American tale that ripples outward from New England to California and the Caribbean. Amid such well-funded homages to the dirty-real Big Apple as Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire and the TV shows that Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann are making for HBO and Netflix (though Scorsese’s has already been nixed), Sons and Daughters is an almost magic-real fantasy about what happens when a rich family loses all its money. In a sentence, what happens is this: Husband (Edgar) and wife (Fern) fly the coop on separate, post-traumatic vision quests while their accidentally-abandoned children (led by Cricket, a cross between Tina Belcher and Scout Finch) go native in the backyard.

Though it’s set in the 1970s — late summer of 1976 to be exact — the sources of ease and plenty are decidedly pre-’70s: Edgar’s family’s money is from steel, Fern’s is from a wicked alchemy of cotton, slaves, and sugar. Edgar’s father is an honest-to-goodness “steel tycoon” against whom Edgar rebels in the form of a muckraking roman à clef. Edgar has read Karl Marx at Yale and is thus ashamed of his father. He cares about exploited workers, though he can’t tell the difference between a steel worker and coal miner. Push comes to shove, Edgar is just anti-work. He doesn’t want to claim his patrimony not because it’s evil but because to do so would mean micromanaging balance sheets, “suffering on one side and profit on the other with a thin column of vacations between.” He mourns the loss of Fern’s slave money (which has financed the first 10 years of their marriage). Slave money is better than steel money; it facilitates ennui better, allowing Edgar to transcend the acquisitive impulse and get a long, unobstructed view of how terrible human beings are.

Fern is haunted by her wealth’s provenance. She thinks about what it means to buy and sell human beings, to parade naked bodies in parlors while ladies mill about in dresses and gloves. Fern has a heart of gold. For her we suspend our disbelief that it’s a burden to be a daughter of ease and plenty. In addition to the waking nightmares about slavery, good rich girls have to live according to such adages as “a good woman saw her name in the paper three times: when she was born, when she was married, and when she died” and cultivate the kind of beauty that is “for the purpose of enjoyment by men and envy by women.” They have to lead lives of dignified sorrow: “To prove that they were worthy of their wealth, they had all silently agreed to remain in the upper margins of unhappiness.” Poor little rich girls.

Sari Wilson’s Girl Through Glass is about an aspiring ballerina in Balanchine’s New York. It has the requisite creepy old-dude mentor who eventually destroys the girl’s innocence. It has anecdotes about how dark the heart of Russian ballet really is: a refrain about how ballerinas in the age of gaslights sometimes caught fire and died in the wings while the show went on. Wilson’s world is a world wherein Russian expatriates have helped New Yorkers develop a palate for beautiful young girls who ritually dance themselves to death. Despite the sinister quality of the enterprise, the intense, destructive labor of being a ballerina “comes as a relief” to Mira, an 11-year-old who is otherwise abandoned on the periphery of a marriage that is falling apart, sometimes actually abandoned to shop girls by a mother who disappears with strange men. Ballet is Mira’s (very costly) ticket out of reality. In such a context, she’s not surprised that the Russian Tea Room, the place where Mira first meets George Balanchine himself, serves up blood-red soup that tastes like dirt. Everything that is beautiful and rich is served up with a dose of superfluous cruelty.

The titular girls of Emma Cline’s The Girls are hardly rich, but they are Russian-duchess-level cruel. When we first meet them, en route to a dumpster dive, they are gliding through a suburban park like “royalty in exile.” They are untouched by the dirty business of doing what society expects of them, and for Evie Boyd, it’s love at first sight. The enamel in which these girls are cloaked is supplied by Russell, the novel’s Charles Manson stand-in whose imminent superstardom and fuck-the-squares philosophy is the girls’ key out of bourgeois jail (though compulsory sex with middle-aged men is the price of that key). The girls smugly, gullibly perform transcendence of ideology. They have that “vague dislike for the rich that all young people had. Mashing up the wealthy and the media and the government into an indistinct vessel of evil, perpetrators of the grand hoax.” Which is to say that the bitterness that fuels the girls’ rebellion is not a bitterness toward decadence but a bitterness toward a childish conception of “the man.” Until Russell order-66s them into coldblooded killers, their rebellion is simply an artful form of idleness.

2.
coverOf course, artful idleness is pretty much the stuff of the modern novel. Sure Leopold Bloom had a job, but Ulysses is a decidedly post-quitting-time novel. And sure buying flowers ain’t easy and Big Ben strikes the hours, but Clarissa Dalloway never once clocked in. The Blooms and Dalloways of our time, Ben Lerner’s Adam Gordon or Teju Cole’s Julius, say, smoke hash and stalk “life’s white machine” and/or reboot the flânuer for a globalized present.

