Of course the spirit of the age has to be present in any work of art. No author writes in a vacuum. The most dramatic current events are absorbed into a state of mind and turned into stories that address how they affect us. Our most popular genres, science fiction, romance, and fantasy, are generally considered “escapist” forms of literature, but still reflect current anxieties and concerns. They just do so using generic templates.
Take, for example, the decades-long trend toward ever-greater economic inequality. In science fiction we see the widening gap between a billionaire elite and the rest of humanity reflected in novels and films like Snowpiercer and The Hunger Games, while in the flourishing romance of capitalism the same reality is presented in a different framework, with our new captains of industry (really captains of finance in the twenty-first century) being today’s fairy-tale princes. The mega-bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon is the best-known example of the latter, being another reworking of the Cinderella story, with plain-Jane Anastasia Steele falling for the boy-billionaire Christian Grey. The hook to the headlines comes from Grey’s status as a member of the one percent, from whose commanding heights he gets to screw over a poor, submissive student – one whose arts degree, alas, has only qualified her to be a whore. It is a very old story, but also a very contemporary political fantasy.
This same provocative and speculative presentation of the realities of social and economic inequality takes centre stage in two new books – Job Shadowing by Malcolm Sutton and Rich and Poor by Jacob Wren – both published as part of BookThug’s “Department of Narrative Studies,” a leading force in unconventional Canadian fiction. In Job Shadowing there is even a Fifty Shades-style development in the plot where one of the protagonists, an artist named Etti, is adopted by a fabulously wealthy businessman and squired about on his secret yacht (she has to put on a blindfold before coming aboard, “a long, thin piece of cloth with a metallic sheen” that takes on fetishistic qualities).
The billionaire Caslon’s yacht is a fantasy, but then so is the economic system that it represents. Even the rich man in Rich and Poor (neither of the main characters in Wren’s novel is named) realizes this:
Capitalism is not the simple desire to make a profit. Capitalism is the fantasy that growth can continue at a consistent rate indefinitely. When a child is young, it cannot yet imagine being an adult, so it thinks it will keep growing forever. The fantasy that you can grow forever is exhilarating, one of the many aspects that make children seem so alive. We live in fantasy, all of us, all the time, to a greater or lesser extent.
There’s a dual vision at work here, of the kind I mentioned with respect to E. L. James’ take on Cinderella: a very old – or mythic if you will – story that has contemporary relevance. Neither Job Shadowing nor Rich and Poor can be described as realistic works of fiction, and yet at the same time both are directly concerned with some of the most pressing and talked-about social issues of our time: the widening gap between an economic elite and everyone else, and the generational conflict between older haves and younger have-nots.
Capital itself is both real and unreal. Great wealth, we imagine, allows one to enjoy the fantasy life of “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” that Robin Leach once gushed over in his wealth-porn television series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Those lifestyles are characterized by near-infinite freedom, power, and leisure. I say leisure because it’s not clear exactly what Caslon, or the rich man in Rich and Poor, actually do, or ever did, to make so much money. Caslon even confesses to Etti at one point that he doesn’t have a job, really, “other than to oversee my investments and people that I employ, all in a very cursory way.” This may be taken as a lack of understanding on Sutton’s part; or, what I think is more likely, as a way of expressing the opinion that there is no explanation, or justification, for the kind of money he’s rolling in.
Caslon and the rich man are fantasy figures, their wealth a given. We don’t see them struggling upward, and would hardly believe such a Horatio Alger narrative anyway. One is reminded again of Fifty Shades of Grey, where I don’t think it’s spelled out what Christian Grey does either, leaving him in the role of kinky fairy godmother (that is, a venture capitalist) or just another member of our nouveau-degenerate nobility. In Wren’s novel, the rich man attributes his status, which also seems to consist of simply overseeing his business empire, mainly to luck: “The roulette wheel spins and the numbers that come up are the ones that win.” The myth of there being a meritocracy is just another fantasy, but one the rich man has to pay lip service to. In fact, he knows that he’s won a lottery.
Is ours a real or a virtual economy? Does anyone have any idea how fortunes are made on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley? Is it all just a shell game? In Job Shadowing the very notion of reality seems to be fading away. The male narrator, Gil, looks back to a previous generation, that of his parents and teachers, as embracing “an overwhelming reality that stretched forward and threw its hands around the present.” In comparison, the present generation lives entirely in the shadow of these boomer giants. Gil doesn’t understand how his life fits into the working world, feeling in everything
[t]he influence of the past on the present. The diachronical behemoth of my parents’ generation. Their work, their tenured professions, their accidenting into lucrative lifelong pursuits, at least for the men… Seemingly there were more right places at the right times than ever before for those men. Open doors at every turn. Their trajectories seemed so magnificent.
Gil likens his own generation’s employment resumé as akin to a set of children’s toys, not a structure or narrative, but something modular and pointless. As a member of Generation Shadow he even takes on the role of a job-shadower, a ghostly metaphysical state of “submission” that has him follow around someone with a real job, both at home and at work. A job shadower is something less than an apprentice, or even a bored child dragged along on “bring your kid to work” day. As his principal, a woman named Victoria, puts it at one point, Gil is “of no value whatsoever to the economy.” In virtual-world parlance we might call him a lurker, a status also suggested by his impotent voyeurism.
I think the word “alienation” is only used once in Job Shadowing, but it’s something we feel on nearly every page. The characters are alienated from themselves, from each other, from their jobs, and from the present moment. This leads to vulnerability (the opposite of alienation being absorption) and Gil and Etti are serially co-opted by dominant (albeit flawed) figures with their own doppelgängers and secret sharers. Through various dysfunctional relationships we see the psychologically damaging effects of learned helplessness and lack of agency, how individuals without any class-consciousness become shadows.
