Cultures Literature Monthly Review

February Review: ‘Having and Being Had’

Enthralling Discomfort: Having and Being Had by Eula Biss

I come across Having and Being Had by Eula Biss on a wild Friday night reading a listicle on ‘The 10 best accessories for working from home – in pictures’ and inhaling a bar of Dairy Milk. I’m incensed by a £27.00 stapler, but it is tempting. The sleek, colour blocked acrylic beckons me and I think about the kind of person I could be with this piece of plastic on my desk instead of the one from Wilko. A nauseating combination of desire and discomfort settles into my stomach. Putting the chocolate down, I click on the next article which just so happens to be on extract from a book about capitalism. I go to bed smug with the knowledge that I’ve ordered a collection of literary nonfiction essays and not a floating smartphone stand. Go me. 

Biss is interested in the kind of anxiety provoked by my evening ritual of browsing online for things I have the means to buy but can never bring myself to checkout. I’m not saying I can really afford designer stationary as a soon to be English graduate living in a council house during a global pandemic, but I could get some if I really wanted to. Except I don’t. “What does it say about capitalism […] that we have money and want to spend it but we can’t find anything worth buying?” is the question that begins Having and Being Had. After years of living as a poorly paid artist in unfurnished apartments, Biss has just purchased her first home. Certifiably middle classed and middle aged, she succumbs to the need for a sofa but finds herself walking out of shops empty handed. It’s not the worst problem in the world; I’d do anything these days to spend an afternoon in DFS. But Italian velvet and French chenille only leave Biss less comfortable and more curious about the value system she has both bought and been born into, a value system which has led her to this moment.

Anecdotes abound in Having and Being Had; almost every 2-3 page meditation begins with one, each grounded in the present tense. Trips to furniture stores, bicycle accidents and conversations about gravy boats are all points of departure from where we’re steered toward questions about privilege, property and work. Biss digs up the daily narrative of her existence wanting to unearth the small, tall tales which licence our slightly delusional lifestyles. The book’s exercise in transparency is a response of kinds to Joan Didion’s suggestion that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”. “The lies we want to believe tell us something about ourselves” replies Biss. You could hardly call what she does brave, but it is difficult.

Like lots of storytellers, Biss is both dependent on and sceptical of the words at her disposal. The more Marx, Smith and Piketty she reads, and the more sociologists and economists she consults, the less transparent words like luxury and class actually become. At one point, Biss finds herself using Scooby-Doo to articulate what capitalism means. Afterall, “every Ghost, every mummy, every vampire turns out, in the end, to be someone trying to get rich”. Talking with another parent in the playground she comes up with the theory that “There’s always got to be a trapdoor that allows the capitalist to access a profit greater than the original investment”. Don’t worry if the analogy is lost on you because a moment later Biss wonders if she’s really describing capitalism at all or just “the paranoia that life within capitalism produces.”

The language Biss grasps at to understand money crumbles at the slightest touch so it’s no surprise that that the form of Having and Being Had is deceptively fragmentary too. The collection feels like a series of narrative poems; epigrammatic in style, the essays can hold their own in isolation, and yet they flow seamlessly into one another without any real overarching argument. The result is an enthralling reading experience. It’s a testament to Biss’ brilliance that it’s hard to tell when or how you go from reading about the way the stupidly wealthy feign normalcy to the disturbing history of Monopoly- all within the turn of a page. In this sense, the book is seriously indebted to Maggie Nelson and in the notes section Biss acknowledges that it is Nelson’s concept of “true abstraction” that she is trying to work through. If you like the way Nelson’s Bluets suspends philosophy between two inky tadpoles without further comment, you’ll delight in the passages from other writers that are littered throughout Having and Being Had. Otherwise, Biss’ repetitive use of stand alone quotation can get a bit much and at times the page resembles a research document for an essay that’s yet to be written.

Biss is at her best when she wields her lacerating sense of humour and she has a gift for cutting through to the ridiculous in the everyday. A personal favorite is her characterisation of “The Vest”. We all know one- they’re usually white, usually male and usually completely insufferable. It’s the kind of guy so deeply enamoured with the sound of their own voice that they’ll politely disacknowledge your existence. At the end of a particularly trying meeting Biss mouths “I want to kill you” at The Vest in her professional life. She’s “appalled” at herself, but I’m not. Another lovely moment comes when she reads John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society whilst waiting at her son’s ice skating lesson. The woman next to Biss whose husband works in finance seems “slightly offended on behalf of capitalism.” 

Although Having and Being Had shies away from the consolation of a conclusion, it feels like Biss is reaching for a specific question to answer. It soon becomes clear that she’s skirting around the knotty issue of art’s relationship to money. There’s a lot at stake for Biss, a professor in creative writing at an elite institution where the students who aren’t rich will likely graduate with debt that can’t be paid off by what she teaches. But she is also desperate to make her own art and to do that she needs to claw back the time her day job takes from her. What is the material value of art? Does it really need any? If not, how can a person create if they can’t afford to live? These are big questions and whilst Biss repeatedly notes the limits of her investigation- her whiteness and middle classness are obviously restricting- Having and Being Had still ties up its metaness up just a little too neatly. “I will sell a book- this book-  to buy myself time,” Biss writes near the end. “My time, already spent on writing, will pay for itself.”

Biss is ashamed of the life she desires, one spent creating art, learning French and playing the piano. When she looks her hypocrisy in the face, Biss flinches from a reflection that resembles a mid 18th-century aristocrat and we flinch at ourselves too. In the end though, she can’t seem to offer herself or us anything more than discomfort. Having and Being Had is published in the same month a 23 year old footballer is having to convince the government of the world’s 6th largest economy that its children don’t deserve to starve. Unease isn’t enough. I bought a book to help me sleep at night- all Biss can do is write one. 

Breeha Mazhar is a third year English Language and Literature student at Lady Margaret Hall. Formerly Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Blue and Senior Lifestyle and Columns Editor, she now covers food, consumer culture and literary fiction and non-fiction writing.