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Karl Taro Greenfeld and the novel of inequality

Discussed in this essay:

The Subprimes, by Karl Taro Greenfeld. HarperCollins. 320 pages. $25.99.

It is hard for a fiction writer to know how to engage the present American moment head-on. Social instability — not just resentment over the growing economic gulf between rich and poor but the mainstreaming of the notion that the state itself, especially in its few merciful aspects, should be drowned in the proverbial bathtub — feels less theoretical right now than it has in eighty years, since John Dos Passos concluded “all right we are two nations.” This powder-keg culture might seem like rich material for storytellers, but dramatizing such a situation is harder than it appears: how can the novel, which Milan Kundera once described as “the imaginary paradise of individuals,” meaningfully portray the conflicts of groups, crowds, classes? How do you make invented characters operate as symbols or stand-ins without turning your work into a moralistic puppet show?

Karl Taro Greenfeld is one of the few writers we can watch trying to figure it out. All the best, most painful satirical touches in The Subprimes, his dystopian new novel about a near-future America in which economic inequality has run wild, are incidental details — in the corners, as it were, of the book’s vision. One character’s child attends Subway Fresh Take Paul Revere Charter Middle School. The public defender’s office is operated by Über Justice. On a cross-country flight, another character travels Upright Class: two armrests, a backrest, but no seat. Callers to 9-1-1 are asked, “Premium or Regular?” The minimum wage has been abolished by the National Right to Work Act, teachers’ collective-bargaining rights have been outlawed by the Right to Learn Act, and unemployment insurance, via the American Empowerment Act, has been reduced to a $250 voucher valid only at fast-food restaurants. Greenfeld doesn’t specify a date, but we can’t be too far into the unknown, because Anderson Cooper and Oprah are still alive.

“Casa Palermo Lake Las Vegas homes looking southeast, Henderson, Nevada,” by Michael Light, from Lake Las Vegas/Black Mountain, published in May by Radius Books. Courtesy the artist and Radius Books

“Casa Palermo Lake Las Vegas homes looking southeast, Henderson, Nevada,” by Michael Light, from Lake Las Vegas/Black Mountain, published in May by Radius Books. Courtesy the artist and Radius Books

It’s in relation to his characters themselves that Greenfeld’s stance seems less confident. The novel’s title refers to a new American caste: transient communities of squatters, a sort of fallen middle class, rousted by the cops after compulsory credit checks. These communities, made up of “the millions who had walked out on mortgages, been foreclosed upon, or simply could no longer afford a fixed address,” are known as Ryanvilles, presumably after Congressman Paul Ryan and the Hoovervilles that sprang up during the Depression. Men work as day laborers, gathering by the thousands in hopes of being selected for a few hours of loading freezers or swabbing vats. The worse their living situation, of course, the more they are looked down on; their poor credit scores assume a moral component that makes any mistreatment seem justified.

The novel opens with a police raid on a Ryanville in California, during which a particularly cruel security guard is knocked out by a mysterious woman named Sargam. Even her Ryanville neighbors don’t know a lot about Sargam. She seems to hail from nowhere, and her ambiguous name may not even be her real one. She grew up in, and ran away from, a series of foster homes. She does not know her birthday or her age but estimates that she is around thirty. We are told that she is “often confused for African American, sometimes for Indian, occasionally for Native American, once in a while Indonesian or Sri Lankan. She was all of those things . . . people and countries and ideas and dreams all rolled into one.” She has no credit history. After heroically laying out the security guard, she hops on her motorcycle and lams it into the night. Some of the other displaced families, desperate to stay out of privatized debtors’ prisons, head east to Nevada, in pursuit of “rumors about suburbs with abandoned houses.”

A second level of the novel’s stratified plot follows a woman named Gemma Mack who, while decidedly a one-percenter, is nevertheless struggling to negotiate a downturn in the family fortunes after her husband, Arthur, a Wall Street trader, is arrested for running a massive Ponzi scheme. Gemma, a well-intentioned woman with no idea what deprivation really means, begins the novel stuck in traffic in the Hamptons — a phenomenon with which she is unfamiliar because until recently she, like everyone else she knows, traversed Long Island exclusively by helicopter. Her future promises similar hardships, including an Upper East Side home in which her two daughters will have to share a bedroom. “They would be regular people,” Gemma frets. “Considering what the world had become, regular had come to seem horrible.”

A third, even more privileged character is known as Pastor Roger, an ultraconservative preacher whose megachurch is housed in the former Texas Stadium. Described as “surprisingly fit for a man in his fifties, looking like a cross between Andrew Jackson and one of the Jonas Brothers,” he exists mostly as a figure of parody. When, for instance, whales begin beaching themselves in alarming numbers on the coasts of Long Island and California, he interprets this as “a sign from God that the government was overregulating the offshore drilling industry.” Believing, for some reason, that the prosecution of Arthur Mack is a malicious plot against a job creator by left-wing environmentalists who hate success, Roger posts Mack’s bail and offers to pay for his legal defense. “When it gets to the point an American can’t build a profitable business without the federal government coming in and tearing it down,” he says, “well, that’s the point at which we may need to revisit the Constitution and remind our countrymen of our inalienable rights.”

