Writer Eula Biss worked a variety of temporary jobs before achieving economic security as an English professor at Northwestern University. The moment her contract shifted from visiting artist to a more permanent title, Biss and her family bought a house. As she came to terms with her new success, she also found herself reflecting on precarity—as well as money, art and capitalism. Why is being an artist so at odds with the kind of mentality needed to find stability in our modern world? What do we give up as we pursue economic gain? How can we find agency—write our own rules for living—while also making our way within enormous capitalist systems that are entrenched and seemingly immovable? These are the big questions Biss approaches in her compulsively readable memoir, Having and Being Had, which blends research (the notes section is nearly 50 pages long), reflection and richly rendered personal experience.
Noting how a person’s economic norms are largely determined by their social group, Biss brings people from her life into this story—acquaintances she sits by at dinner parties, friends with whom she swaps books, academics at Northwestern and fellow parents. She thinks about her mother and brother, her husband and son, her house and belongings, her old neighbors and new neighbors, and the big abstract things that inevitably shape how she sees and moves through the world: gentrification, whiteness, privilege and consumption. Through all of this, she keeps a careful eye on how engaging in capitalist economic systems—even as someone experiencing success—brings an unavoidable sense of alienation.
For Biss, art can address this feeling of alienation. And the artfulness of Biss’ prose is fully on display in this memoir, which is made of tiny short-form pieces strung together like beads on a necklace, each one leading to the next yet also standing alone like a perfectly formed droplet. This is a book that asks to be read, absorbed and read again.