Such aestheticized idleness is likewise a key feature of what Nicholas Dames calls “throwback fiction,” ambitious novels set in the 1970s. Novelists are drawn to this decade because, among other things, it “lacks the unbearable, compulsory dynamism we live under” and thus allows stories to be “ruminative rather than dynamic.” It allows novelists to write 1000-page novels about a super-particular time and place (à la Hallberg’s City on Fire).

coverRachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2012) is the throwback novel that almost bends idleness to a politically efficacious end. It relishes the slow passage of time while also illustrating the class dimension of aspiring to not-work. It’s a novel about how doing nothing can be a way of doing something profound. It’s a novel wherein a woman who gets hit by a meteorite while sitting in her kitchen becomes wise to time:

time is more purely hers if she squanders it and keeps it empty, holds it, feels it pass by, and resists filling it with anything that might put some too-useful dent in its open, airy emptiness.

This is the empowering inaction of a labor slowdown — Kushner includes one of these in the novel (specifically, a work-to-rule strike). Not working means retreating from the tyranny of the clock. For the narrator (a 22-year-old known only by her hometown-inspired moniker “Reno”), it means gaining entry to a SoHo art scene full of middle-aged men who wear “work clothes” but don’t really care about labor: Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” is an exercise in “risking men and front loaders.”

Reno’s first SoHo art project is to film limo drivers while they wait for their hires. She envies the sweaty, miserable chauffeurs: “To wait by a car and to know with certainty that your passenger would appear.” Such waiting — spoiler alert — is what Kushner uses for the novel’s climax, the pregnant moments of Reno waiting on the Swiss side of Mont Blanc to play getaway driver for a Red Brigade soldier. In short, The Flamethrowers turns waiting into a revolutionary act.

coverStephanie Danler’s debut novel, Sweetbitter, takes “waiting” in a decidedly less esoteric, more pedestrian, direction. It’s the one novel I’ve read this year that takes work seriously, that balances decadence with an honest day’s work. It is, as Gabrielle Hamilton claims, the “Kitchen Confidential of our time,” but not because it is an exposé of the restaurant business so much as because the same industry people who used their shift breaks to walk to Barnes & Noble and buy a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s book in the early-2000s will be drawn to Danler’s book.

More than rewriting Bourdain for the front of the house, Danler rewrites the 22-year-old-ingénue-in-the-city plot. Where the first thing Kushner’s ingénue does when she gets to New York is make waiting into an art project, the first thing Danler’s does is get a job, waiting:

I don’t know what it is exactly, being a server. It’s a job, certainly, but not exclusively. There’s a transparency to it, an occupation stripped of the usual ambitions. One doesn’t move up or down. One waits. You are a waiter.

This is about as profound as Danler’s narrator gets, as Danler is more interested in capturing the voice of a young woman than she is in convincing us that young women are smarter than their misogynistic sponsors assume that they are. Danler’s narrator’s voice represents what seasoned server Simone calls the “gross disparity between the way that [22-year-old women] speak and the quality of thoughts that they’re having about the world.”

The novel follows a year in the life of Tess, a newly-hired backwaitress, a year of being ignored, insulted, stoned, bumped, and betrayed by the people whom she will eventually have no choice but to call family. In short, she joins the working class. She reads the rulebook, finds hidden there such compensatory pleasures as the “shift drink.” She develops a palate (and a tolerance). She burns and scars herself. She learns that the key to good service (the 51 percent) is to be “fluent in rich people,” “versed in that upper-middle-class culture” without also misunderstanding it as something worth joining. Rich people circulate “in crowds that reinforced their citizenship.” They sleepwalk through a “movie they starred in…dining, shopping, consuming, unwinding, expanding,” while the industry people are both invisible and “on a pedestal at the center of the universe.”

Reading Sweetbitter will cure you of your romance with idleness, with the first-world downtime social media engines need us thinking we love so that we will continue to generate free content. The aestheticization of idleness in recent novels reminds me of what Sean McCann and Michael Szalay, in “Do You Believe in Magic? Literary Thinking After the New Left” (2005), describe as the shortcomings of literary culture in general over the past half-century. According to McCann/Szalay, literary practitioners and scholars alike have embraced forms of retreat that started out in ’60s countercultures and have become cornerstones of libertarianism. “Dropping out” may (or may not) get you beyond the reach of forces that want to shape your consciousness and dictate your aspirations, but it also leaves to fate systemic social problems that organization and planning might redress. Enlightened retreats from solvable ills still abound in recent fiction. Which is why we need more novels like Sweetbitter, novels that don’t give decadence a pass and that suggest that clocking in (not dropping out) is revolutionary, that the rulebook can set us free.

