The Literature of the Second Gilded Age

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Thomas Piketty




The Literature of the Second Gilded Age by Stephen Marche

June 16th, 2014 reset - +

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is perhaps the only major work of economics that could reasonably be mistaken for a work of literary criticism. Thomas Piketty’s grand analysis of the state of wealth and inequality, currently hovering near the top on the New York Times bestseller list, doesn’t just toss in a throwaway reference to fiction here or there. The novel is at its heart. “[Austen and Balzac] grasped the hidden contours of wealth and its inevitable implications for the lives of men and women, including their marital strategies and personal hopes and disappointments,” Piketty writes. “These and other novelists depicted the effects of inequality with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match.” Fiction is the living flesh on the mathematical skeleton of Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Piketty believes in the power of the novel more than most professors of literature. 

That attention to the novel makes sense in the light of the book’s economic argument. Its most contentious prediction is that advanced economies are returning to a state of rapid technological progress whose benefits flow overwhelmingly to owners, and that the glorious period between 1913 and the 1970s, during which inequality lessened, was a brief exception rather than the rule. The 19th-century bourgeois novel — and Piketty’s literary references come almost exclusively from the 19th century — was a product of a patrimonial society in the middle of industrial ferment. Austen and Balzac wrote about a way of life to which Piketty believes we are now returning, one in which questions of property overwhelm all others. Their novels make natural guides to the economic regimes he describes.

Piketty doesn’t have much to say when it comes to contemporary fiction (though Orhan Pamuk comes up a couple of times). The man is, I suppose, a French economics scholar; it would be expecting a bit too much for him to be up on current trends in contemporary American fiction. Still, it’s a pity, because the processes that Piketty describes in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the mechanisms of a return to a patrimonial society, have already been reflected in American fiction with almost ridiculous specificity. Writers like Adelle Waldman, Meg Wolitzer, Chad Harbach, Rachel Kushner, Claire Messud and, above all, Jonathan Franzen, have already chronicled the emerging meritocratic class and its new economic reality.

Culture is the echo of economics. The bourgeois novel has been resuscitated while the “bourgeoisie” is shrinking significantly, and those who remain are consumed with the anxiety of how to keep themselves and their children in the category. Burgeoning middle-class anxiety and its immediate daily pressures — the need for money and status — are natural subjects for fiction because they are the realities facing the people who have the time and money to spend on novels. Piketty has shown that we are living in a Second Gilded Age. A literature for a second gilded age has already arrived.

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Future economic historians won’t have to look very far to find fictional descriptions of our current financial realities. The social realist novel of the moment can be identified by the preeminent, almost exclusive, emphasis it places on social expressions of the changing economic reality. Currently, the large-scale realism of Jonathan Franzen, articulated in his famous article for Harper’s in 1996 and achieved most fully in The Corrections and Freedom, stands utterly triumphant. The narrative forms that thrived in the mid-nineties — minimalism, with its descriptions of poor and rural men; magical realism which incorporated non-Western elements into the traditional English novel; the exotic lyricism of John Berger or Michael Ondaatje — have been pushed to the side. 

The principal subject of mainstream literary fiction today is the way we live now, meaning the way the upper middle class lives now. The characters’ lives are aimed, with single-minded purpose, toward the achievement of comfortable and socially acceptable financial security, which is threatening always to collapse or is in the process of collapsing. If Raymond Carver was the master of the death of the American dream, Franzen is the chronicler of its ghostly persistence — the combination of economic growth with deepening insecurity. His characters run on the currents of two polarizing forces — a sense of entitlement and a sense that those entitlements might soon be taken away. “The problem was money and the indignities of life without it,” Franzen writes in The Corrections. “Every stroller, cell phone, Yankees cap, and SUV he saw was a torment. He wasn’t covetous; he wasn’t envious. But without money he was hardly a man.” Freedom is more direct in its relationship to property than The Corrections. Under Franzen’s scrupulous gaze, the house belonging to the Berglund family takes on the status of an Egyptian pyramid or a Gothic Cathedral — a physical expression of the aspirations of a generation. 

