Malcolm Harris, “Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials” (2017) – Millennials! What remains to be said about them- about us, I should say? Well, “anything based on the facts of socioeconomic structure as opposed to stereotypes” might be the answer to that, and that’s what Malcolm Harris does in this book. He’s not a sociologist himself- he’s a millennial scribbler, part of the New Inquiry posse, not my favorite internet clique by a long shot. But little of their preciousness or obscurantism finds its way into “Kids These Days.” Harris instead sticks to the literature produced by sociologists and economists and connects it to a set of dynamics he doggedly sticks to. This is a practical book, praise be.
Productivity goes up- wages stay stagnant. Productivity goes up, wages stay stagnant. Spool that out in its implications and apply it to the other (epi)-phenomena you find, and you have an explanation of Millennials that actually makes sense and isn’t insulting or insultingly simple-minded. Millennials are some of the most intensely capitalized people ever produced, almost engineered to be pliant, highly productive workers in a capitalist system where the rate of change is ever-accelerating. Every generational change from intensive parenting to high-stakes testing regimes to over-policing has worked to produce workers adaptive to late capitalism- and to keep them from changing it.
It’s simple and convincing. What are participation trophies if not previews of the cheap (or free) quasi-rewards we get in lieu of better wages or shorter hours to go with our increasing productivity, ala free breakroom cereal? What’s phone addiction other than a generation unable to let go of its productivity-boosting tools for an hour, always being “on”? Boosting human capital is the one answer politicians, pundits, and for the most part parents have to the question of securing a decent life for the youth. But what happens when the qualified pool of labor expands — and it has, we’re the most schooled generation in history — but opportunities shrink? We’re finding out, and it’s not pretty. Harris sketches out some fun future scenarios including student-debt-peonage and climate apartheid.
Harris doesn’t, as they say, provide easy answers to this. In his final chapter he goes through the standard responses we’re told to try for unjust situations, from ethical buying to protest, and finds them all thwarted by the same logic that produced millennials in the first place- the logic of capital, with its main concomitant the terror of the carceral state. Harris doesn’t come out and say “revolution” as the alternative — if nothing else, the lack of popular organization and scariness of our police state come up often enough in the book — but he does call himself a communist before anything else in his “about the author.” Whatever it looks like, we need to come up with something, soon. ****’
Curzio Malaparte, “The Skin” (1949) (Translated from the Italian by David Moore) – Curzio Malaparte was born Kurt Erich Suckert in the German-speaking part of Italy. He was an early supporter of the Fascist party, although (and here this “although” is often used in an exculpatory sense, but not really by me) he clashed a lot with the Fascist authorities and later in life became both a Communist and a Catholic. Really rounding all the twentieth century bases, there! He wrote a book on coups d’etat that’s still read today by nerds into that kind of thing, and if wikipedia is to be believed, this is why he was put into internal exile by Mussolini.
Internal exile or no, he still saw a lot of World War II. “Kaputt” takes place on the Eastern Front, where Malaparte was a reporter- I read it early in grad school, my introduction to the author. “The Skin” takes place in freshly-Allied-occupied Naples in 1943. Malaparte finds himself a translator for high-ranking American officers, who he likes in a patronizing kind of way. The Americans strike him as utter innocents, unable to understand Europe, unable to understand themselves as conquerors even as people practically beg them to act as such…
Like “Kaputt,” “The Skin” is made up of chapter-length vignettes loosely connected. I remember noticing in “Kaputt” that Malaparte put a lot of emphasis on the supposed Asiatic character of a lot of the Soviets he saw. In “The Skin,” you get a similar emphasis on the amount of black soldiers deployed by the Americans and the Free French, so I think Malaparte did have his racial bugaboos. Prostitution is the central metaphor here- Naples, having been conquered so many times over, is experienced in selling itself to conquerors, but the Americans hold their noses and remain above it, even while Malaparte depicts them as wading through European decadence and corruption up to their necks. There’s several stories lingering on sex work, especially interracial sex work, and many of the rest are about an international society of decadent gays that find their way to Naples, I guess, by following their decadence-radar. I think the centrality of these poorly aged metaphors maybe serves to explain why “Kaputt” is the Malaparte go-to (to the extent people are going to Malaparte) rather than “The Skin.”
