On Grant Hamilton: The World of Broken Machines

failingmachinesI’ve been interested for a while now, in relation to a book project, in the contemporary philosophical “school” of speculative realism. One of the things I wanted to do in the project was to link literary reading and writing to this philosophy, something that had not been done extensively at the time I began the project. Since then, Graham Harman, one of the foremost representatives of the new school, published an essay on the topic in New Literary History, entitled “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer” (more about this text below), and now Grant Hamilton, a professor of English at Hong Kong Chinese University, has published The World of Failed Machines: Speculative Realism and Literature with Zero Books. It’s this book that’s finally dragging this blog kicking and screaming to its true (literary theoretical) purpose: it’s what I want to talk about in the next few paragraphs. This is a off-the-cuff critique, and re-reading the book may soften it. But for now, I’m more baffled than enlightened.

Hamilton sets out to briefly recapitulate the major tenets of speculative realism (and one of the striking effects of his commendable brevity is to make the philosophy seem curiously limited, reduced to a number of fairly simple propositions of which “we cannot know the (real, noumenal) world” is the most crucial). From these insights, Hamilton sets out to argue the literature therefore cannot have a “meaning,” which for him appears to signify a single, transcendent truth about a text. This having been placed out of reach, Hamilton argues, we should conceive of literary criticism as a speculative venture: one that acknowledges its previous object—meaning—is in fact out of reach, and therefore should return to the text-as-object, something, Hamilton alleges, “literary theorists have actively been engaged in doing away with thinking about” (52). He borrows from Levi Bryant the idea that we should conceive of being as a world of machines (developed in Bryant’s Onto-Cartography), and would like us to see that the text-as-machine and the (literary critic) reader-as-machine come together in a reading machine. This reading machine, Hamilton suggests, produces an “output” (an act of reading) which is heavily influenced by the individual state of the reader and the text: it is never the same between different reading machines, that is, different states of text and reader. In other words, because a text will only ever produce an output as part of a reading machine, and the reading machine is dependent on an ever-changing reader, it is impossible to arrive at any sense of the text beyond its immediate impressions: “any residual sense one may carry of a universal or transcendental meaning embedded in the text finally evaporates” (112). The conclusion of an object-oriented literary criticism then is, as Hamilton avers, is to reorient one’s approach: “One simply asks of a text, ‘Does it work for me?’” (111). He advocates the “death of judgment as a universal or transcendental schema” and the “proliferation of passion and private engagement” (120). He offers a more thorough list of possible things the literary critic can do (Clear Space! Begin (Anew)! Begin Again! Persist! Create and Innovate!), but this appears to be the thrust of his argument: because object-oriented ontology insists of the impossibility of obtaining access to the world as it really is, we must deny the existence of transcendental meaning, and instead understand our reading processes as necessarily bound to a highly singular act of reading in which nothing more than the individual, private reactions to literature can be investigated; and these should be investigated by a recourse to your personal interactions with the text. This, Hamilton says, is the art lost to the critic (though presumably open to the lay reader), and it is what he should recover.

Maybe. Because Hamilton does appear to lack the courage of his own convictions. His afterword proposes his reading method merely as “another class of approach”, one which can stand with all the kinds of interpretive and universalizing readings he has spent the book dismissing. Yet this is curious: if the philosophical grounding of his argument is (for given values) “true”, then these other modes of reading have lost their validity: if a book must be conceived as merely part of a necessary reading-machine, then the “relationships within which a literary work takes place” and the “constitutive features of the text in hand” (124-5) appear to be impossible to grasp outside it, and so much become subsumed to the reading machine. But perhaps the more problematical, if logical, result of his deductions is that the “object-oriented literary criticism” he suggests could be practiced is so…unthinking. “Do I like this novel? Am I affected by this poem? What do I connect with or identify with in this short story?” (125) sounds far more like a high-school exercise than an engagement with a literary (!) text—and it does not so much concern the text-as-object so much as it concerns readerly, and avowedly individual and even solipsistic, reactions to the text-as-text. What exceeds the object in this reading, what we cannot know about the noumenal book, remains unclear.

