Sweet Bitterness: Why We Need More Novels About Work

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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.

Such 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.

In 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.

Of 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).

Rachel 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.

Stephanie 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.

Image Credit: Pexels/Pixabay.

The Human Deep Within the Machine


Dana Spiotta’s new novel, Innocents and Others, pays homage to an early form of hacking known as “phone phreaking.” Phone phreaks would break into long-distance networks by learning the language of the telephone. With their mouths, or sometimes with whistles from Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes, phreaks mimicked the tonal frequencies and sequences that would trigger network switches. They made pitch-perfect 2600 Hz shrieks into headsets, resetting the trunk lines that would allow toll-free access to virtually anywhere. Their whistles and clicks forced phone companies to develop separate channels for carrying routing info. Their hacks began the encrypting process that has led to the recent standoff between Apple and the FBI.

But Spiotta doesn’t go there. Innocents and Others is not a parable of “disruption,” nor are Spiotta’s phone phreaks the antecedents of brogrammers. Her characters phreak for love. They don’t want to exploit the system or bypass the operator. They want to find the operator. Specifically, the character known as “Jelly” wants to reach something called an “inward operator:” “People who can connect you to wherever you want to go; they are deep in the machine…they were voices, humans, somewhere in the big wide world.”

Both of the main storylines of Innocents and Others feature women influencing Hollywood from somewhere in said big wide world, specifically from Upstate New York. There’s the story of Meadow and Carrie, longtime friends who become filmmakers and slowly drift apart, and the story of Jelly, former girlfriend of a pioneer phone phreak and a proto-catfisher with a heart of gold. From a darkened room in Solvay, an economically-depressed suburb of Syracuse, Jelly cold-calls Hollywood producers and seduces them over the phone. She becomes legendary and eventually attracts the attention of Meadow, who has moved from Los Angeles to Gloversville to make artsy documentaries that feed the late-20th-century desire for confession.

A novel about this kind of urge to find the human deep in the machine is to be expected, considering our current fascination with analog technologies, with the kind of reaching out and touching others that involves the vibration of tone sequences through wires and hands along switchboards. Spiotta’s treatment of this desire is the next chapter in her career-long flirtation with nostalgia, but the nostalgia of Innocents and Others is less escapist, more radical, than other recent homages to the pre-encrypted world.

For example, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013) turns to the art world that sprung up in the abandoned factories of SoHo in the 1970s. The novel’s masterful representation of this world participates in a recent obsession with all things New York in the 1970s, an obsession Edmund White describes in his New York Times Style Magazine essay, “Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s?” Innocents and Others, on the other hand, does not promote longing for a super-cool era that has passed. Instead, it expresses a ruminative living with loss and longing that nurtures the kind of fellow feeling from which solidarity and renewal can grow.

The inward operators of The Flamethrowers are “China Girls,” office workers whose faces are filmed (usually alongside a color chart) and spliced onto the initial frames of film reels. Though the origin of the name “China Girl” is a bit of a mystery, their purpose is pretty straightforward: film processors used their images to calibrate color densities. In the Paris Review, Kushner says this about fascination with China Girls:

If the projectionist loaded the film correctly, you didn’t see the China girl. And if you did see her, she flashed by so quickly she was only a quick blur. They were ubiquitous and yet invisible, a thing in the margin that was central to each film, these nameless women that, as legend has it, were traded among film technicians and projectionists like baseball cards.

The China Girl does for film processing what the inward operator does for the analog telephone network. She is the requisite drop of humanity that calibrates machines that carry approximations of humanity. The China Girl highlights the role of anonymous workingwomen in the evolution of American culture. She gives us a new way of looking at what is already at the center of culture (movies). She is a reminder that if we look closely enough at, say, a length of film, we will find women trapped into standards.

Where Kushner’s China Girls represent the objectified women at the center of culture, Spiotta’s inward operators represent the radical possibilities that sound along the periphery. The voices of inward operators decentralize Jelly’s world. They signify its incredible depth and breadth. Most importantly, they carry the promise of intimate connection in a world where the means of connection are about to be encrypted. Unlike Kushner’s framed and fetishized women, Spiotta’s live beyond the reach of the subjugating dream factory. They continue to operate freely, triggering switches at the center of power — Meadow with her movies and Jelly with her phone calls.

