Having and Being Had

Eula Biss

Having and Being Had
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Having and Being Had

Eula Biss

A timely and arresting new look at affluence by a consistently surprising writer.

‘My adult life can be divided into two distinct parts,’ Eula Biss writes, ‘the time before I owned a washing machine and the time after.’ Having just purchased her first home, she now embarks on a roguish and risky self-audit of the value system she has bought into. The result is a radical interrogation of work, leisure and capitalism. Described by the New York Times as a writer who ‘advances from all sides, like a chess player’, Biss brings her approach to the lived experience of capitalism.

Playfully ranging from IKEA to Beyonce to Pokemon, across bars and laundromats and universities, she asks, of both herself and her class, ‘In what have we invested?’     

Review

Having and Being Had is the new book from American essayist Eula Biss and, as with her two previous very good works, this is the kind of enthralling read that opens up your thinking in new and exciting ways. Prompted by the purchase of a house, Biss reflects candidly on what it means to live and participate in a capitalist society, encompassing everything from the purely financial, to the larger emotional and cultural implications.

In crafting this genre-blurring work, Biss draws from memoir, cultural studies, history, economics, literary criticism, and more. Brief chapters are loosely divided into four sections (Consumption, Work, Investment, and Accounting) but the ideas they explore all overlap. Biss elegantly moves between these pieces, sometimes circling back to extend an earlier discussion, and the effect is cohesive rather than fragmented. The thrill of reading Biss lies in her almost supernatural ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate topics. At first glance, kids swapping Pokémon cards in a playground today may seem to have nothing to do with Virginia Woolf’s attitudes towards her servants, but if this book has a central message it is about the ubiquitous and often invisible power of capitalism to shape our behaviours and relationships on every level.

Biss’s preoccupation with language is another key theme here, and another reason why reading her is such a pleasure. She’s also drily funny and her particular wry humour is especially evident in acknowledgement of her own privilege as a member of the middle class. At one point, while reflecting on how time-consuming not having money was in her twenties, Biss rings her sister to say that by buying a house she’s simply bought a $400,000 container for a washing machine. She writes: ‘As I say this I am aware that the cost of our house was closer to $500,000. But I don’t say this out loud, it makes me too uncomfortable.’ While there are no solutions to be found here, Biss’s frank and thoughtful discussion of money will hopefully encourage further conversation – even at dinner parties!


Bronte Coates is the digital content manager and the Readings Prizes manager.

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