There is a scene in Eula Biss’s new book of essays, Having and Being Had, that makes me almost howl with recognition. Her son, “J,” begins school and is given a starter pack of Pokémon trading cards by another boy. J’s desire is kindled. He finds out he can buy more cards using the money he gets for doing his chores. Before long, he is taking part in a miniature market exchange on the school playground. The children argue about what the cards are worth. Some cards are sparkly, some more powerful in attacking others, some desirable simply because they are rare. These flimsy pieces of cardboard have no objective value; each card is worth only what another child will give up for it. The kids could battle one another with the Pokémon cards, but they don’t. “Their end is accumulation,” Biss writes, “collecting cards for a game they don’t know how to play.” In the end, J buys his dream card but is hassled so viciously for it at school that he winds up crying. He gives the card away to a child who doesn’t know what it is, and he is free.
Having is a study of human beings as economic creatures, a collection of brief essays about how individuals navigate the tricky waves of ownership, work, and exchange, and what they feel as they do so. Biss begins each chapter with a scene from real life, then spools out her reflections to take in centuries-long histories of labor, the geographies of Chicago neighborhoods she has lived in, the objects that fill her home, her interactions with neighbors and coworkers, and revealing anecdotes about American culture. Along the way she converses with writer and artist friends, and reads the books they recommend. Having is her attempt to work out how a single person can make autonomous decisions in a system too large and complex for most people to comprehend.
The book began with a diary Biss kept after purchasing a house. “I wanted to hold on to the discomfort and I wanted to hold on to the comfort, too,” she writes of her project. She is a consummate poet of discomfort, well able to navigate the awkwardness of saying things usually left unspoken. She sets herself a few rules for composition, most notably to talk about money. In one telephone call she jokes to her sister that she spent $400,000 just to have space for a washing machine, then admits to having lowballed the number, which was more like $500,000: “I don’t say that out loud, it makes me too uncomfortable.” The revelation is a jolt. American society is obsessed with money, but rigid rules of decorum control any mention of it. Biss wonders what genre of book she is writing—“an internal audit?” “a series of jokes, made at my own expense?”—but one could also call it a confession. Less than a century ago, Pauline Réage or Philip Roth could still shock readers by describing explicit sexual acts and outré desires. Nowadays it feels more obscene to write about owning real estate.
Biss has an eye for subtle points of style, an ear for double entendres, and a taste for teasing the irony out of both. “I’m having trouble finding the right white,” she remarks as she paints the new house. It is 2016, “the year a white man will be elected to the White House.” Benjamin Moore announces that its Color of the Year will be “Simply White.” Biss flips through catalogs. “Chantilly Lace” and “Opulence White” are trying too hard. She admits to being mesmerized by an expensive brand of paint, one with classier, less flashy names such as “Matchstick” and “String.” This is how Biss confesses, catching herself in that self-congratulatory liberal whiteness that hides under a disciplined show of reserve. She lives in a gentrifying neighborhood. One elderly Black neighbor has lost ownership of the house her grandfather built because of rising property taxes. A bank regulator who rarely stays in his investment home manages to get another family evicted after they have a row with police. But for $110 a gallon, Biss can paint her rooms in a shade of white called “Blackened.”
In Having, Biss pursues the fundamental political questions that motivated her previous two books, Notes from No Man’s Land (2009) and On Immunity: An Inoculation (2014). What lines do people draw to divide society? How do histories of territory, especially in the United States, inform unequal relations today? Perhaps most importantly, how are people bound to one another despite their attempts to remain separate? In Notes from No Man’s Land, Biss juxtaposes her life in New York City, California, and the Midwest with family memories and a broader view of racial injustice in American culture. The essays in that book are mostly fragmented, connecting disparate narratives by implication rather than explanation.
In On Immunity, she organizes her reflections into short chapters, many of which start with a brief anecdote from her own experience before widening their view. Her greater formal control in On Immunity allows her to build a tight web that echoes the book’s theme: blood and viruses passing from person to person, the flesh of individuals adding up to a body politic as vulnerable as its weakest member. A line from the beginning of Notes sums up the driving ethos of Biss’s work: “Even now it is an impossible idea, that we are all connected, all of us.”