Away from these metaphors, Malaparte adeptly combines the surreal and the all-too-real. My favorite story is probably the one where the American officers are served a fancy fish dinner by the remnant of the Neapolitan aristocracy. No one can fish in Naples’ heavily-mined waters, so they get served fish from the aquarium, including mythical beasts like sirens. Malaparte’s exchanges with the Americans are also often pretty good, with a good comic rhythm that almost inevitably ends with the American officer calling Malaparte a bastard but being unable to dismiss him. In all, an idiosyncratic work less good than “Kaputt” but worth reading for people into writing from the ideological gangfuck of pre-1945 Europe. ***’
George Higgins, “Cogan’s Trade” (1974) – George Higgins was a Boston College law professor and, according to Wikipedia anyway, “raconteur” who also wrote numerous crime novels set in Boston. He’s credited with helping form the crime-fiction picture of Boston that’s now so popular in books and movies: a gritty world where all the institutions are connected by corruption and inhabited by highly verbal crooks, and where nearly everyone, in contrast to actual Boston, is white. I can’t say whether Higgins first charted this territory in crime fiction but he definitely shaped it for inheritors like Dennis Lehane.
One thing Lehane didn’t do, to the best of my knowledge anyway, is write a novel almost entirely out of dialogue, like Higgins did in “Cogan’s Trade.” The plot is sparse — low-level hoods rob a card game, the city’s organized crime element tracks them down and kills them — and doesn’t seem to be the point of the exercise. Instead, we’re treated to long dialogues between characters on various sides of this interaction, their attempts at planning crimes and surmounting the inconveniences put in their way, and just generally shooting the shit. The dialogue is very “authentic,” i.e., stylized differently than middle class “realist” fiction and generally more uncouth. The dialogues halt for brief moments for actual crimes to be committed and then picks up again.
I’ll probably read more Higgins because I’m curious about the genealogy of genre depictions of Boston, but this didn’t do much for me. Like any middle-class crime fiction reader, I like to rubberneck at the low life, but this feels especially low-stakes. There’s only so many conversations about characters who aren’t really present in the story or about having sex with sex workers or stealing dogs that I want to sit through. It got tedious and that’s a cardinal sin in crime fiction, the kind of thing a Lehane character (though not a Higgins, from this sample) would feel somewhat overdone catholic guilt for. There’s an admirable consistency to the whole thing — keeping it if not real than real to the reality of the world Higgins builds — but it ultimately amounts to little in this instance. **’
W. Somerset Maugham, “Cakes and Ale” (1930) – I’ve fallen badly behind in reviews, so this one isn’t as fresh as one might like. Like many of Maugham’s short stories (this began its existence as a short story before becoming a shortish novel) this one has a frame that makes it a story about stories, along with whatever else it’s about. The main character is a writer tasked with helping another, more successful and more glib writer write a biography of still a third writer, Edward Driffield, a recently deceased late Victorian great probably modeled after Thomas Hardy. The main character knew Driffield in his youth before Driffield became famous, and so the biographer wants the details from the main character. This is a problem, because everything about those times is tied up with Driffield’s first wife, the disreputable but charming Rosie, and Driffield’s widow wants as little of Rosie to show up in the biography as possible.
That’s a lot of frame for a short novel but Maugham sets it up with his usual facility and eye for character. The main character knew Driffield and Rosie intimately, in more ways than one, and his recollections make up the meat of the book as he struggles with how much to tell the biographer. The main character believes (and Maugham basically decrees) that Rosie inspired Driffield’s greatest works. But she was also promiscuous, encouraged Driffield to run out on creditors (who he eventually made whole- Maugham strives to make Rosie not seem too bad), and eventually left him for a richer man, none of which Mrs. Driffield wants in the biography. The main character (and Maugham) like Rosie, and the reader basically does too- she seems like a fun old gal and neither Driffield nor the narrator can blame her too much for following the nature that made her such a charming muse to begin with. The biography is basically a framing device for Maugham to do character studies on Rosie, the biographer, and to a lesser extent some others, and Maugham always excelled at those. Worth a read for fans of Maugham or depictions of the turn of the 20th century artistic life. ****’