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HAVING AND BEING HAD by Eula Biss Kirkus Star


by Eula Biss

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-525-53745-8
Publisher: Riverhead

The poet and essayist considers her affluence and what—and who—has been sacrificed for it.

“My adult life, I decide, can be divided into two distinct parts—the time before I owned a washing machine and the time after,” writes Biss. She means it: Acquiring a home and its attendant creature comforts has radically changed her relationships to money, labor, and domesticity. In the same way her previous books explored the hidden social contracts around racism (Notes From No Man’s Land) and vaccination (On Immunity), her latest interrogates capitalism’s relationship to upper-middle-class living, particularly hers. Most of the brief, potent essays consider particular objects and actions and the questions they spark about value: a piano (“Dada da dum—middle class! Let the lessons begin”), redlining, investments, lines at amusement parks, the game of Monopoly, and poetry. Biss marvels at the uncertainty and discomfort people display when assigning costs and value to their work—and the way these discussions are further burdened by problems of race and gender, particularly in terms of how slavery and marriage turned people into property. Calling on her own experience and past writers (Emily Dickinson, Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf) and economists (John Kenneth Galbraith) who have addressed these matters, the author comes to recognize that income inequality runs deeper than matters of dollars and cents. Some are truly members of the precariat, on the edge of poverty, while others merely think they are, but everyone is compelled to scramble for more. Biss prescribes no solutions except perhaps to encourage more candor about the problem. When she told a friend she was unsure how to end this book, the friend responded: “The only way to end it would be to burn your house down.” Spoiler: She doesn’t. But what to do instead?

A typically thoughtful set of Biss essays: searching, serious, and determined to go beyond the surface.