The belief that our separation from one another is natural and irrevocable is, Biss proposes in her newest book, nothing of the sort. She draws (with full acknowledgment) on Silvia Federici’s account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Western Europe to work out how divisions between classes, genders, and races that seem inevitable today came to be. Federici, a feminist political theorist with a Marxian bent, laid out her argument in her 2004 monograph Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, which expanded her earlier Italian-language research, and recapped it in a 2018 book aimed at the general public called Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women.
Federici begins with the observation that medieval men and women largely shared their work, most of which took place in or around the home. They provided food, crafted objects necessary to life, and raised children together. Women were permitted to earn money; indeed, certain trades, such as brewing beer, were dominated by women in many places. Serfs did have to work for their lords, and often suffered under excessive taxation, but also had access to common land to fulfill their basic needs. Despite clear distinctions between classes, Western Europeans lived a more profoundly communal life than their descendants do today.
In England the rise of capitalism went hand in hand with enclosure, the consolidation of common fields into larger estates owned by single landowners. As more farmland became private property, the numbers of poor and hungry increased, which led to popular revolts. Federici argues that, as part of this process, women lost their mercantile rights and were forced into reproductive labor; in other words, their main job became giving birth to other workers, for free. Women’s bodies became the common property of men, a recompense for the land they had lost. Older women, who were marginalized and impoverished by these social developments, resisted them by begging for alms, placing curses on people who rebuffed them, and peddling their knowledge of birth control methods. They were burned as witches in a show of force meant to keep all women in line. The rapacity of capitalism, including capture of public land and forced labor, was then exported outside of Europe through colonization and the slave trade.
While Biss draws on other sources for her understanding of capitalism, work, and consumption—especially the anthropologists David Graeber and Elizabeth Chin—Federici’s theory is, I think, a central catalyst in Having. It has a mythic quality—her claim that witch hunts were caused by the growth of capitalism is unproven—which allows Biss to connect fine-grained observations from her daily life to a long, violent history of economic development and exclusion. It also makes sense of the part that folk and fairy tales play in Biss’s narrative, traditional stories about an alternate system of exchange in which value comes from giving things away rather than buying or taking them.
A scene: Biss is upset with her husband for buying a gravy boat she doesn’t think they need. She comes across as petty: it is their first Thanksgiving in the new house, after all—why should she mind having the right equipment? As she meditates on her pique, Biss admits that she would have preferred to spend their down payment on time to write. Her desire for a house, and for the permanence it promises, has trapped her. But a glancing reference to the potlatch practiced by the Kwakwaka’wakw people of the Pacific Northwest reveals what is really at stake, especially once she mentions the destruction that disease and the capitalist system wrought on Kwakwaka’wakw culture. The mortgaged property that makes her feel secure is on formerly Indigenous land. Boats brought firearms and epidemics and wage labor to that territory. Her own life is a gravy boat, its riches acquired a little too easily.
Elsewhere, Biss seems to have absorbed Federici’s claim, in Witches, that the enclosures of common plots were a grab that went beyond land: “We must think of an enclosure of knowledge, of our bodies, and of our relationship to other people and nature.” Biss spends a lot of time in her garden, pulling up weeds and trimming the hedges, trying to work out the limits of her territory. The middle-class accoutrements of house and car are, it becomes clear, not simply possessions but ways of retreating from public space.
Class, she points out, functions much the same way: a class is not defined by what it possesses but by the people it can keep out. It is a zero-sum game. In one chapter, Biss describes a friend’s visit to an amusement park named Great America, where he had to decide between buying expensive tickets and waiting for rides with everyone else or buying even more expensive tickets that would permit him to jump to the front of the line. Despite how wrong it felt, he bought the fast passes: “His only other choice was to watch other people cut in line.” He might have talked to his children while waiting or anticipated the thrill of the ride to come. But he sensed that the main delight of Great America was having something others don’t.
