Houses built of brick may withstand a wolf’s breath, but their walls can be altered forever by the forces of gentrification. In London, such forces are changing the landscape — and the people — at a nearly unprecedented rate. A recent article in The Independent reports that “London’s share of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England has almost halved in the past decade” as residents of those places find themselves increasingly unable to pay rent and forced to relocate to the suburbs. In their absence, cheap flats become lavish hotels; local hangouts are converted into upscale hair salons.
The effects of gentrification on the lives and well-being of those who struggle to hang on to their homes have been explored in several recent book-length accounts, including DW Gibson’s The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century. In a 2015 interview, Gibson explains why oral histories, more than, say, academic treatises, move readers to seriously consider the topic: “I think the way you get people to care about gentrification is to write about human beings.” If oral histories help us to better understand the social realities of gentrification by allowing communities to speak about their own experiences, novels lend unique insight by telling us the things that aren’t always spoken aloud.
In her first novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses, Kate Tempest examines the thoughts and feelings — spoken and hidden — of a group of 20-somethings from two interconnected, lower-middle-class families in South East London, one of the fastest gentrifying areas of the city. As their neighborhood changes, so do the laws of “making it” that their parents believed in. Working hard, going to college, saving money — in the old days, before the arrival of the moneyed class, these things were believed to guarantee a secure future. Now, they might not even lead to secure employment. So what to do when life’s familiar scripts are remodeled as thoroughly as the local pub? How to get ahead?
Tempest’s millennial protagonists are not the destitute tramps that George Orwell described in Down and Out in Paris and London. They are well-educated and beautiful, the products of parents who aren’t rich but who managed to sock away enough earnings to feed and clothe their children when saving-up was still possible. Race often forms a component of gentrification. But in this novel, Tempest doesn’t dwell on the subject — the characters are racially and ethnically ambiguous in a way that feels intentional. The three main characters’ lives weave together in complicated ways. Pete went to college, but couldn’t find work afterward. He lives with his parents and spends his days hunting for temp work. He falls in love with Becky, a beautiful dancer estranged from her “born-again” mother. Becky doesn’t know her father, a political radical jailed for sexually assaulting under-age girls. What she does know is that she’s always wanted to be a dancer, but classes are expensive. She earns money by giving massages, the kind with happy endings. Learning about her work nearly breaks Pete apart. But what he doesn’t understand, says Becky, is that her clients — mostly depressed, wealthy Londoners — look at her with a respect and gratitude that she rarely sees in the eyes of casting directors. As her relationship with Pete grows increasingly tense, Becky finds solace in Harry, Pete’s sister, who is gay. Harry makes her living selling drugs, cocaine mostly, to CEOs and entrepreneurs, rich folks who can afford to spend the occasional evening giving London’s seedy underbelly a tickle. Like Becky, Harry knows her line of work is not without risks, but it pays well, and she needs the money to achieve her own dream of opening a bar.
Tempest’s novel is remarkable not only for its timely commentary on the financial difficulties faced by many millennials, but for its meticulous examination of parents’ inability to understand their children’s struggles. In a series of flashbacks, we witness Pete and Harry’s mother, Miriam, fall in love with husband one and then husband two, the latter who was able to give her the middle-class lifestyle she had always dreamed of. That Miriam managed to marry up colors her perception of her boyish-looking daughter: if she could do it, why can’t Harry? (Miriam is also convinced that women can’t be gay.) Pete and Harry’s step-father, David, talked his way into an entry-level position at an optician’s, eventually saving enough money to buy the shop outright. If he could do it, why not Pete, with his college degree?
From Miriam and David, Harry and Pete inherit feelings of perpetual failure. As for Becky, we watch her mother give up a promising career in photography to cater to her husband, only to be left with nothing when he goes to prison. She passes on to Becky her shame, self-loathing, and wariness of intimacy. Tempest gets at foundations: If families are houses, then each family member is a cracked brick, the damage growing wider and less structurally sound the farther it travels from its origin point.
The novel spans several months, but opens with the moment that those months lead up to — the friends are in a car, getting the hell out of town. We don’t know why they’re running until the climax, but finding out the plot specifics isn’t necessarily the point. This isn’t a mystery novel, or a thriller, really. It’s a study of economics and generational differences, of how a parent’s success can become a child’s anxieties and vice versa.