And this interest in the radical potential of the periphery comes, I think, from the fact that Dana Spiotta has been living in Upstate New York for quite a while. Unlike such Silent-Generation writers as William Kennedy, Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, or Richard Russo, whose novels preserve Upstate village life in the amber of literary realism, Spiotta understands Upstate as the living ground of revolution. It’s home to the Erie Canal, which Spiotta has called “the Internet of the nineteenth century.” It’s ground zero of the Women’s Movement, radical fundamentalist Christianity, and the back-to-the-land movement. It’s where people go change the world, not where they go to escape from it.

Meadow, who fled L.A. for Upstate, is a master dissimulator who avoids being exploited, ignored, or fetishized. She makes jury-prize-winning documentaries that eventually earn her an Errol-Morris-but-in-a-bad-way rep, which spoils her chances at a long career (only one Oscar nod). She winds up living austerely Upstate — think Nicholas Ray circa We Can’t Go Home Again (1973) minus the posse. Her friend Carrie writes empowered-woman rom-coms and pretty much lives happily ever after.

Where Meadow is the alluring, complicated trickster that we hope to find in literary fiction, Jelly is unprecedented, a woman once seduced by a giant, bald, blind-from-birth, alpha phone phreak (Oz) who names her Jelly Doughnut because “she was soft and round and even sweeter on the inside.” Where Meadow maintains the magnetism of an edgy art student who only dates sultry, eyelinered boys, Jelly is never not assertively middle-aged, unattractive, and drawn to ugliness. Granted, Spiotta gives Jelly the more fulfilling sex life. But she has to earn it. Her sensuality is in part a result of a meningitis infection that caused her to lose her sight, which increased her interest in smell and sound. (It’s also the illness that brought her and Oz together.) For Jelly, there are no “good” or “bad” smells, only “real” or “cover” ones. “And she wanted everything to smell as it was. Actually. An armpit should smell of sweat and hair and skin.” Her sight eventually recovers, but her interest in feeling around for what is actual never subsides.

Her relationship with Oz is intense, very haptic, very sexual. He teaches her how to whistle the phone into submission. Oz’s favorite thing about phreaking is reaching an electronic switching station, where he can click and whistle at crossbar and Strowger switches. Jelly’s favorite thing, other than reaching an inward operator, is reaching an “open-sleeve circuit,” a kind of proto-chat room:

Their voices hanging in space, listening and laughing and recognizing each other. She was the only — the only — woman who phone phreaked. These were shy, awkward men. They gave her lots of attention, which she enjoyed, but they were never ever nasty.

But her real passion, her art, is listening. After a friend who cleans houses steals some rolodex numbers from a mansion on Mulholland Drive, Jelly starts calling Hollywood players, “not the really famous ones…the names you don’t know.” Developing a language that does for human connection what 2600 Hz whistles do for trunk lines, Jelly triggers the switches of anonymous, powerful men.

With strategically-deployed pauses and vocalizations, circumlocutionary skills that would impress even J.L. Austin, Jelly extracts intimacy from men who are otherwise dead inside. They have money and power, but it’s Hollywood power, which is to say that it’s the kind of empty compensation that leaves a man vulnerable to an anonymous, willing female ear. Jelly is an intimacy hacker, her pauses and “wordlets” keep men confessing not their crimes or dubious morals so much as their genuine impressions of what life feels like — impressions that can be delivered over the telephone.

Spiotta’s characters want to feel the weight of self and find that the best way to do so is to submit to the precarious tissue of intimate connection, connection that is not routed along encrypted networks or filtered through predictive analytics. Desire for such connection is what draws Denise Kranis, protagonist of Stone Arabia (2011), into the kitchen of the stranger whose sad story Denise had followed instead of attending to her own life. Stone Arabia is a novel about how we compensate for failures to connect, about how we craft the covers of our not-real lives.

Innocents and Others is a novel about how intimacy works best from a distance. As is made painfully clear when Meadow coaxes Jelly into the light, direct encounter tends to dissolve what remains of the means of connection. Jelly is all but ruined, China-Girled by Meadow’s movie. This coming together of the novel’s two plots is the least compelling aspect of Innocents and Others. Its nod to narrative unity is forced, but the best part about the nod is how convincingly it suggests that we were all better off talking to each other in the dark.