Gender is more complicated. Biss reminds us that women’s structural oppression has not always guaranteed their innocence. She opens Stephanie Jones-Rogers’s They Were Her Property and reads about how southern white women profited from the slave market, even if it meant “selling other women’s children.” She returns repeatedly to Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, where she discovers Virginia Woolf’s contentious relationship with her cook, Nellie Boxall. Biss and her husband do most of their own cleaning, but have a woman come in to mop the floors, which is enough to pose an ethical quandary in her circle. One friend claims this is just “outsourcing the oppression”; another thinks it’s fine as long as the pay is good. Cleaning seems to be demeaning somehow, but it’s not clear whether this is because it involves dirt or because it involves women.
Feeling guilty about being able to employ others does not keep a woman from occasionally being put in her place. Biss hints at this in her merciless portrayal of an impromptu mediation at the university where she teaches. After she complains about a male coworker’s domineering manner, her bosses invite her to his office and pressure her to give him a hug. (“Administering this hug is a two-boss job,” Biss remarks.) One of the bosses compares working relationships to marriages; when she objects, the other notes that Biss happens to be married to a colleague. The point dawns on her: “I’m already a wife at work, so I shouldn’t be surprised to be treated like a wife at work.” The mandatory hugs continue.
Biss does not make arguments through a logical progression of premises and deductions. Her method is accretive and associative: each chapter is a collage of historical facts, quotations from her reading, and scenes from her life. The reader is nudged toward certain conclusions, but not pushed. Allowing blank spaces to do so much of the argumentative work sometimes means that she can connect vastly dissimilar situations without taking responsibility for it. This is an occasional weakness in Notes from No Man’s Land, which, in one fragmented essay, rather oddly compares her apologies for a broken flowerpot to reparations for American slavery.
Having has its off moments too. In one chapter, Biss follows a story about her graduate adviser’s drunken avowal of love before her graduation with a news item about the sexual coercion of Mexican farmworkers in South Texas. Her point seems to be that women, no matter what kind of waged work they do, are expected to be unpaid sexual laborers also, the new “commons” of Federici’s theory. Still, it might have been salutary to distinguish between the harassment of a well-connected, middle-class citizen on the verge of getting an advanced degree and the rape of undocumented women who are trying to elude poverty, deportation, and violence.
Elsewhere Biss’s juxtaposition of different scenes and voices allows her to acknowledge divisive forces such as race, money, and colonialism while probing the reflexive declarations that often surround those subjects. At one point, Biss and her husband rent out their house for the filming of a Walmart commercial. The house is filled with the store’s branded furniture as “a white set designer and a white director work to create an authentic African American interior.” At the chapter’s close, the couple describes the situation to a friend, mentioning that their next-door neighbors, an African-American family, could have provided the real thing. The friend replies, not unpredictably, “I think that’s the definition of white privilege.”
This is a little too pat, but Biss does not say so outright. Instead, she begins the next chapter with a questioning voice not her own: “I don’t understand, my mother says. How is that the definition of white privilege?” Her interlocking rhetorical technique allows Biss to look at a statement with fresh perspective, to move a story in a new direction, or simply to undercut her own solemnity. In this case, she leaves the question unanswered but describes her mother’s relative poverty over the years. It is a way of revealing how limited any one theory is at accounting for people’s experience. Her mother, Biss notes, “still has white privilege, but she often does not have hot water.”
Most of the time, the blank spaces in Having convey the contradictions and bewilderments a person—even a privileged one, with access to experts and money to buy books—feels when trying to make sense of large-scale economic ideas. What do early modern witches have to do with the slave trade? What do Indian tea plantations have to do with factory labor? What do any of these have to do with the work of making art? Biss chronicles an ordinary life under capitalism without forcing her observations into a coherent system. Her fragmented, lyrical approach may not be to everyone’s taste, but it has the advantage of being modest, unlike the brazenly confident “grand theories” of other books.