What’s even more unclear, though, is what this form of reading gets us. Now, I’m not fully qualified to speak to the philosophical grounding on which Hamilton builds. But it does look like object-oriented literary criticism, done the way Hamilton proposes, is not literary criticism at all. How do you trace the “private products of a particular reading machine” (111)? Or, more particularly, if all you trace is the private product of your reading—writing up what moved you, and why, if such a thing is even possible (if you can identify the hows and whys of such an emotional or affective reaction)—then how is literary criticism distinct from everyday reading, or the kind of reading practiced by reading groups, or on Goodreads? And if it is not distinct, why should it be done? And if it is distinct (Hamilton’s five suggestions on reading seem to vaguely suggest ways in which it might be distinct from just plopping down with a good book on a park bench somewhere, but don’t spell that out), what is its purpose?

The book, in all its cheerful shortness, would have been better if it had paid this more attention, if it had spend as much time working out a method as it does working out the philosophical rationale, or if had spent more time arguing its criticism of contemporary literary criticism—a field where Hamilton sometimes has quite baffling commentary. I’m going to restrict myself to one observation here, which is about Hamilton’s conception of meaning. In a long early section on Mallarme (whose purpose it appears to be to say how similar his poetry is to the tenets of speculative realism), Hamilton suggests “knowing the world”, “gaining access to it,” and “creating meaning” (39) are (to Mallarme, but by extension to the speculative realist critic) the same thing, and that language is not fit for these purposes. But while I agree that language will not permit us to “know” the world in the sense that speculative realists use the idea of “world” (by definition, almost), meaning, certainly in the literary critical realm, is much more fluid than that, and (again, almost by definition) that language is here to do: language gives meaning to a world otherwise inaccessible. Literary meaning, therefore, is not like the web of relations an object enters into, many of which remain outside our capacity to fathom: literary meaning exists only when we put it into words.

Why does literature need to be considered an object or a machine in this? It’s not clear. In simple words: Hamilton’s spirited attempt to develop a first object-oriented literary criticism is reminiscent of the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, only in lieu of sheer nakedness, Hamilton has dressed the emperor up in assemblage of older literary theories (with at least one shocking, perhaps willful, misreading of Pascale Casanova, who most certainly does not claim that literature “exists other to this world in which we live”! (115) even in the very quote Hamilton uses to justify this point). More so than giving us a handle on how speculative realism may serve as the foundation of literary criticism, it appears to give us a handle on the limits of the reach of speculative realism.

There are also other curiosities. Without trying to (broken?) hammer Hamilton too much, it seems passing strange that he does not cite Graham Harman’s fascinating Weird Realism, in which Harman outlines the affinities between H.P. Lovecraft’s writing and his philosophy. Neither does he cite Alain Badiou. This is strange not because Badiou is a sympathizer of speculative realism, but because he is an avid reader of the same Stephane Mallarmé whom Hamilton believes to be a prime example of a poet whose works reflect the concerns of speculative realism. Which, in turn, leads to a methodological problem. Like Harman with Lovecraft, Hamilton’s selection of the Symbolists seems to rest not on an act of literary criticism (in this case, an employment of the methods which Hamilton believes we should draw from speculative realism), but on a prior affinity of these writers’ work with speculative realism: a speculative realism avant la lettre, as it were. If, as Hamilton seems to imply, a speculative realist method would require us to speculate ourselves, his parsing of the Symbolists has none of that necessity, since they already are speculative (realists) themselves. In fact, Hamilton’s reading of the Symbolists is the exact opposite of what his initial theoretical excursus seems to desire: in it, “Baudelaire creates” (36) something that we might call cheekily the Ideal of speculative realist literary method, and gives us direct access to it. For a critic as insistent as Hamilton on the insufficiency of language, the claim that Baudelaire makes his points “perfectly clear” (37) seems vaguely troubling. I might quibble with minor points of Hamilton’s readings, too: his apparent surprise at a line in Baudelaire (“Sweet as oboes, green as meadows,” on which he comments “sweet as oboes?!”) which is thoroughly conventional (in that the oboe has been traditionally described as “sweet-sounding, while the meadows bit is almost painfully trite), for example, but is presented by him as something specific to Baudelaire.