It’s also a character study. Drug-fueled and facing terrible decisions, Tempest’s protagonists share traits with those in the more rural-set works of John Brandon’s Citrus County and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. But there is no one quite like Pete, Becky, and Harry. The richness of their inner lives develops largely from Tempest’s startling use of metaphor. Here she describes Becky’s exasperation as she listens to a pompous music-video director wax on endlessly about a shoot in Indonesia: “Becky’s heart punches itself out of her chest and runs screaming through the room, smearing blood all over the walls. She looks down, bemused and studies the new hole in her chest.” The passage exemplifies the tendency toward exaggeration the millennial generation is so often accused of demonstrating, while also capturing exactly the feeling of wanting to flee a deadening conversation.
Tempest’s skillful eye for description extends, perhaps, from a well-trained ear for the spoken word. Until recently, she has published as a poet and playwright and has toured as a rapper. On paper, her prose often slips into streams of consciousness that brim with internal rhyme schemes. Consonants resonate through neighboring vowels, as if she’s making song. Her longer descriptions are interspersed with staccato-like phrases, echoing the frantic stop-and-go movement of thoughts through a coke-addled brain. This might be Tempest’s first novel, but it’s also poetry.
Writers taking on gentrification are nothing new, of course. In his 1836 Sketches of Boz, Charles Dickens laments that the “old tottering public house” has been “converted into spacious and lofty wine-vaults.” One hundred seventy years later, David Mitchell captures Worcestershire’s vivid class contrasts in the semiautobiographical Black Swan Green. But The Bricks That Built the Houses offers a particularly elegiac take by revealing the strength of the ties between a city and its people, no matter how strained those ties have become. “It gets into your bones,” reads the novel’s first line, a reference to the hostile but familiar London the friends are leaving behind. By artfully intertwining the stories of people who are broken by the city they love, The Bricks That Built the Houses creates a complex narrative that rarely falters and eventually coheres into a strong and lyrical whole.
In the spirit of the unreliable narrator, I’m the unreliable end-of-year-wrap-up book recommender. Simply, I’m wildly loyal to whatever the last book I read (and loved) happens to be. Because when a book works for me, it doesn’t actually feel like I “happen” to have read it. It seems to me a plain miracle to have discovered the right book at the right time, just the one I needed for whatever I’m writing about or wrestling with, just the book to address the ideas bouncing around in my noggin. I want to lean over to people on the subway (never a good idea) and say, “Look, here are my notes, my notebooks. Here are the sketches I’ve been working on — now read this book that showed up out of nowhere and plain confirms everything I’ve been dreaming.”
So what I’m about to say can’t be very scientific, but the book I most want to recommend from my 2011 reading is one I’ve only just finished, and that’s Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. I immediately fell in love with its loopy structure, and mapped every spiral (if a looping thing can also spiral) in the margins.
What I could not get over — and it’s the mark of any book that survives the test of time — is the sense of immediacy I felt while turning pages. It’s getting on toward 100 years later, and everything Orwell says reads as deeply current and bitingly accurate — that is, “everything” if you leave out all the parts about the Jews, the Arabs, the Irish, the Italians, the Russians, or, well, anyone who doesn’t look like what Orwell sees in the mirror every morning…but forget those bits, it’s the socioeconomic observations that amaze. Which means, either Orwell was a seer and could read the future, or the same horrible systems remain broken in the same way, near a century on. During these days when protest movements are rising up all over the world to challenge the status quo, I give you one sliver of Orwell’s take on the subject of wealth from 1933.
In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except “Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it”? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a business man, getting his living, like other business men, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.
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H.L. Mencken wrote that rubbernecking – that voyeuristic impulse to gawk at someone else’s difficulties – was “almost a complete treatise on American psychology.” The term perfectly describes the recent outpouring of interest in the industrial heartland of the United States, known as the Rust Belt, which has been in decline since the 1970s and which has suffered even more during the recession. First came news stories about places like Dayton, Ohio, where unemployment has more than doubled since the beginning of 2008 thanks to the closing of several manufacturing plants, or Gary, Indiana, the home of the largest integrated steel mill in the northern hemisphere, where an average of one person a week is murdered and over a quarter of its residents live below the poverty line. Then came the literary interest: 2009 saw the publication of books such as Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of a Small American Town, Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas’s Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America, and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, all of which catalogued the various social and personal ills, and the universal sense of despair about the future, that plague Rust Belt cities and towns.
In the crowded field of “recession literature,” however, Philipp Meyer’s relentlessly pessimistic debut novel American Rust has attracted an outsized share of acclaim and attention, and deservedly so. The book follows Isaac English and Billy Poe, two friends whose families have anchored them to the steelworking town of Buell, Pennsylvania. Isaac is the smartest kid in the entire county, but is stuck tending to his disabled father and trying to understand his mother’s recent suicide. Billy, meanwhile, passed up an offer to play football at Colgate College just because he was too stubborn to leave. At the ripe old age of twenty, both can already see an unfulfilling future stretching out in front of them.