The first impossible question is how modern capitalism works. The second impossible question is how we escape. Biss finds a counterpoint to the ravenous machine in Lewis Hyde’s cult 1983 book on art-making, The Gift. Hyde studied Indigenous practices in North America and around the world to understand the logic of gift exchange. Gifts have to be used up or passed on in order to remain alive; the person who holds on to a gift or, even worse, uses it as capital may find it turned to poison. Biss’s improvisations on this theme offer some of her book’s loveliest moments.
In an evocative scene early in Having, she visits her old apartment building. She remembers the social exchanges of neighborly life: the sculptor she drank wine with, the hairdresser who cut Biss’s hair in her home. She remembers, too, the things she gave and received. The widow who lived above her loved Toni Morrison, so Biss gave her an autographed copy of Sula. (This is generosity bordering on power move, but so many gifts are.) A neighbor who used meth gave Biss’s son “an Easter basket full of plastic cockroaches.” J was too young to remember this man, but Biss cannot forget him—the bugs keep popping up in the new house. The cockroaches are a perfect jolie laide symbol for the beauty of small gestures, how they bind us to one another, sometimes beyond memory.
Some of the gifts in Having stick around to provide an ironic commentary on the emptiness of mass-produced commodities. As Biss and her husband try to furnish their new house, she recalls the handmade furniture that filled her childhood home after a German cabinetmaker moved in (an odd detail that’s never really explained). After building cabinets and tables, the craftsman made scaled-down versions of the same pieces. The replicas stayed with Biss: “The tiny dresser sits atop my dresser, which is from IKEA.” These artisanal miniatures seem to represent both reproach and possibility. Other presents appear as promises. Biss’s mother tells her a version of the famous Baba Yaga fairy tale in which a girl escapes the witch by throwing objects she has received behind her. A hairbrush turns into a dense forest, a hand mirror becomes an uncrossable lake. Gifts, like works of art, can transform and be transformed. The story is a gift too, a legacy of feminine power from an enchanted past, handed down from mother to daughter.
The best gifts can be transformed into time, the one material an artist cannot do without: this is the economy of patronage, grants, and writers’ retreats. Biss struggles throughout Having with the recognition that, although she is rich in property, she still has to struggle for time to write. If anything, the house has made her poorer in the one resource that is most important to her as a writer, since it ties her more firmly to her job. “Work…is interfering with my work, and I want to work less so that I can have more time to work,” she writes, feeling her way toward the limits of the word.
At stake is not only how work is defined, though she runs through all the possibilities that the term offers. Work is paid with money, but sometimes it is better when it is done for one’s own fulfillment. Work can be a bullshit job in David Graeber’s sense, the grinding of a soul glossed over with fine titles and a robust salary; or it can be humble and built to last, the “good work” practiced by those who build and maintain. Whose work it is also matters. Possessive pronouns bear a heavy load here: “My work” is art; “your work” is taking out the trash; “our work” is utopian; and plain “work” is for one’s employer.
“The house isn’t mine,” Biss decides. “I don’t own it as much as I take care of it.” Strictly speaking, this is true: the bank owns most of it. Biss acknowledges that her house is an investment that serves her, but she also sees in it a gift to the future, one she feels a duty to maintain. Having and keeping are not the same; they imply different forms of social relation. Knowing that she will pass this legacy on to someone else, she spends a lot of time in her garden, planting and cutting and even pruning the rosebushes she doesn’t much like. Biss closed On Immunity by imagining the social body as “a garden we tend together.” Having ends with her standing in a hole she has dug in the ground with great pleasure, a ditch she playfully calls “my unquiet grave.” Maybe gardens are good places to think about the ends of things.
Around twenty years ago I attended a talk by Kazuo Ishiguro in Toronto. This was before he had written historical fantasy and dystopian science fiction, and someone must have asked him about range. He responded that some writers like to write about many subjects, but this was not true for him. What he had was a square of soil—I think I remember his hands carving its shape out of the air in front of him—and he would keep digging in it. He would just keep digging down into his little parcel of land, over and over again, to see what he could find. Biss’s chapters feel like this. In each essay, she returns to the same plot, and we peer over the fence and watch her bury her spade in the dirt.