Brutally honest and illuminating, Having and Being Had by Eula Biss is the book we should all be reading, now more than ever. Described as a collection of short, interlinked essays, Biss’ dives into work, possessions, and art are shrewd, funny and yet alarmingly insightful. By aligning these topics with her experiences, Biss acknowledges her privilege and doesn’t shy away from the contributing part she plays. Biss doesn’t provide answers, nor a template for a ‘better’ world. Instead, her conversations prompt a probe into our own relationship to things.
Biss approaches the themes of Having and Being Had with a refreshing confession – that she doesn’t really understand what capitalism is. She thought she did, though she’s starting to wonder if that was just the simplified definition she wanted to believe. Biss attempts to get her head around the nature of ‘being owned’ and ‘owning’ via conversations with peers, respected thinkers, and (most importantly) herself.
I loved how the essays began with a simple everyday encounter or benign occurrence and manifested into an analysis of where this places Biss in our consumerist world. Each anecdote often finished with a punchy revelation, allowing me to pause and reflect on my own thoughts and the new paths Biss had guided me down.
The essays are divided into four sections – work, consumption, investment, and accounting, with Biss stretching the definition of the word. For example, the way we consider consumerism (deriving from the word consumption) and how it means to destroy something, yet also be ravaged and destroyed – there are still many who die of consumption every year. Humans are often considered little more consumers, yet what does this idea entail? There’s darkness underpinning our existence, the pervasiveness of which cannot be unseen once revealed.
One eyeopening essay concerns Biss’ young son. He has started trading Pokemon cards with his peers, and how much each is worth is entirely up to them. In the end, bickering ensues, when Biss’ son gets hold of a rare card whose value is disputed. Overcome with the power of holding a hotly debated item, her son gives away the card to a young boy, someone who doesn’t play Pokemon and has no interest in their value. In this piece, Biss demonstrates how the pitfalls of the art world filter down to the lowest, most innocent levels of humanity – children in a playground. Yet, as she details, it is these ideas which allow Biss to put the downpayment on her house and afforded her a place of her own to write in.
Biss turns to the lives of artists to inform her understanding of capitalism, particularly concerning its regard for art as work. I loved the sprinkling of Woolf, Dickenson, Stein, and others. All hugely successful writers, they each share one thing in common – they all had time. Woolf’s almost comic revelations that she could not have been a writer and a mother or housewife, sadly still ring true in this era, as Biss explores. While not as clear-cut as before, the financial stressors and cultural challenges still remain.
Biss examines how art and money are grossly, unsettlingly, entwined. While she doesn’t necessarily say anything ‘new’ on the topic, it is her sparse, anecdotal writing that makes Having and Being Had a disconcerting read.
In her notes section, Biss outlines her thinking behind the collection. One of ‘rules’ she set in place writing the book was that she would share exact amounts regarding money, including her spendings and accumulations. This was partly why the book felt so unique – while many other authors do acknowledge their privilege, subscribing to the taboo of being explicit about money almost counteracts their intended openness. Biss on the other hand doesn’t shy away from breaking down the jargon. She approaches money with welcome clarity attempting to de-mystify the American middle-class.
Biss belongs to a privileged part of society, something she addresses explicitly in her notes section. Her focus on white stories and the stories of other middle-class women writers are acknowledged: “They seemed to allow me to think about aspects of my life and work that would be difficult to think about more directly.” In “On The Whites”, she writes of the limits of her investigation from a white, middle-class standpoint, poignantly saying “I struggle to wash a white comforter that won’t quite come clean.” In her trademark fashion, she ends with a gut-punching thought: “Even so, my evidence suggests the stories we tell ourselves about money are full of white lies – not harmless, but white.”
Biss doesn’t prescribe anything to pull us out of our consumerist world. In fact, she highlights many of the counterarguments to capitalism, all of which have been unsuccessful. Having and Being Had is intended as a description of her surroundings, an attempt to understand how she (and many of us) got to where she is. It left me feeling unsettled, and also utterly hopeless.
Having and Being Had is published by Faber and is available here.
Eula Biss is the author of four books, most recently Having and Being Had. Her book On Immunity was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review, and Notes from No Man’s Land won the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism in 2009. Her essays and prose poems have recently appeared in the Guardian, the New York Review of Books, The Believer, Freeman’s, Jubilat, the Baffler, Harper’s, and the New York Times Magazine. She teaches nonfiction writing at Northwestern University.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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