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10 Responses to “Sweet Bitterness: Why We Need More Novels About Work”

  1. il'ja
    at 6:30 am on July 14, 2016

    “Enlightened retreats from solvable ills still abound in recent fiction. Which is why we need more novels like Sweetbitter, novels that don’t give decadence a pass and that suggest that clocking in (not dropping out) is revolutionary, that the rulebook can set us free.”

    Though you make a compelling argument I’m not yet convinced about the aesthetics of “Sweetbitter”. Still, this essay is a much needed balm for the fear that arises from believing that I must be so out of touch that I’m incapable of “getting” much of contemporary literary fiction. I’ve been away for awhile, but writing like that in “The Flamethrowers” and “The Girls” coupled with the effusive praise the books received had me wondering whether anybody (or whether writers or critics even know anybody that) has a damn job anymore.

    Thanks for this thoughtful, evenhanded piece.

  2. Surly
    at 9:26 am on July 14, 2016

    This “decadence” is partly a result of the MFA system which produces a lot of writers who have never actually had a job, or never had a job outside of academia. Modern lit – at least literary fiction put out and pushed by Big 5 publishers – has become pretty elitist: written by upper-middle class folks, about upper-middle class folks, for upper-middle class folks. Not only do we need more books about work, we need more books about the lower class, a segment larger now than at any time in our history going back at least to WW1.

    Quick – name a contemporary literary novel by a Big 5 publisher featuring a main character living under the poverty line.

  3. Anon
    at 3:14 pm on July 14, 2016

    “Modern lit – at least literary fiction put out and pushed by Big 5 publishers – has become pretty elitist: written by upper-middle class folks, about upper-middle class folks, for upper-middle class folks.”

    Yes to this. You forgot to add that an inordinate percentage of these books take place in Brooklyn.

  4. Lili
    at 8:08 pm on July 14, 2016

    Why would writers need to be told what to write their books about? Especially by the author of this article. Give me a fucking break

  5. Bowls
    at 8:39 pm on July 14, 2016

    Writers can write about whatever they choose to write about, but the reading public sure has a right to miss what they’re not writing and to be thankful for critics that point out the sore absences.

  6. Anon
    at 11:35 am on July 15, 2016

    Lili: It’s just a suggestion. As in, maybe you should not write the umpteenth book about what it’s like to be a mother/father/writer raising children in one of the outer boroughs of NYC. As in, no one gives a shit. As in, it’s just a suggestion. Or you could write about it if you want.

  7. Dmitri
    at 5:12 am on July 16, 2016

    Hello. My name is Dmitri. I have come to your website as last hope. They have detained me for 70 days and I do not know when go home. I have eaten stringy beans for almost every of my meals. Please send help. The Millions is the only where I can get word out in time before they take away laptop, I think.

  8. Michael LaRocca
    at 11:02 am on July 17, 2016

    Is my new novel the only one to feature a copy machine repairman as one of its main characters? His workplace is a surprisingly (to me) major part of the story.

  9. EAMann
    at 12:00 pm on July 18, 2016

    Really well said. I think Siskel had a line about his favorite movies being about: “what people actually do all day”. I’ve been reading through all of Richard Russo’s books lately. He does a great job of describing the work his blue collar characters do all day.

  10. Sean H
    at 6:00 am on July 19, 2016

    I don’t know, there’s plenty of canonical lit and narrative from all over the world about work, from Gogol to Melville to Carver to Kurosawa’s Ikiru to Josh Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End.
    Characters from big five publishers can be poor, can be working class, whether it’s DeLillo or Morrison or Lethem or Adichie. Yes, there’s always a certain amount of navel-gazing and the upper class milieu isn’t going away anytime soon, but the novel and the story and the film are far more invested in work lives than poets are (where almost almost all the twentieth century masters were Ivy Leaguers).
    Seems like a lot of effort to make this into a topic. Heck, even in the pop culture and to bring in movies again, look at last year’s prestige pictures. Carol (a shopgirl), The Big Short (the work lives of financiers), Spotlight (the work lives of journalists). I don’t see this as a neglected topic unless you really want to cherry pick. Lerner and Cole are obvious examples of that cherry picking (and few people I know in the literary community take them very seriously, they’re both very flavor-of-the-month) and while Michael Szalay out of UC-Irvine is a great cultural critic with a lot of interesting things to say in a theory meets TV/film/pop culture sort of way, trying to crowbar that into some semi-thesis about “the aestheticization of idleness” in these cherry picked novels is a massive stretch.

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