Guernica Magazine

Lessons in Discomfort

Eula Biss’s essay collection Having and Being Had tries to tangle with the compromises of life under capitalism.

Growing up, my sister and I had no idea what our dad did for a living. As far as we could tell, when he wasn’t shuttling us to and from school and various music lessons or reading or listening to his vast collection of classical music CDs, he sat at his computer at home all day, in front of a spreadsheet that would occasionally emit noises that sounded an awful lot like “cha-ching!” Whenever we had to fill out forms listing our parents’ jobs, he would tell us, under “company,” to write “self-employed,” and under “occupation,” “investor.”

Every couple years or so, we’d ask him to explain how the stock market worked. Actually, we’d ask him to first explain what the stock market was. “Okay, but what exactly is a stock?” we’d press him, determined to nail down the details of this mysteriously slippery world once and for all. But his explanations never really stuck. We were looking for something concrete, some hard, specific reality to grab onto, and all we got were confusing ideas like “shares” and “fractions of a company.”

There were moments, reading Having and Being Had, Eula Biss’s new examination of capitalism and white middle class life, when I returned to this same childlike bewilderment and frustration. Capitalism is hard to talk about, built as it is upon abstractions, layer upon layer of universally accepted illusions that turn physical stuff and experiences—paper, a house, one’s education—into concepts like money and assets and

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