What’s perhaps most interesting to me personally (aside from suggesting that an intersubjectively valid speculative realist literary criticism appears to be getting further and further away from us) is the way Hamilton’s insistence on the personal and private, the aesthetic and involved reading coincides with other recent attempts to decenter critical reading in literary studies in favor of affective and affirmative reading, such as in Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique. I hope to be able to say something about that in a while.

Matt Ruff: Lovecraft Country

lovecraft countryMatt Ruff’s newest novel, Lovecraft Country, is a return to the form which I think he lost sometime after Sewer, Gas, Electric. Now, it’s bad form to begin a review by complaining about an author’s previous novels, but I found especially The Mirage a disappointing book. It’s a fantastic alternate history novel that ultimately declines its alterity in favor of assuming something fundamental, Platonic, about the nature of individual human beings—if you are a bad person in this reality, you will be a bad person in that alternative. I’ve written a bit about this in an essay, but I’m coming to Ruff’s newest novel as an unalloyed fan nevertheless, someone who thought Fool on the Hill was outstanding, and who adored the brilliance of Sewer, Gas, Electric…and could at least nod happily along with Bad Monkeys and Set this House in Order. So there.

Lovecraft Country is set in 1954, and follows a Black family—a son and his father, his uncle, aunt, and niece—through their encounters with a cult called the Sons of Adam. The central figure in all this is the son, whose name is something of a giveaway of the concerns that this novel has and the tradition into which it inscribes itself. Let’s say that there’re some character names that don’t immediately ring the bells of recognition and intertextual reference—“Joe,” say, or “John,” or “Paula” (which is not to say that you can’t make meaningful connections, only that you’d be more likely to let the name be just that name). Ruff’s protagonist is named “Atticus,” and—this just in, Harper Lee’s dead—that’s a name that clearly doesn’t just slip by, especially when the novel is also set in the fraught Jim Crow past. As the novel starts, Atticus, a mid-twenties veteran of the Korean War, is setting out to return to Chicago from Florida, following the receipt of a letter from his father, a somewhat unexpected event given the two men’s distant relationship. Arriving in Chicago after some hassles, Atticus discovers that his father, Montrose, has already left with a white man for New England, more specifically the town of Ardham, Massachusetts. Together with his uncle, George, and childhood friend Letitia, Atticus sets out to find his father.

As it turns out, Atticus is the target of a cult called the Sons of Adam. The last descendant of the cult’s original founder, Titus Braithwaite, Atticus is necessary for the ritual which the cult plans: a return to the Garden of Eden. The ritual is sabotaged by Braithwaite’s son Caleb, and the family return to Chicago: not, however, to safety and normality, but rather to further machinations of Caleb’s, who aims to obtain control over all the chapters of the cult, everywhere in the United States.

I won’t give away the ending, nor many of the pulp-fictiony, very 1940s and 1950s magazine-taleish things that happen to Atticus and his family and friends in what is the larger part of Ruff’s narrative. Lovecraft Country’s indebtedness of Lovecraft lies partly in this, the joyful way it plays with the horror pulps. Lovecraft’s a household name to Atticus—an avid reader of science-fiction and fantasy novels—but Lovecraft Country is rather adamant that Lovecraft’s imagination isn’t “real”. It’s ArDham, not ArKham, MA, that Atticus needs to go to to find his father; it’s a “book of names” that Caleb Braithwaite needs retrieved, not a Necronomicon; and instead of Lovecraft’s sinister black cultists, it’s the police lieutenants and rich white men who gather to do the unspeakable deeds. What Lovecraft Country is interested in is not so much the “countries” of Lovecraft’s imagination, but the country Lovecraft inhabited. Lovecraft is invoked in the racism which Atticus et al. continually encounter. As Ryan Vlastelica of AV Club has noted, the novel has a very episodic feel to it, and it is within the vignettes, and the vignettes within vignettes of second-hand tales and memories, that we perceive the everyday horrors of living in Jim Crow America. George, for example, runs a travel agency that also publishes the Safe Negro Travel Guide, which lists the few-and-far-between hostels, diners, gas stations, and so on which service black men; Laetitia struggles to move into a house she has bought in a white neighborhood, and is saved from arson only by the ghost which still haunts the house; and perhaps most devastatingly, there are many encounters with law enforcements officers which range from impolite disinterest to county sheriffs’ willingness simply to shoot black men and women in cold blood. Lovecraft Country’s horror, proper, isn’t really scary—a mid-book sequence with an animated puppet gave me a puppety creep, but that might just be me, and rather cleverly calls back to the kinds of horror which EC Comics, for example, put out in the 1950s—but that’s because it’s realist passages are plenty powerful. In Lovecraft Country, the supernatural horrors and the horrors of everyday racism vie with one another, but the latter always wins: the supernatural can be managed by invocations and knowledge, but racism remains unalterably powerful in the lives of the black characters in the novel.

