The Stories We Tell About Class

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Eula Biss. (Courtesy of Riverhead Books)

In one story commonly told by the United States, homeownership promises the good life. A white picket fence, sure, but also a washing machine, health insurance, family dinners, and a retirement account. In her new book, Having and Being Had, Eula Biss scrutinizes the persistence of this promise by reflecting on her affluence. “When I could pass as permanent,” she writes, “I bought a house.” But permanence, she quickly learns, has its own set of insecurities, alienations, and self-delusions. Much like homeownership, the stories we tell about money keep America bound to capitalism.
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While Biss’s previous works—On Immunity, Notes From No Man’s Land, and The Balloonists—interrogate the invisible contracts of race and gender, Having and Being Had explores the nature of work, leisure, investment, and consumption. The question embedded in the book’s title (How does what we own own us?) remains, not fully resolved by the series of short essays that further prod: What happens when the things that provide us with comfort are also the things that make the world unlivable? (Perusing a furniture store, Biss writes, “I want everything and nothing”—a deflated desire that reappears throughout the book.)

The book’s focus on everyday life—a game of Monopoly, weekend yard work, new Ikea furniture—is undergirded by an inquiry into history, literature, and economics. In one section, Biss writes about her real estate agent, who is “forbidden by law” to discuss demographics while selling homes in a neighborhood where redlining once “translated race into property value.” In another, she reintroduces Virginia Woolf as both literary model and cautionary tale. Elsewhere, she surveys how slavery and marriage made people into objects.

If writing about income inequality often orients toward big-picture prescriptives, then Having and Being Had invests in transparency and self-scrutiny. Published in the face of massive state failure and a surge in mutual aid projects across the country, the book suggests that talking about class—and specifically class privilege—is a necessary step in redistributing wealth and building equitable communities.

I talked to Biss about precarity, the anti-capitalist nature of poetry, and whether there’s any way out of this. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

—Taliah Mancini

Taliah Mancini: You suggest that the house is wrapped up in a cult of safety, permanence, and security. What does one have to trade to become part of this cult?

Eula Biss: Part of what I traded away was a certain degree of control over my own time. In order for me to buy a house, I had to be willing to be locked into my job in a way that I had not been before. Many people trade away flexibility and freedom when they enter that cult, and I think some people leave the cult because they want to live in a different way. This is one of the things I wrestled with in this book. I don’t necessarily believe in homeownership as a financial strategy or a wealth-building mechanism, but people who, for various reasons, don’t own their houses are disadvantaged in terms of building wealth and passing on wealth to their children. And that has ramifications in terms of some very basic forms of security. This is one of the things that make me angry about our system. You actually have to be quite wealthy to have very basic kinds of stability—to know that your health care is covered, your child’s education will be covered, that your retirement will be covered. We’d like to imagine that those are middle-class givens, but they aren’t.

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