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The modern American realist novel in a time of r>g
June 24, 2014 1:25 PM   Subscribe

In the LA Review of Books, Stephen Marche reflects upon the Literature of the Second Gilded Age. In his recently published book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, economist Thomas Piketty argues that when r>g, that is, when an economy's annual rate of return on capital exceeds the economy's annual rate of growth, wealth inequality tends to increase, and that this condition has held both during the 19th century and since around the latter quarter of the 20th century. Unusually for an economics book, Piketty's work makes reference to several pre 20th-century works of fiction. Stephen Marche discusses role of this literature in Piketty's book. He goes on to critique the modern American social-realist novel. Although these books are not discussed by Piketty, according to Piketty's research they too pertain to a time in which r>g. Marche however accuses the more modern literature of being a "restrained, aspirational product" with "most of its sting removed".
posted by mister_kaupungister (15 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
The characters in all these novels strive to understand society’s codes and then to obey them. Resistance to the preordained structures of success and failure hardly occurs to anybody. Even the drugs are the appropriate drugs to take at the appropriate times. Sex is principally a social action requiring a multi-volume etiquette. The lives at stake have three acts: The characters want to fit in. They try to fit in. They fit in, sort of. The novel of the second gilded age is a novel for hoop-jumpers.

This articulates something I've had buzzing around my head for a while, both in relation to fiction and life. The overwhelming message if "your megre prosperity is under constant threat, learn how to appease the people with the money or you will cease to be a person."
posted by The Whelk at 3:09 PM on June 24 [12 favorites]


"The baby boomers’ final demand in their fantastic voyage of complete self-fulfillment is that the young worship at the altar of their wisdom. They purchase this flattery."

Lots of brilliantly turned sentences in this. Great piece, thanks for posting.
posted by escabeche at 3:20 PM on June 24 [5 favorites]


Kentucky Route Zero, a video game, is probably closer to what they're after than any book that's out there currently.
posted by hellojed at 4:16 PM on June 24 [2 favorites]


Also, from a Cat And Girl comic, no matter what you study in college, the major is Upper Middle Class Socialization And Appeasement.
posted by The Whelk at 4:42 PM on June 24 [8 favorites]


I've recently started this experiment in which I'm going to avoid any new novels that are 1) set at least partially at an elite college/university or 2) about elite college/university-educated 20-30 somethings in New York or 3) written by elite college/university educated 20-30 somethings currently living in New York or 4) some combination of the above. My suspicion is that I will be 90% less annoyed when reading new fiction.
posted by thivaia at 4:53 PM on June 24 [7 favorites]


(I may or may not be knees deep in a draft about young New Yorkers at an elite school who consistently and supernaturally get thier asses handed to them cause they have no idea how the real world works.)
posted by The Whelk at 5:06 PM on June 24 [6 favorites]


Great article, thanks for that!

I am reading Piketty now (in fits and starts) and I love how he brings in Austen and Balzac to illustrate his points!

I also try to avoid novels about elite college/university educated New Yorkers -- I've got Facebook for that *rimshot*!
posted by maggiemaggie at 5:13 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


I love the idea of the "good college" replacing courtship/marriage as both the key to the reproduction of bourgeois security and thus the backdrop of the middle-class coming of age novel (the parents who obsess over the right "Ivy-track" kindergarten and hire SAT tutors and admissions consultants standing in for their Victorian counterparts and their angling for their child's "suitable marriage" to the third viscount thus-and-so with his income of £2,000 a year).

Though I wish somebody could manage to write about the modern phenomenon with half the self-awareness and sense of irony that Austen brought to bear. The closest we ever seem to get are to any acknowledgement that this might not be the best of all possible social arrangements are the books about about some misunderstood sensitive soul who, as though by mistake, was born into a family of middle- or possibly even lower-middle-class people, but has now arrived by virtue of sheer earnest thoughtfulness and a merit scholarship at a Good School where he or she will be accepted into a surrogate family of fellow sensitive and thoughtful people and takehis or her rightful place among them in the upper middle class. This is the highbrow equivalent of those books about the foundling peasant's child who turns out to be the rightful heir to the kingdom.
posted by enn at 5:18 PM on June 24 [8 favorites]


Of the modern novels mentioned I have only actually read Franzen's Freedom and Waldman's The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. I actually enjoyed Waldman's novel very much, although Marche's essay I think really does capture a major theme - "self preservation", "hoop jumping" - exactly. I understand the point that if these concerns are dominant in fiction then it seems like an endorsement of the way things are, and that the net should be cast wider.
posted by mister_kaupungister at 6:26 PM on June 24


(I may or may not be knees deep in a draft about young New Yorkers at an elite school who consistently and supernaturally get thier asses handed to them cause they have no idea how the real world works.)

HEY YOU GUYS THE WHELK IS WRITING THE MAGICIANS BY LEV GROSSMAN
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 6:43 PM on June 24 [5 favorites]


> Also, from a Cat And Girl comic, no matter what you study in college, the major is Upper Middle Class Socialization And Appeasement.

Upper Middle Class Socialization - 128 credits.

I found the OP really interesting. Thanks for posting!
posted by postcommunism at 6:49 PM on June 24 [4 favorites]


HEY YOU GUYS THE WHELK IS WRITING THE MAGICIANS BY LEV GROSSMAN

Dear Elder-Gods-On-Low, please no. One version of the story was more than enough and was terrible because it did not end with a shoggoth with indigestion.

I'm hoping the esteemed velveteen snail is taking a more Wodehouse-ian approach. Modern upper class twits find themselves trapped in mountainous molehills of their own devising (someone unfriended? a "Yo" sent to the wrong person?) and their only hope is an individual, public school and state university educated, who works for them in some service capacity (doorman? barista? Uber driver?) and is more intelligent and street-smart than the whole lot of twits combined, and solves their tangled webs without complaint. However, despite her or his assistance, this individual from an inferior school will never be admitted into their friend lists nor hired at their shiny new disruptive startup, which somehow involves celery-as-an-app.
posted by honestcoyote at 8:49 PM on June 24 [2 favorites]


It's more like the unpaid interns of Secure Contain Protect but I do like that idea.
posted by The Whelk at 9:00 PM on June 24


Agents and researchers are to stop calling D-class personnel "unpaid interns". It hurts their morale.

-O5 Council
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:50 AM on June 25 [1 favorite]


Is the 21st century realist novel a contradiction in terms? Has economic inequality proceeded to such a point that dystopian satire is the only true realism?
posted by jonp72 at 6:27 AM on June 25 [2 favorites]


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