In the fiction of Douglas Coupland, another author fascinated by generational angst, “now denial” sickness is diagnosed as telling “oneself that the only time worth living in is the past and that the only time that may ever be interesting again is the future.” Sutton is, on the face of it, suggesting something similar, but he is less hopeful. The past is a present, active force, felt in most concrete terms as capital, which is the true author of history: “the light from the past which casts its shadows forward into the present… is nothing less than money’s speculation into the future.” Meanwhile, all hope for the future has been lost: “we have given up our future-feeling in order to embrace the present as inevitable even when its events are unforeseeable.” The first part of this indicates (“we have given up… inevitable”) that embracing the present is not a celebration of living in the moment, as it was (at least to some extent) for Coupland, but merely a resignation to what is. There is no longer any conscious, active “now,” no present to be denied. History has simply come to a dead stop. Gil sees the present as fully assimilated to Herbert Marcuse’s one-dimensional world with Generation Shadow inhabiting only a virtual space, a mediated reality, a fantasy. As Caslon tries to explain to Etti when discussing what tense he wants his memoirs to be written in:
I read a lot, and I have noticed that writers are also obsessed with the present. Perhaps they are aiming for immediacy or realism by writing about the present. They use the present tense. Perhaps the present tense feels more real to everyone. That may be true. Or perhaps it’s not about realism but intensity. Only the present feels intense. But the present tense no longer feels all that intense. No longer is it closer to the real. It feels like the dull realization of the constant present.
Jacob Wren’s Rich and Poor has many of the same concerns, and adopts a roughly similar structure of alternating narrative points of view. It also deals with characters who fall, depending on their wealth, into dominant and subordinate roles. The poor man referred to in the title is a former pianist who now works as a dishwasher but who dreams of kick-starting a movement to kill all the world’s billionaires. Indeed, killing the rich is something he sees as a social duty. He decides to make it his mission to kill the rich man, whose autobiography he has read. In order to get close to him – his plan is to strangle him with piano wire – he gets a job as the man’s protégé and patiently waits for the right moment to achieve his “clear and vicious goal.”
As an aside, both novels have something to say about the evolving place of the arts in the “real” economy. In Job Shadowing, Etti and Gil are involved in the arts scene, and Etti specifically seeks Caslon out as a possible source of funding for her installation-type work. As previously noted, the poor man in Wren’s book is a down-and-out pianist while the rich man has endowed a prestigious poetry prize (whose shortlisted volumes he actually reads!) It seems that with the public having turned away to look at things other than art, the role of the wealthy patron has reasserted itself.
As he plans the murder of his rich benefactor, the poor man admits to the same dismal sense of present and future time that we get in Sutton’s novel. “I don’t really have any positive vision of the future, don’t know what kind of world I’d like to some day live in or if it’s even possible to achieve something better than this.” The poor man is merely reactive, determined to strike back at the billionaires because he knows that they’re already attacking him. Class war has
It’s an attitude not far removed from the rich man’s own (who might be following Warren Buffet in this regard). He admits to the unfairness of it all, but sees class war, and violence, as part of the economic system, if not the human condition. As the saying goes, “There is no alternative.” The rich man has to make money for his shareholders; he can’t worry about changing the world – an attitude no different, he thinks, than the apathy all of us feel with regard to issues that seem, and to a large extent are, beyond our control. One’s best bet is to take care of business. In Sutton’s novel, Etti gets a temporary tattoo: “We live in financial times.” Getting rich is the best hedge against the future, and it’s a better retirement plan than writing poetry. When confronted by a fan of a Marxist poet who has been nominated for the prize he sponsors, the rich man is at first angry, but then consoles himself:
He is only a poet, and I am a billionaire, and I know at the end of the day there is no real way he can hurt me. He has no public voice, only a few readers, while I have every newspaper in the free world.
These things matter. Nobody is writing for the public any more, or for posterity. Without the rich man as patron, the poet would be voiceless.
What the rich man understands, however, is that the world as we know it is shutting down. We have entered the cancer stage of capitalism, where infinite growth is no longer sustainable. He talks to a young man who’s trying to reinvent business and who understands that the world, in its current economic form, does not serve the interests of the next generation. He also understands “why someone from the next generation might want me dead.”
And so a revolution is waiting in the wings. The poor man decides to take on the power of the rich man by leading a strike of migrant agricultural workers. Much like the end of Job Shadowing, Rich and Poor ends with a vision of people coming together, of solidarity. Alienation is countered by absorption, not by a dominant ego but by the anonymous crowd. Underlying this message is the hopeful sense that the wheel of history is turning, that change is on its way.
Well, I did say both books are fantasies. If the revolution ever comes it will be televised, though by then it will have already become the stuff of fiction. Etti observes from her own experience that “All events inform a work, add to it, even if those events remain invisible to the audience. They shadow its reality.” Revolutions are themselves shadows of those deeper shifts in thought and feeling we experience in art, and that art, to some extent, prophesies. As John Adams observed, the American Revolution “was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations… This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”
That shift in principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections will likely occur in novels before it occurs anywhere else, and especially in novels of a more speculative bent. In Job Shadowing and Rich and Poor we feel not so much the tyranny of the past, or of capital, but the sheer pointlessness of our current system of values. These are only notes from the underground, for now. They may yet cast a longer shadow.
—From CNQ 96 (Summer 2016)