Having and Being Had dwells on Biss’s unease about her participation in a system whose values she does not embrace, even as she savours its rewards. No pleasure can be simple. She evokes the never-satisfied hunger that characterizes life as a consumer under late-stage capitalism: “In the furniture stores we visit, I’m filled with a strange unspecific desire. I want everything and nothing”. She gets tangled up in the contemplation of what “work” means. Is it her teaching, her art or the time she gives to her house and family? She would like to quit her job to write, but writing is her job. “Work is, in fact, interfering with my work, and I want to work less so that I can have more time to work”, she writes. “I need another word.” She wonders about the distinction between “work” and “labor”, their definitions slippery in history as well as in her own life. “There is a blurring of meanings now, in many languages, between the words for arduous toil and satisfying work”, she writes. She sells the idea for this book in order to buy more time to write … this book.
So what to do? Biss is hardly the type to come to any firm conclusions: her style has always been nuanced, musing, calling attention to social and economic inconsistencies while acknowledging how she remains enmeshed within them. But the book does arrive at a resolution of sorts, with Biss making the decision to sell her work into the economy she is so fearful of, in order to buy herself the time she so desires. “My time,” she writes, “already spent on writing, will pay for itself.”
In Having and Being Had, both gifts are on display. Biss traces the roots of our assumptions about wealth, work and property, and reveals the ways in which capitalism is inculcated and internalised – how we subscribe to its demands from the moment we are born. We have been saturated in it for so long we no longer feel it, in the way that fish don’t know that water is wet. If you are over 40 and ever wondered what exactly happened to your life, Biss puts her finger on it, and then presses hard.