Unalterably powerful—but if so, something to work against, work around, and ultimately defeat, by their own power. This is perhaps the significance of Atticus’s name. Atticus is an unease namesake of Atticus Finch: violence comes far more naturally to him (not just as a veteran), for one thing; but the replacement works. Harper Lee’s Alabama wasn’t exactly a haven, either, but while a few good men existed, it could be made to seem savable. Lovecraft Country throws its Atticus back on himself, and his family—there is no good lawyer to brave the racist storms in this novel. But without giving away in of the particulars of the novel, its epilogue, set in 1955, begins on a hopeful summation of what good things happened in 1954: Brown v. Board of Education, and the final desegregation of the armed services. The events of Lovecraft Country may be read behind the line “other victories, less heralded but no less vital” (367). The novel symbolically enacts a victory over structural racism and ideologies—and is a rattling good read.

The Poetics of Genre in the Contemporary Novel

1498517293I’ve missed posting this, since so many other things happened in late November and December (and hey, now it’s March, and I’ve still not fully recovered from them). But I wanted to say that Lexington Books put out my edited collection, The Poetics of Genre in the Contemporary Novel, on November 25 or so. As the editor, I want to take the opportunity again to thank my contributors, who were a joy to work with, and encourage you to buy a copy of the book for the low, low price of $ 95! Well, I’ll be okay if you don’t.

What I’d just like to say is that my introduction, which can be found on Academia.edu, makes a point that I’m rather insistent upon, namely that the work of genre in the contemporary novel should be understood to be deeply meaningful to the project of the novel: it’s where we can most easily trace the major shifts which are currently happening in novel-writing. Step aside, Jonathan Franzen: realism’s (probably and hopefully) not the novel’s future.

Roger Luckhurst: Zombies. A Cultural History

luckhurstAs I’ve said somewhere here, I’m working on a book on zombie fictions, so I read whatever is new in the field. Roger Luckhurst’s brand-new “cultural history” of the zombie is among the most interesting recent entries in a growing field. Not terribly long at 220 pages, it nonetheless offers a century’s worth of zombie culture, inclusive of film stills and other graphic material. Luckhurst’s prose is engaging and witty, lucid and magisterial, so the book was a joy to read, and exceptionally informative—in parts. So here we get into the criticism bits of this post.

Luckhurst’s Zombies splits somewhat uneasily into two by no means unconnected, but very much unevenly handled sections. The first half, which really only carries the zombie’s cultural history from about the early 1900s to 1945, is outstanding, a must read for anybody interested in the zombie. Luckhurst expands the history of the figure tremendously from the usual story of William Seabrook and Zora Neal Hurston, White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie. He teases out the American fascination with Haiti, built in large part on American economic imperialism, and draws powerful role the “the black republic of Haiti has played in the colonial imagination of Europe and American since independence in 1804” (40). It’s these long lines that make Luckhurst stand out: it’s an actual argument for reading the zombie against the colonial and imperialist backdrops of its country of origin, rather than the usual, more or less encyclopedic enumerations of zombie appearances that most previous studies have undertaken. At the end of the first one hundred pages, then, I marveled at Luckhurst’s facility in making strong connections between Haiti and American popular culture. Relativizing the impact of Seabrook and Hurston, bringing in less often discussed influences such as Lafcadio Hearn, and situating the entire issues of the zombie in the 1920s and 1930s in a larger survey of the “colonial margin of the American empire” and its influences on American popular culture, Zombie: A Cultural History here traces its grounds expertly, offering a wealth of information. Luckhurst’s conclusion: “By 1939, the zombie is recognized by its embedded references in American culture, rather than through obscure colonial folklore” (65); that is, by 1939 “zombie” already refers to an American version of a voodoo figure, rather than that figure itself.