The natural terrain of this generational struggle is college and life just after college, the setting of The Corrections and Freedom,but also of Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. The arc of Franzenite fiction goes from leaving the bosom of an institution to finding a place in the world of markets and neighbors. This journey is often shared by the members of a clique, a group somewhere in between friends and an economic tribe. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, a book that deservedly made nearly every best novel list of 2013, is a kaleidoscopic investigation into one such assortment, a group formed at a summer camp for the arts who never lose the sense of belonging they find there.

Leaving camp, one of the Interestings reflects on how much the institution has done to shape her identity: 

Jules was neither bigger hearted now, nor meaner, she decided. She has gone away as Julie and was returning as Jules, a person who was discerning. And as a result she could not look at her mother and sister without understanding the truth of who they were. They had taken her away from the people she would dream about forever. They had taken her away from this

Upper-middle-class cliques emerge from expensive places, although it’s more typically a college than a camp. Colleges become characters in these novels — Brown University in The Marriage Plot, or Westish College in Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Franzenite novels are not afraid of becoming institutional profiles. Camps and universities are natural subjects for the bourgeois novel of the moment because they have become expensive ways of replicating privilege, of falling in with the right sort of people, of learning the prerequisite social codes.     

There is a more straightforward route, of course: finding an old man and flattering him. I’ve come to think of this trope in contemporary fiction as the “magical elder.” The magical elder gives access to the institutions that distribute power. Sometimes these people are mentors — a publisher, a camp director, a teacher. Sometimes, as in Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, they are just parents who show up to pay for dinner. In David Gilbert’s & Sons, a great novel about living under the shadow of a previous generation, a father’s Catcher-in-the-Rye-like success both destroys and creates all of the opportunities in his children’s lives. In Teju Cole’s Open City, it is Professor Saito, an 89-year-old scholar of early English literature who lives on Central Park South. Julius, the novel’s wandering narrator, met him — where else? — at college: “He had taken me under his wing when I was a junior at Maxwell.” Sandro, the magical elder in Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, introduces his lover Reno to his rich Italian family, to money and motorcycles and art. One of the first things we learn about Reno comes as an almost embarrassed confession: “I did learn more from Sandro than I had in art school.” 

The post-collegiate novel is a coming-of-age story, but in its current expression it is a coming of age into a world where the elderly own everything. Incidentally, Franzen predicted this reality on the first page of The Corrections: “Three in the afternoon was a time of danger in these gerontocratic suburbs of St. Jude.” The baby boomers’ final demand in their fantastic voyage of complete self-fulfillment is that the young worship at the altar of their wisdom. They purchase this flattery. A study from 2009 found that 42 percent of young Americans had financial help from their parents, and this number goes up to 80 percent for those from higher-income families. The debt burden that comes with higher education is such that the cost of entering the professions is prohibitive, except for those with access to capital. The result is that to become bourgeois you must already be it; you must already belong to those with access.

These structural forms of inequality fit Piketty’s vision of a return to patrimonial society perfectly. The jeopardy driving the plots in contemporary social realism is identical to the jeopardy faced by Austen’s or Balzac’s characters. Only the ground has changed, not the fury of the dancing. How is the hero going to survive? How is she going to avoid disaster to become or to stay rich? The threat of the shrinking middle class, while it may sometimes provoke unsettling debates about the possibilities of societal reform, more often creates a ferocious private determination not to go down with the others. It’s a hell of a good place to begin a story.

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The return of the patrimonial novel is clear enough to the novelists themselves. The Marriage Plot opens with a direct evocation of literary ancestry. We are whisked into a student’s bedroom and the first thing we see are the bookshelves:

There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters. 

The placement of that bookshelf is the key detail, of course: in a student dormitory at an Ivy League School. Class negotiations in the great 19th-century novels came through the institution of marriage. The novels of the second gilded age are focused with similar intensity on the institution of college. An American Ivy League education is, first and foremost, a class marker, a demonstration that you could get your hands on a quarter million dollars as a teenager. A recent survey from The Crimson revealed that Harvard has exactly the same number of students from the bottom 50 percent as they do from the top one percent. 

