Having and Being Had by Eula Biss appears, on its surface, to be somewhat simple. A series of vignettes, micro-essays they could be called, mostly about money and all its related complexities. Bubbling under the surface, however, is a churn of activity, of hard questions worth being asked. Biss has broken with many norms here, but the book maintains an equanimity of tone that is almost unpleasant once you realize what the calm facade is barely covering.
This book is less like an essay collection and more like a complicated 19th-century dance. It is, if you will permit me, a quadrille.
A quadrille is a highly structured dance composed of four partners forming a square and moving through intricate dance steps in five fluid sections. If you count the notes section, and you most definitely should, Biss's book is divided into five sections, the first four being Consumption, Work, Investment, and Accounting. Each section is composed of brief essays born from real encounters with real people most of them her friends. This is one of the rules she established for the book. Other rules were to name specific sums whenever she talked about money and - perhaps most difficult - to talk about money.
Like the dance steps, the essays can range wildly, jumping from conversations with her son to discourse surrounding Virginia Woolf and her servants. But like the dance, each movement is carefully choreographed, tightly bound, and there is an obvious though barely voiced connective tissue between one essay and the next. Like the delicately brushed fingertips of one partner to another or the shoulder dipping in sync with its neighbor, each essay passes the core of ideas through and around itself and into the next.
Throughout, Biss acknowledges her place of privilege and her discomfort in it. She shares stories of her husband's continued struggle to find himself inexplicably beyond his working-class background, which he calls Trash before suggesting that perhaps the word class doesn't mean anything? Biss has no answer for this question, or for what to do when you want desperately to escape the whole concept of investing while also wanting to retire one day. Or the question she asks from the beginning and throughout the book: what is capitalism?
Biss struggles to define the term, but she lives right up against the ways it colors her life, and perhaps this book is really just a way to hold up to the light a fuzzy but possible alternative. In the first section, she cites David Graeber's work on consumerism:
What is destroyed when we think of ourselves as consumers, Graeber suggests, is the possibility that we might be doing something productive outside of work.
It is this notion, the idea that it is possible to opt out of the traditional work-consumer model, to create or work for the work's own sake, that I think Biss is driving toward. This, I believe, is the thing those dancers are passing hand to hand as they conduct their complicated dance.
Throughout the book, there are small moments where she highlights the value in practice, most notably when they get a piano, and she begins to practice, "badly but with ardor" each morning. Biss recognizes her own failings, sees no future with the instrument, but, she says,
there, in the break, is a moment of communion between the music and me. This is practice. And practice is all I want out of art.
The young ladies of the 18th or 19th century, the ones who might also know how to dance the quadrille, they were considered "accomplished" if they could play the piano, and Biss wrestles with this idea, noting that it was "once a mark of class and prestige for a gentleman, who by definition did no manual labor, to have a wife and daughters who were idle." But is it idle to make music? Or to tend a garden, which she describes as "a place where I practice care, and where I take time. Time being, in the end, all I ever wanted." What about to write? Is that idle?
Later in the book, as she considers issues around job security, she notes that there are those who have "forgone stable employment and retirement savings for temp work and travel and an uncertain future. Their very existence is unsettling, suggesting, as it does, that there might be something worth more than security." Biss isn't necessarily celebrating this choice, but it is there as an option.
When she thinks of the years she spent broke and surrounded by other broke writers, she acknowledges the nostalgia while still celebrating what she calls, "the pleasures of exchange," where poets gave each other their work, shared it freely, not trading on or for anything. She tells her friend,
It's easy for me to believe there's an alternative to capitalism because I feel like I've lived it. Within capitalism, of course.
But still, she needs time to write, and money to be granted the time, and so she writes the book about money and sells it, "to buy myself time. My time, already spent on writing, will pay for itself."
And there we are, at the end of the dance, back in the position where we started. Uncertain but hoping for something better. Buying the time to do the work, work for its own sake.