Yet what seems to me to be a desirable revisioning of the zombie figure is perhaps taken a little too far in the end, and this is where the second section of the book suffers. If I found the first half to be genuinely surprising, establishing a new narrative of the zombie that helpfully elucidates the at least awkward history behind the popular cultural appropriation of the figure. But Luckhurst’s narrative is more ambitious than this: he seeks to keep this Caribbean connection alive even as he draws away from the pre-war era and into the 1950s and 1960s. Again, some of the things he does seem eminently useful, such as including films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers in a greater narrative of what anxieties film in the postwar period engaged; whether or not one buys he relating the Red Scare with the (yet to come) zombie masses or not, at least Luckhurst ably weaves the major strands of popular cultural production into a usefully coherent whole here. But when Luckhurst seeks to draw together his narrative of the zombie as a product of colonial fantasies and the seminal films of George Romero, things become slightly awkward. First, the connections between Romero’s films and the Caribbean remain, at best, tenuous. Sure, “Night takes the vengeful dead from EC Comics and re-injects them with all the cannibalistic terror that underwrote colonial fantasy” (143)—if by that we mean there are two things that appeared in different contexts that both appear in Night of the Living Dead. But there is an sense here that Luckhurst believes the coherence of his argument requires this connection to be more meaningful, even if ultimately, his own sense of how this greater meaning would work is left unclear. This issue becomes evident in Luckhurst’s reading of Dawn of the Dead, for example. As he rightly points out, the read the film as a critique of consumerism is “hardly the unearthing of a brilliant ideological subtext”; but at the same time, his argument that this reading is guilty of “nudging out of the picture the complex colonial history of the zombie” (150) seems vastly unwarranted; and indeed, Luckhurst himself doesn’t offer a positive reading of this “complex colonial history” that would impinge upon a reading of Dawn.

And this is perhaps the books great problem, at least on its final 100 pages or so: the sense that while Luckhurst’s readings aim to set themselves off from much previous criticism, they do not provide much substance by themselves. I felt myself nodding along with much of it. Little of it is spectacularly new, and indeed, perhaps it provides too neat a narrative in its effort to establish that “wherever it comes to stop” it “remains connected to the meaning of Haiti and the islands of the Antilles to the modern world” (15). Luckhurst’s sense of the zombie’s necessary connectedness to Haiti is too strong in the way he offers it. It echoes other recent conceptualizations which, however, leave more room for readerly interpretation and variation. Maxime Coulomb, in the Petite philosophie du zombie, for example, speaks of “sedimentation” (2012, 14) when he describes the way previous meanings of the zombie remain active in more contemporary ones; Haiti and colonialism linger, yes, but need not have the kind of direct expression that Luckhurst often at least implicitly finds in the contemporary zombie. Given that Luckhurst’s drawing on the Haitian origins of the zombie in popular American culture barely ever leads anywhere, a less ambitious thesis might have done the book some good.