The last of the novel’s central characters is, of all arcane things, a writer. Richie Schwab still makes a living banging out hacky celebrity profiles for glossy magazines, despite a barrage of lawsuits that accuse him of negligence and outright fabrication. He wrote a good book once, in his younger days, but now he is coasting on irony and smoking a lot of pot (all of which is grown by former tobacco giants like Altria and R. J. Reynolds). Although he recognizes that the America in which he lives is profoundly screwed up — as when he is ticketed by the police for the apparently sexual offense of playing tackle football with a bunch of neighborhood kids — he has grown too cynical to care, a character note that immediately relieves any suspense about how his particular story line will be resolved. Any instinct we might have to read Richie as a stand-in for Greenfeld himself is encouraged by the oddity that his are the only first-person, present-tense sections of the novel.

Having introduced these disparate figures, the novel sets about bringing them together in one place, and the name of that place is Valence, a failed Nevada exurb where a group of beleaguered subprimes are squatting in some of the many empty homes. They eke out a crude, surreptitious existence until Sargam arrives and becomes their informal, inspirational leader, at which point Valence starts to resemble an off-the-grid utopia. The subprimes garden communally, raise chickens, and sing Woody Guthrie songs — every capitalist’s nightmare:

It was not perfect, [Sargam] knew. . . . The kids didn’t have a school. The men were struggling to pay for the gas that took them to those few menial jobs they could get. They would run out of wood. They would run out of propane. They would never run out of coyotes, dust, heat, sun, and cracked lips; everyone stank of sweat, and you couldn’t keep yourself clean. But they were free here in a way they had never been back in their foreclosed homes, or in underpass Ryanvilles, or driving slow and scared down darkened highways.

Other subprime families start making their way to Valence as its reputation grows. “You’re famous,” a boy says to Sargam. “We heard talk about you in the last Ryanville. That you were teaching folks a new way of living.”

When that fame reaches the ears of Pastor Roger, he flies to Nevada to preach in person against the scourge of these deadbeats living in houses that don’t even belong to them — houses that coincidentally sit atop land recently purchased by two of his followers, billionaire sisters with an enthusiasm for fracking. “People helping people?” he intones, disdainfully repeating the new Valence mantra. “I don’t hear any inch of room in there for God. This is secularism run amok, the gravest threat to God’s fabric since Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden themselves.”

All the plot-arrows eventually converge in an Occupy-style showdown in Valence. And this is where Greenfeld’s struggles with characterization create an interesting problem. Certainly our time, and our system of values, is ripe for satire, but can a novel’s conflict read as morally genuine when some of its fictional figures are satirical and others are not? Greenfeld is dealing not in realistic characters per se but in archetypes (even Richie, though more rounded than the others, is a version of the cynical-writer figure, an archetype unto itself), which is fine except that those archetypes come in two economically segregated varieties. All of the poor characters are relentlessly sentimentalized; they are ennobled by their hardship, and despite the pressures of the life they live, they never speak or behave less than perfectly generously. The rich characters, meanwhile, such as Pastor Roger and Arthur Mack, are broad cartoons. That broadness doesn’t always serve its purpose: the suggestion, for example, that Arthur is so stupid that he mixes up the words “drama” and “trauma,” or that “it could take him a good ninety seconds to calculate twenty-two percent of a restaurant check,” is a lazy way of indicting the power structure Greenfeld wants to attack. Most of the masters of our financial universe, after all, are pretty smart — intelligence, like courage, being an ethically neutral value.

Though the moral terms of the novel’s central conflict are never in doubt, its dramatic outcome is not so certain. With Republican congressmen in Washington proposing drone strikes on Valence, Pastor Roger and others seize on a pretext for police action, suggesting that Arthur Mack’s children (who have run away from him and are enjoying life among the poor) have been “kidnapped.” “If these subprimes were allowed to set up their own city,” Pastor Roger stews, “then subprimes everywhere would feel empowered to undermine authority, and then what kind of society would we have?” Meanwhile, Sargam confers with another Valence resident:

“Do you think this can last?” Sargam asked. “I’ve been riding around, and this is the first place I’ve come to where it seems to be working . . . this communal sort of life, share and share alike. It’s a place built on fairness.”

“That’s all we have. They took everything else. But they couldn’t take a man’s sense of what’s right.”

“In another time they would have called this —”

“Socialism,” Darren said. “I know. Shhh.