When young Americans meet in a foreign country, “Where did you go to college?” is the requisite canine butt sniff. From that answer, anybody who also went to an American college can easily establish the entire social constellation of the respondent. And so it’s perfectly natural that the first word of Americanah is “Princeton.” Credentialism has even leaked into the author’s cover bios: “Chad Harbach grew up in Wisconsin and was educated at Harvard,” “Jeffrey Eugenides was born in Detroit and attended Brown and Stanford universities.” The epigram to The Interestings is “For my parents who sent me there.”

College has essentially replaced the debutante ball and the presentation at court. The difference is that college is less honest about its motives. Hypocrisy and self-critique are reflex conditions, ways to outflank the brute materialism of the new economic reality. Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is a ferocious dissection of homo harvardiensis,but her character has already thoroughly dissected himself. “Nathaniel Piven was a product of postfeminist, 1980s childhood and politically correct, 1990s college education. He had learned all about male privilege. Moreover, he was in possession of a functional and frankly rather clamorous conscience.” This conscience does not prevent him from becoming an asshole.

Teju Cole’s Open City takes much of its fierce passion from the contemplation of exactly this problem — that one educates oneself only to learn that the privilege of education matters more than its substance. When Julius is in Nigeria, America is a series of college names: Haverford, Bard, Macalester. In New York, he remembers his time in Nigerian Military School in Zaria. Julius’s thoughts are a long, hypereducated drift, overflowing with esoteric references: “I flitted from book to book: Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Peter Altenberg’s Telegrams of the Soul, Jahar Ben Jelloun’s The Last Friend, among others.” But Julius distrusts his own education, as we see in the argument he has with two Moroccan men he casually meets in a restaurant. Their opinions jibe neither with his political correctness about Jews nor his political correctness about Arabs. “I knew that my own fear of anti-Semitism, like my fear of racism, had through long practice become pre-rational. What I would impose on him would not be an argument, it would be a request that he adopt my reflexes, or the pieties of a society different from the one in which he grew up, or the one in which he now functioned.” And so Julius demonstrates that he is educated enough to distrust the value of his own education — a gesture well-known to anyone who has attended a course in critical theory, or to anyone who has met a member of that necessarily hypocritical, secretly tormented, now nearly extinct tribe, the tenured radicals.

Of course, the negotiation of the meritocracy does not end at Harvard. It requires ongoing, unremitting self-examination and self-correction. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. documents its protagonist’s smallest psychological and material realities and at first, the focus on Nathaniel’s pettiest anxieties and hopes makes you wonder why the writer would bother. What is a woman like that doing with a guy like him? What is the point of such a high-powered, brilliant, obsessive gaze falling on a mildly creative non-failure whose education has convinced him that original thought is just another predetermined category? As The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. progresses, however, the claustrophobia of Nate’s narcissism grows more fascinating and urgent. The absurd level of detail reflects the overbearing self-consciousness of this kind of human being. Nathaniel P. cannot even breathe without reckoning for social approval or critique. “He exhaled loudly. An ex-girlfriend — not Elisa — once told him he was a histrionic breather.”

Typically, such an intense focus on the internal mechanics of a single character would be the marker of plotless, avant-garde fiction. But the self-examination and posturing of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. have real stakes. By positioning himself properly, Nate achieves financial victory: prestigious magazine work and a 6-figure book deal. In the 19th-century bourgeois novel, the child through adventures comes to possess property as an adult. In the 21st century, developing a successful mode of self-presentation is the adventure. It’s an inner Pygmalion story — Nathaniel P. carves himself into the respectability he craves. 

The characters in all these novels strive to understand society’s codes and then to obey them. Resistance to the preordained structures of success and failure hardly occurs to anybody. Even the drugs are the appropriate drugs to take at the appropriate times. Sex is principally a social action requiring a multi-volume etiquette. The lives at stake have three acts: The characters want to fit in. They try to fit in. They fit in, sort of. The novel of the second gilded age is a novel for hoop-jumpers.

The mechanics of propriety aren’t just the subject of Franzenite fiction; they are also the reality that underlies its making. Never in the history of literature has the writer been so much a creature of institutions — inevitably, even the most successful teach. Jogging has replaced drinking as the signature writerly activity. The only ism remaining is careerism. 

In the wake of this institutionalization, the dominant style has become a mild, correct one: Do not embarrass yourself. First do no harm. It is better to have no glories than to fall. The literature of the second gilded age is filled with no bad sentences, and no magnificent ones either. 

