Occupy Fiction’s as Doomed as Occupy: Karl Taro Greenfeld’s The Subprimes

subprimesIs there such a thing yet as “Occupy fiction”—fiction which reacts creatively to the sadly-doomed protests which, for a brief moment in 2011, seemed to be able to rally people in the quest for a new conception of collective action? There’s Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, which features a homeless and quasi-Occupy camp in New York’s Central Park, whose violent clearing is one of the crucial moments in the plot, but Shteyngart’s novel keeps its distance to these protests. There’s also Edan Lepucki’s California, which essentially picks up the issues spotlighted by the Occupy protests and extrapolates them into a somewhat-far future in which climate change and an increasing split between rich and poor have divided America into heavily-gated communities and people living desperately off the land.

And there’s Karl Taro Greenfeld’s The Subprimes, which shares much with Shteyngart’s novel and much with Lepucki’s, and yet is almost completely different. Greenfeld’s novel imagines a future United States (how far in the future, nobody knows) in which the ideologies of neoliberal capitalism have prevailed in almost all respects: there are no more unions and no more free schools, no health care except for those who can pay, no more good middle-class or indeed lower class jobs. Its closest parallel to Shteyngart’s novel is its insistence on the importance of credit rating, which becomes a caste marker that condemns people beyond a certain rating to a steady spiral downwards to a new status: subprimes, those whom no money is lent, who have no income beyond day work, no future in a world in which money alone determines success. It’s closest parallel to Lepucki is its extrapolation of the dangers of climate change.

The novel follows a slightly—but not entirely—disparate set of characters. There are the Bailey and Jeb and their kids, subprimes who have packed all their possessions into their car and have joined the exodus from no-longer-rich California east, into Nevada and points beyond, out of the “Ryanvilles,” shanty-towns echoing the Hoovervilles of the 1930s. Barred from entry into Nevada through usual means by their low credit score, they enter illegally on backroads to settle in an abandoned housing development, Valence, which, slowly but surely, they turn into a community. And on the other side, there are those who have so far been better off: Gemma Mack, the wife of Arthur, a finance trickster whose pyramid scheme has landed him, first, in court, and second, on the show of TV evangelist Pastor Roger, whose gospel of capitalism keeps millions in thrall. Gemma, her kids in tow, moves back to California, and there meets Richie Schwab, a journalist-and-dead-beat-dad who cannot cope with the increasing and stifling control over personal behavior exhibited especially by his son’s school. Finally, there’s Sargam, the mysterious, motorcycle-riding loner whose leadership of the Valence community renders her into a community hero even before the final climatic confrontation in which the novel’s threads all come together at Valence and are, as best as possible, resolved.

Greenfeld’s book is funny at times, and too close to home to be funny at others: but it’s not an undiluted success. This is most evident in awkward joint the novel offers between its economic and political satire—the novel offers a cultural critique of sorts of the power and choices of coverage of the media, as when Gemma and her kids find a stranded whale that they would like to see saved, and instead see turned into a spectacle—and its parallel critique of something else; and that “something” must remain awkward here, because it’s not quite clear what it is. Richie Schwab’s travails with his son revolve around something like political correctness gone mad, perhaps, or a satirically heightened sense of the pervasive fear of child abuse: his son is stamped as a sexual predator for touching a girl’s behind in school—“a surreptitious fondling of the buttocks” (52), as the school’s principal informs Richie—and he is stamped one for a rough session of touch football with a couple of neighborhood boys. If there’s room to wonder about the soft-padding of children’s lives in contemporary society, especially in American schools, the subplot sits awkwardly against the deeply existential problems of a developing economic caste system.

As the subprimes depart California, heading east in overloaded cars and vans, Greenfeld’s novel reenacts Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, if in reverse, an exodus from the Californian dust bowl and lack of perspectives east, where at least some fruit picking may still be had. Greenfeld’s update of Steinbeck lacks Steinbeck’s power, however, and indeed it also lacks the power of Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. In Shteyngart’s novel, finance is the dominating issue, determining in the last instance all that happened: its further gimmickry all boils down to the control which international finance capital exerted on the lives of people, an impersonal system which does not require individual agency for its perpetuation, only individual apathy.[1] In The Subprimes, while monetary interests are always present, they are personalized monetary interests: the shady financiers behind Pastor Roger, for example, or indeed Pastor Roger himself. The problem with this approach is, of course, that it lends itself to the wrong conclusions: if only it weren’t for people like Pastor Roger!

This complaint—that the novel overly personalizes, individualizes, and indeed lionizes, individual action, must be made especially with regard to its conclusion. Not only is it Richie’s son’s individual, somewhat mad action that collapses the assault which is being undertaken on the community installed at Valence: in its aftermath, Greenfeld introduces an awkward theological-fantastical note that seems deeply unhelpful when Sargam, the community leader, apparently raises Richie’s son from death. This fantastic moment—which is really only fantastic, and not outright fantasy, because the novel doesn’t own what seems fairly clearly to be a supernatural act—weakens Greenfeld’s book. It weakens it because the real achievements of the squatters, their construction of a functioning community from the wreckage of an all-too-familiar future, is suddenly infused with problematic notion that it takes a Messiah, but not the kind of messianic figure which Jim Casy embodies. Where Casy’s status as a messianic figure (besides the somewhat blunt JC initials) stems from his sacrifices (and remain perfectly mundane), Sargam’s supernatural messianism is problematic for what it seems to suggest. No ordinary organizing will suffice—but why not? In taking away sacrifice and loss, and vaguely placing its hope in the arrival of a savior (whose every action before must now necessarily be read differently, too: was she successful in organizing the community because she is endowed with supernatural powers?), the novel willfully counteracts its own narrative of self-empowerment, self-organization, and the power of the mass of disenfranchised people in the face of the deep systemic challenges its characters face.

So what’s the take-away? Fredric Jameson has recently written that

Capitalism began with enclosure and with the occupation of the Aztec and Inca empires; and it is ending with foreclosure and dispossession, with homelessness on the individual as well as the collective level, and with the unemployment dictated by austerity and outsourcing, the abandonment of factories and rustbelts.

(New Left Review 92, 130).

The Subprimes sketches this moment, but in calling back to Grapes of Wrath, it also implicitly condemns us to the realization that capitalism really may not be ending, as Jameson has it: just as it didn’t end in the 1930s. No matter the devastation to the individual lives which contemporary capitalism produces, The Subprimes implicitly reminds us that what awaited us at the end of the Great Depression was a global war, and all the novel offers us with regard to avoiding this fate is the hope for a supernatural savior. Let’s not hold our breath.

[1] But here’s another observation: what Greenfeld’s, Lepucki’s, and to an extent Shteyngart’s novels also share is a somewhat limited perspective on the issues they discuss: their geographical restriction leaves doubts about the state of the world at large. Shteyngart’s protagonist eventually moves to Italy, where, apparently, things are at least less dire; but what the status of the rest of the world is in Greenfeld and Lepucki remains open.