Triburbia, Greenfeld’s previous novel, was a different sort of attempt at a social cross section, interleaving the stories of the economically diverse denizens of one small, gentrifying neighborhood in New York City. Maybe not all that diverse — in place of actual poor people, you had artists — but still, the book has moments of genuine political subversiveness, as when the teenage babysitter of two wealthy children asks their parents, more or less in the name of justice, to pay her entire college tuition.

Dystopian fiction like The Subprimes is more common these days — conspicuously so. It’s not a stretch to read the sheer preponderance of such novels, set in an imaginary yet recognizably American landscape in which something bad has happened, as a critique of — or, just as often, a flight from — the grim moral calculus of current American life. The motivating agent in many of these books — Laura van den Berg’s Find Me, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Benjamin Percy’s The Dead Lands — is a virus or an epidemic: not conflict, in other words, not something anyone has done, but fate, something no one can do anything about. However dark these fantasies may be, from a moral perspective it’s relatively simple to write a novel whose characters are victims of chance rather than — as in The Subprimes — of one another. The Hunger Games, in which members of a future underclass try to kill one another for the amusement of the privileged, is a work of flaming sedition compared to, say, the journey of personal growth that is Find Me.

“City View hiking trail looking southeast, Sun City MacDonald Ranch development below, Henderson, Nevada,” from Lake Las Vegas/Black Mountain. Courtesy the artist and Radius Books

“City View hiking trail looking southeast, Sun City MacDonald Ranch development below, Henderson, Nevada,” from Lake Las Vegas/Black Mountain. Courtesy the artist and Radius Books

Alongside this dystopian trend is what might be viewed as another oblique reaction to our present discontent: the current embrace of radical, nouveau roman–style subjectivity, and the complete, conscious rejection of the old idea that a novel can employ the powers of empathetic creation to credibly mirror the world. This style, as practiced by Ben Lerner, Tao Lin, Rachel Cusk, and Sheila Heti, among others, tends to employ what is sometimes referred to as the “poetic I,” a first-person sensibility with the same characteristics and biography as the author, and very often the same name. These personae offer a perspective through which the world is exclusively experienced and understood. A critic as eminent as Tim Parks has gone so far as to suggest that “fiction has now outlived one of its sustaining purposes,” that is, to interrogate the world by assuming imagined identities within it apart from one’s own:

It could be we are moving towards a period where [the writer] finds it increasingly irrelevant to embark on another long work of fiction that elaborately reformulates conflicts and concerns that the reader anyway assumes are autobiographical. Far more interesting and exciting to confront the whole conundrum of living and telling head-on, in the very different world we find ourselves in now, where more or less anything can be told without shame.

It’s true that the novel’s ambition to understand the world by synthesizing multiple perspectives — to write “across difference,” as the phrase goes — is now often regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned, if not transparently fake and megalomaniacal. But one good measure of the sincerity of The Subprimes — and of how far the sensibility of the American novel has drifted, for better or for worse, from that of a century ago — is an influence Greenfeld’s novel wears on its sleeve: The Grapes of Wrath. These days we tend to remember John Steinbeck in his Of Mice and Men mode: an institutional, mainstream figure who was unafraid of sentiment, a literary Steven Spielberg. But The Grapes of Wrath is also a story of beleaguered families on the wrong end of American power. The novel remains one of the Ur-texts of American political fiction, and it includes long passages — in characters’ voices, and in the author’s as well — that are given over to debates about the efficacy of shooting cops and landlords. “These men,” writes Steinbeck — poor men, men turned out of their homes and onto the road, much like the men in The Subprimes — “were armed when they were children”:

A gun is an extension of themselves. What if they won’t scare? What if some time an army of them marches on the land as the Lombards did in Italy, as the Germans did on Gaul and the Turks did on Byzantium? They were land-hungry, ill-armed hordes too, and the legions could not stop them. Slaughter and terror did not stop them. How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him — he has known a fear beyond any other.

To a modern eye there’s plenty about The Grapes of Wrath that appears clumsy and schematic. But what stands out is that it’s not a story about people shedding their cynicism or rediscovering their ideals: it’s about people being radicalized. That any contemporary American novelist would touch such a subject is close to unthinkable. “Here’s me,” says Casy, Steinbeck’s preacher character (one of many concordances with The Subprimes), “that used to give all my fight against the devil ’cause I figgered the devil was the enemy. But they’s somepin worse’n the devil got hold a the country, and it ain’t gonna let it go till it’s chopped loose.” In case we miss what he’s referring to, a short time later Casy is forced into hiding after kicking a sheriff’s deputy unconscious.