So Isaac strikes out for California. In his head he takes on the persona of “the kid,” a modern-day Huck Finn figure whose idea of freedom involves studying astrophysics at Lawrence Livermore. On the way to the Pittsburgh rail yards, he runs into Billy Poe, and the two take shelter from the rain in an abandoned factory. Unknowingly, they have trespassed on the territory of three vagrants who assault Billy and hold him at knife-point, and Isaac is forced to kill one of them in order to save his friend.
Both boys panic and hastily try to cover up their crime, and in doing so reveal the self-destructive tendencies that consume them over the course of the novel. The next day, the police arrest Billy, who feels that he has little choice but to take the blame for a crime he did not commit. He stubbornly refuses to implicate Isaac or even talk to a public defender, which lands him in prison; there, his hair-trigger temper makes him an outcast among outcasts. Meanwhile, Isaac treats his escape as an adventure at first, but eventually his guilt at abandoning his father and sister slowly consumes him, and the picaresque tale of “the kid” takes on more and more false bravado with each humiliation that he endures, from washing himself in the bathroom of a diner to getting his money stolen by a tramp.
The murder begins to poison those who have a stake in Billy’s and Isaac’s future as well. Billy’s mother Grace despairs that her decision to stay in the Valley, and her refusal to throw her deadbeat husband Virgil out of her life altogether, has robbed her of a career and a a son. Isaac’s sister Lee feels like she has to save both her brother Isaac and her former lover Billy, whom she abandoned for the Ivy League and an unfulfilling marriage to a wealthy classmate. And local police chief Bud Harris, who once convinced the local prosecutor to dismiss an assault charge against Billy, wonders whether he should try to save the boy a second time, or whether such an effort will prove as effective as “trying to catch a body falling from a skyscraper.”
American Rust is an ambitious book, both in terms of its structure (it follows six narrators) and its subject (“the ugly reverse of the American Dream,” according to one character). As a result, it occasionally loses its focus. At times, the reader can at times get lost in a sea of introspection that is leavened only occasionally with action. Certain passages sag under the weight of the characters’ regret, indecision, and self-loathing, and the plot takes a long time to develop forward momentum; the murder takes place at the end of the first chapter, but it is not until about halfway through the book that Poe gets arrested and Isaac begins hopping trains for points west. Meyer also cannot resist an ostentatious tribute to his literary forebears once in a while. For example, Isaac’s sister Lee broods over the relative merits of James Joyce, Henry James, and Jean-Paul Sartre for almost an entire page (there is no other literary criticism in the entire novel), and Meyer tells the reader several times that Isaac’s mother killed herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and drowning herself, a grisly tribute to Virginia Woolf. Finally, the ending, which sees Bud Harris transform from a beleaguered Good Samaritan into a self-serving vigilante, feels unearned; nothing in the first 300 pages of the book sets up such a drastic personality change.
Still, these authorial missteps do not really detract from the book’s ability to portray the Rust Belt in new, unsparing, and unsentimental ways. Ten years ago, fictional post-industrial towns served merely as stages on which to act out much larger melodramas. In Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, for example, misery comes not from large, impersonal forces but from the choices that the characters themselves make. Russo is much more raconteur than social commentator, however, which gives him the freedom to write in a decidedly tragicomic mode, and to make his characters relatively ambivalent about their own hardships; at one point, the novel’s protagonist, Miles Roby, asks, “If I was so unhappy, wouldn’t I know?” The plot of Empire Falls, in other words, just happens to be set in a declining mill town in Maine, and although there are moments of genuine suffering and humiliation in Russo’s novel, they are the exception rather than the rule.
In American Rust, the setting is the story. Isaac and Billy’s hometown of Buell is a stand-in for any number of Rust Belt towns like Dayton and Gary: its factories have been shut and its good jobs have been gone for nearly two decades, its former steelworkers, who in the 1980s made twenty dollars an hour, now bag groceries for less than five, and neither its residents nor its municipal government can make ends meet. Besides getting the economic indicators right, Meyer understands that socioeconomic malaise and personal malaise are two sides of the same coin. He shows, through the eyes of each of the main characters, the human consequences of a sick economy, which include desperation, psychic distress, moral confusion, and the real or imagined loss of one’s free will. He has the luxury of space and unmediated access to his characters’ thoughts, which allows him to explore a familiar topic – the effects of a prolonged economic downturn – in ways that writers of non-fiction cannot.
