Having and Being Had
Eula Biss thinks she and her husband, John, are just like everyone else in the neighbourhood, but he disagrees: “No … we’re nothing like them, I’m nothing like them.” Biss identifies as middle class, John as white trash, and throughout Having and Being Had a conversation unfolds about the stories they tell themselves, the debt they’re in and the house they’ve bought, and the kind of life they are building in suburban Chicago, where they live with their young son. Their whiteness forms this book’s delimiting frame; this is also the case for Biss’s two previous, highly accoladed nonfiction books.
Biss mobilises the short essay form to apply pressure to words and concepts – “Leisure”, “The Protestant Ethic”, “Get Off My Lawn” – that are frequently used but rarely examined; the late anthropologist David Graeber argued these sorts of phrases hold power because of the way they blanket more nuanced and precise thinking. Biss’s essays are also shaped by the idea of exchange; each piece is driven by conversations she has with people in her everyday life. Graeber’s ideas energise Biss’s inquiry throughout and a quote from his book Debt prefaces the collection, along with lines from Emily Dickinson.
Biss characteristically avoids the polemical, leaving the interpretive value of these exchanges in the hands of the reader. Oftentimes the essays reveal her own complicity with aspects of the capitalist regime. (Capitalism is another of those concepts she examines; she frequently asks acquaintances what they take the word to mean.) As Biss’s complicities tally up, the question of her creative survival emerges as the book’s main thrust. In “Guggenheim” she receives a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship, wonders where the money comes from, waits until she’s spent the money – on her mortgage – then finally researches the answer. (Mining, but it’s complicated.)
Digging a hole for herself – yes, literally – Biss offers the provocation that “maybe the value of art, to artists and everyone else is that it upends other systems”. And she decides to sell this very book to buy time off working, so that she can write. While the book is organised around Biss’s transparency in accounting for her life, the amount she receives as an advance is curiously omitted. As for her provocation, how we wish it were so! These faceted, and on occasion exasperating, essays, where Biss audits carefully selected aspects of her own lifestyle as well as that of the likes of Marx and Woolf, suggest the answer is otherwise.
Text, 336pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2020 as "Eula Biss, Having and Being Had".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.