One way Steinbeck tries to keep his characters from functioning too directly as symbols, as representatives of certain classes or institutions, is by taking occasional time out from their story to indict the institutions themselves. “The bank is something else than men,” one unnamed character observes. “It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”

The most instructive difference between The Grapes of Wrath and The Subprimes, though, is that Steinbeck believed that his audience’s sympathy for the plight of the poor was strong enough to withstand the occasional sight of a poor person acting badly. His downtrodden are a long way from sainthood. Certainly you could argue that their natures are deformed by their poverty, but still: When a neighbor of the Joads named Albert Rance travels to Oklahoma City one Christmas, the townspeople, thinking maybe he’s decamped for good, go over to his house and strip it down to the studs. On the road to California, Tom Joad’s brother-in-law abandons his pregnant wife and wanders off into the brush, never to return. Tom himself, lest we forget, spends the novel on parole for drunkenly killing a neighbor with a shovel. It’s a pointless act, one he’d take back if he could, and when he returns home he still has his victim’s family to face. Yet he manages to become a leader anyway, despite not having a clean slate, or a blank one.

It’s a little hard to talk about The Subprimes without giving away its extraordinary ending. Suffice it to say that its lusty inhaling of the opiate of the masses would spin Marx in his grave. The novel climaxes with a crypto-religious tableau — very much like The Grapes of Wrath, in which Tom’s sister, Rose of Sharon, having lost her baby, comes upon a starving man in a barn and saves his life by nursing him. Steinbeck (like Casy) thus sees the holy within the common struggle — specifically in the idea of “people helping people.” Greenfeld, by contrast, relies on the holy to resolve the common struggle from without. Like the residents of Valence, he is waiting for a savior. And if the idea of the left waiting for a savior sounds familiar, it should:

I mean, is Sargam even real? . . . She is like the monstrous, collective dream-leader of secular liberals everywhere. How could someone like this just show up? She has no past, she comes from nowhere — and in just a few months becomes a national figure so compelling that the most powerful capitalist forces on earth are aligning to destroy her? The last time a political figure appeared seemingly out of nowhere to mesmerize the population, he ended up steering nothing more than a slightly less aggressive capitalist course, so that even while he was still in office there were populist uprisings — various Occupy movements — on behalf of a cohort similar to the subprimes. Was Sargam different? Was she the real thing, a true outsider who believed in nothing more than People Helping People?

It’s Richie, the writer, with whom Sargam’s emergence registers most emotionally. “For the first time in my life,” he thinks, “I may have found someone I believe in.” The nature of that someone may owe less to Barack Obama than to Neo from The Matrix; still — and despite the novel’s indirect expression of disappointment with Obama himself — the parallels between the current president and Sargam, the multiracial left-wing dream girl, are impossible to miss. (Sargam even says, at one point, “We’re who we’ve been waiting for.”) Or maybe the parallel is less between the fictional leader and the real one than between the hopeful yet ultimately passive following each inspires.

“I realize I am changing,” Richie says. “I’m feeling it, I’m coming to believe that we have to make a change.” But the book’s inadvertently depressing vision is that even in the grim future, little has changed. Obama may have been a false messiah for the disadvantaged, but, Greenfeld seems to suggest, that doesn’t mean the real one might not still come. If we just sit tight and wait, with even more faith, maybe the next figure who comes out of nowhere to save us will be the real thing. Maybe when we meet the new boss, she won’t be the same as the old boss. In the meantime, the radicals of Valence don’t really want to act; they just want to be left alone.

“I want to tell a great story, a true story, an important story,” Richie says after observing Valence, “a story that’s messy and beautiful and subversive and uplifting,” and it’s easy to hear Greenfeld himself behind that desire. At least he’s trying; at least he hasn’t given up on the idea of the empathetic imagination. It’s not necessary that a writer’s stance toward his characters always be a cynical one. But no cause is served by turning the oppressed into saints; in the end all that does is trivialize their humanity. An individual, real or fictional, can behave reprehensibly without validating the general injustice in which he is caught. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that Steinbeck understood this principle and Greenfeld doesn’t. More likely Greenfeld doesn’t allow his poor characters to behave like flawed human beings because he fears that a contemporary audience’s sympathy for them wouldn’t survive it. He might be right.

In any event, they sure don’t talk in Ryanville the way they used to in Hooverville. “Where does it stop?” says a frustrated sharecropper in The Grapes of Wrath to the driver of a tractor set to demolish his house, just after the driver has reasoned the farmer out of killing him. “Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.”

That’s a sentimental vision, too, in its way, and it predates some of the past century’s great refinements in the art of repression. But at least it contains some of what dramas are supposed to contain, namely conflict. Maybe novels are their own indulgent reality, maybe they change nothing and open the eyes of no one, but still, in this volatile day and age, I wouldn’t mind reading a story about a guy trying to figure out who it is that’s starving him, so he can shoot them.

is the author of A Thousand Pardons (Random House) and other books. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Agreeable Angstrom,” appeared in the June 2014 issue.

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