As a result, American Rust provides a gentle corrective to the kind of fact-and-statistic-based reportage that focuses more on rubrics and measurements (punctuated, of course, by the occasional human interest story) than the recession’s non-economic effect on individuals. A newspaper article about a rise in shoplifting, for instance, provokes quiet a different reaction from the reader than Isaac’s theft of an overcoat from a Wal-Mart:
The other customers stared intently at their merchandise until he passed. Embarrassed to look at you. Who wouldn’t be? Except the kid does not care. Possessed of a higher mission—self-improvement. Resource gathering. Like the original man—starts from scratch. A new society. Beginning in Men’s Outerwear. All those coats. Never know how much you value a coat. Took months to make in the old days. Now you just go to a store. Don’t be nervous, she’s looking at you.
The novel is also much-needed challenge to the kind of myth-making that the political commentariat has forced down Americans’ throats over the past few years. One the one hand, there are the wedge-drivers like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, who pit a mythological “real America” (blue-collar, religious, small town, uncorrupted) against the so-called “coastal elites.” On the other, there are the tone-deaf and the contemptuous. At a San Francisco fundraiser in April of 2008, for example, then-candidate Barack Obama nearly derailed his primary campaign by commenting about small Pennsylvania towns where people “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” And New York Times columnist Frank Rich has spent the better part of a year celebrating the slow and violent death of “a dwindling white nonurban America that is aflame with grievances and awash in self-pity as the country hurtles into the 21st century and leaves it behind.” Clearly, it is much easier to misrepresent places like Buell for the sake of political gain, or else to dismiss them as irrelevant and insignificant, than it is to treat them without cynicism or contempt.
How, then, to categorize this book? Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, American Rust documents the psychological and moral tangle that comes with poverty, something that people with savings accounts, secure jobs, and enough disposable income to spend on a hardcover book usually cannot intuit, or else choose to forget. In stylistic terms, Meyer’s clipped, stream-of-consciousness narration brings to mind not only the modernists (Hemingway, Woolf, Joyce) but also Cormac McCarthy, especially when Isaac begins to refer to himself as “the kid,” just like the narrator of Blood Meridian.
The book’s dust jacket provides the most commercially shrewd answer to the question of literary descent, however. American Rust, it says, belongs with “Steinbeck’s novels of restless lives during the Great Depression.” On the surface, the comparison seems fair; both Meyer and Steinbeck wrote about times of extraordinary economic insecurity, both created characters who struggle for independence despite their circumstances, and, most of all, both resisted the easy sentimentality of many writers of “regional” fiction.
But there are no Tom Joads in Buell, Pennsylvania, and Philipp Meyer is no romantic. Steinbeck’s fiction, though often stark, had brave heroes, clear moral lessons, and even the barest hints of redemption playing about their edges. In American Rust, poverty does not ennoble the dispossessed; instead, it leads them down the path of moral hazard, where they rationalize theft, murder, and other bad decisions in the name of survival. At best, the constant presence of the characters’ internal monologues allows the reader to understand, if not pardon, their worst choices.
Meyer also does not share Steinbeck’s tendency to sermonize. There are a few grand pronouncements about The Way Things Are (“We’re trending backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history, and it’s not the kids with the green hair and the bones through their noses.”), but Meyer always dilutes them by putting them in the mouths of secondary characters, or else by immediately exposing them in a character’s internal monologue as empty clichés:
In the end it was rust. That was what defined this place. A brilliant observation. She was probably about the ten millionth person to think it.
Ultimately, American Rust is not a hymn to the fraying brotherhood of man, and its characters do not survive for the sake of illustrating how despair fortifies the spirit or poverty strips away all pretenses or some other uplifting observation about the human condition. Instead, Meyer insists only that his readers pay attention, even (or perhaps especially) to those whose main accomplishment is the simple act of carrying on, of finding the desire to “keep setting one foot in front of the other.” In that sense his goal is at once humble and profound, and deeply sympathetic to those who can only seek imperfect improvements upon unacceptable circumstances.
Bryan wrote in with this question:I’m a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I’m a huge fan of the Millions. I’m attaching a recent reading list, if there’s any chance you’d be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 – april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known – n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O’HaraSwann’s Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan’s recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a “very testosterone-y” reading list and added, “I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets).” Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several “upgrades” that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s Herzog. If you’re going to read Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, and “Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature,” Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan “needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O’Hara, and Hemingway,” all authors featured on Bryan’s list.In thinking and discussing Bryan’s list, we also hit the idea of a “staff picks” for recent grads – a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson’s version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don’t let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey’s argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you’re holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you’re untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you’ve been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age – mid-twenties or so – when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell’s social soul. “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny.”Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.