Every so often, too, there are bits and pieces that are a critical jump too far. Speaking about Romero’s influence in general, Luckhurst first claims that “the American state was of course founded by millenarians hoping to establish the New Jerusalem as the last redoubt against a sinful, fallen Europe” (156)—a summary that seems at least deserving of a little more caution than Luckhurst’s “of course” leaves—and then notes that “Romero’s zombie films have been appropriated by Christian thinkers” (156) as grounds for reading the films’ success in terms of a post-war millenarian revival culture. While this is an appropriately trenchant and culture-surveying reading, it also seems at second glance more suggestive than substantial. Similar moments, in fact, occur frequently in the latter half of the novel, especially when Luckhurst discusses the most recent boom in zombie fictions. Speaking of Max Brooks’s World War Z, for example, Luckhurst summarizes its conclusion by claiming that “[a]s is common to the American apocalyptic imagination, the disaster proves a hygienic reboot for a nation that has forgotten its Puritan foundations” (185). Where Luckhurst draws the Puritans from here, why he feels compelled to reduce the novel to its American aspects, and how the sense of “hygiene” comes in, is never explained. The problem here then is not that this is not an interesting reading, but that it’s a reading backed up by very little engagement with the text proper, perhaps even to the exclusion of some of the text’s more overt meanings.

Luckhurst’s study, despite all this, is a must buy for its first half and a can buy for its second; it is pithy and abrasive, opinionated and sometimes condescending, frequently surprising. Its own narrative of zombie culture may be foreshortened, but at least its foreshortening brings to the fore the often disregarded, or at least never fully spelled-out, implications of the zombie’s origin in colonialist oppression and appropriation. Its daringly radical thesis, I think, is not successful: but no matter, since the book as a whole is worth the time spent reading and digesting it.

On Columbus Day

Columbus Day was upon us two days ago, celebrating the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the “New World” and there’s been some good backlash against it. Now, let me say that I think it’s well deserved: there’s very little in Columbus himself that we should be celebrating, and there’s a deeply unhappy strain of racism, white supremacism, and lack of historical consciousness in a blanket celebration of the so-called discovery of America. But, and this is where it becomes more complicated, the solutions offered by some this year seem to be well-intentioned enough, but similarly problematical. The Guardian‘s James Nevius notes that Columbus was a lost sadist, and he’s certainly correct. But here’s his counteroffer:

Rather than a holiday celebrating one man, let’s have a day where every local community celebrates the native cultures connected to that locale. In New York, we could honor the Algonquin-speaking Lenape; in Utah, there could be a festival for their namesake Utes; in the Dakotas, a celebration of the Sioux, while at the same time recognizing the plight of many Indians on reservations.

It seems a natural substitution from conqueror to conquered, but it’s similarly irrational, and somewhat random. There is no denying the plight of Native Americans on reservations today, and we would do well to recognize it (and even better to do something about it that’s not merely symbolic); but what would be the point of celebrating, instead of single people, entire, complex, often largely unknown cultures, on the basis that they used to be where we are now? Not, to be sure, remember them, investigate them, and discuss the way they came to an end, but to celebrate them? For one thing, what about these cultures should be celebrated? The Ute were, among other things, a warrior culture, as were the Sioux – but I don’t suppose we are meant to celebrate their version of tribal warfare? And though Nevius doesn’t mention them, for the Iroquois, as Daniel Barr has shown,

War represented a many-sided expression of their world view, a complex, vital component of Iroquois culture that was at times an almost daily part of their lives. (Unconquered, xv)

Do we celebrate this part of Iroquois heritage? I doubt that we should. And that is the problem: the proposal is nonsensical because it rightly condemns one undifferentiated world view (Columbus “discovered” the New World for Europeans) with another one: all Native American heritage should be celebrated. But to substitute the blanket celebration of complex cultures for Columbus is banal and knee-jerk, and does no one justice; substitute celebration instead, as Nevius does in describing Columbus, with historical discussion; in lieu of celebration, highlight this discussion, historical awareness, and a measured analysis of all the consequences of the momentous events of October 12, 1492. You’d be doing Native Americans a favor, and you’d still get to dismantle the idealized Columbus of yore.

On Jonathan Franzen’s Purity

The Nation‘s Jon Baskin offers a perceptive review of Jonathan Franzen’s latest whopper, Purity, which I’m still in the process of reading (it’s a bit of a slog). I’m very happy, given all the praise that Freedom received, that (in passing), he just calls what it is: a “very bad novel.” Purity, as far as I can tell so far, is (as a novel), also very bad…

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.