When Franzen articulated his idea of a new social novel in his1996 Harper’s essay, he had the novelistic tradition of social critique firmly in mind. “The necessary lie of every successful regime, including the upbeat techno-corporatism under which we now live, is that the regime has made the world a better place. Tragic realism preserves the recognition that improvement always comes at a cost.” And yet, the new fiction of the second gilded age has had most of its sting removed. The glory of Henry James and Edith Wharton was that they looked sideways at the structures of power. The look is now determinedly upwards. In place of tragic realism, the social novel has become a restrained, aspirational product. Franzen emerged in the same cultural context as alternative 1990s rock, and he has the same mollified, diffuse rage against “society,” a rage vague enough to indulge the joys of rebellion without the concomitant difficulties of offering solutions. This was the 1990s on campus: educated in the panvictimology of alternative culture, people of privilege learned to hate the source of their privilege while maintaining their own status in perfect working order.

The restraint of this form of social realism is also an evasion; one thing that is rarely, if ever, discussed is money itself. “It is surely no accident that money — at least in the form of specific amounts — virtually disappeared from literature after the shocks of 1914-1915,” Piketty writes. “Specific references to wealth and income were omnipresent in the literature of all countries before 1914; these references gradually dropped out of sight between 1914 and 1945 and never truly reemerged. This is true not only of European and American novels but also of the literature of other continents.” The explanation, according to Piketty, is simple: inflation. Inflation “rendered the meaning of money ambiguous.” And so, in contemporary novels, readers almost never learn the key facts about the characters — the amounts in their bank accounts and in their parents’ bank accounts. The absence is a failure, aesthetically as much as politically. Money is the greatest metaphor of them all.

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A social novel that belongs to a tightening circle of parochialized international elites isn’t worth much more than the latest brunch spot, identical in Paris and New York and anywhere else there might be money. If the novel is just another way for rich people to distinguish themselves subtly from one other, who cares? Why not put better tiles in your foyer rather than buy novels or write them? Why not just buy a boat? Or at least an Audi?

It is not inevitable that the return to a patrimonial society will generate a new patrimonial literature. The novel has historically been the great enemy of snobbery. Openness to various forms, to various voices, to the cacophonic influx of impressions provided by industrial life, has been its triumph. The novel’s great advantage as an art form is its portability and cheapness. The novel goes everywhere; it belongs everywhere. Its diversity is not the dictum of politically correct university administrators. Its masters include ancient Roman perverts, court ladies in Japan, rural English spinsters, African schoolboys and old Newark Jews. The novel represents true cosmopolitanism, not the cosmopolitanism of the museum café, not the cosmopolitanism of Monocle magazine — the wealthy raiding the world for its sleekest delicacies. The cosmopolitanism of the novel is an embrace of the world — the elaborate result of a simple urge to be with strangers. Joseph Conrad knew that urge when he wrote that the point of literature was proximity: “Come closer. Be with me for a while. Let me think your thoughts. Think mine. See what I see.” The novel is, and always has been, a reflection of social upheaval. But the social realism of the past two decades has taken a side in this struggle; it views the world through the perspective of the uncomfortable winners.

The debates around Capital in the Twenty-First Century have been extensive, but also crude. Right-wingers dismiss Piketty as a Marxist; the Left wants to use his research as a cudgel to beat the wealthy. It is too early to expect actual public policies to emerge from his insights. But the significance of his contribution is already apparent in the breadth of his vision. Nestled under the book’s mass of data, elegant mathematical formulae, and literary references is an insistence that the turmoil of capitalism is a human turmoil, within the control of human beings. Piketty’s book is a call to citizenship, not as a series of fatalistic poses, but as a political responsibility. That spirit of engagement is more radical, at this moment in history, than any other proposal.

The novel, meanwhile, is returning to the crisis that has resided at the heart of its power for two centuries. The hero at the beginning of a grand adventure faces it, and the writer staring at a blank page, and the reader looking up from the book. The questions are the same for all of them: Who does the world belong to? What can I do about it?

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Stephen Marche is a contributing editor at Esquire magazine and the author of the forthcoming novel The Hunger of the Wolf.

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