Having and Being Had by Eula Biss

Review by George Yatchisin

Eula Biss wants me to be better and I’m not sure I’m up for that. When I refer to the quick several page essays that build up to her book Having and Being Had as prose poems, I do so to praise and not blame, warn, not scare. Her jewel-like essays are pristine and precise, exciting and exacting. They ask of you as reader to weigh every word for there’s always a bit more there (and it has to do with you). It’s as if the space between each period and the first letter of her next sentence is a silent accusation of your life.

Such requirements don’t make for light reading, to be honest, and that’s somewhat of a surprise in a book so concerned with notions of pleasure, work, leisure, to the point those words are actual chapter titles. For Having and Being Had is all about economy, in more senses than you could shake Marx’s cold dead fingers at. Biss’s lean prose is not just about thrift. It’s about punchiness, I’d argue, and as an exhibit I’d point to an early chapter titled “The Right White.” Such a title in a book about economics, about privilege, set the alarum bells ringing, of course, but she wants them to. For in less than four pages she’s going to run white through the ringer, simply trying to figure out what colors to paint her new house. She claims, “To afford something like paint, for someone of my class, is to announce your values, most often, not your financial capacity.” So she can long for a paint that costs $110 a gallon while never seriously considering it, even if she finds it necessary to take out her paint swatches after her family has gone to bed, as if they are porn. How does this contemplation end? At a parent-teacher conference in an elementary school when she spies—actually stops to take a photo of (that need to capture, to document, is at the heart of the book)—“a huge box of institutional toilet paper, the color listed on the label as Empathy White. Maybe that’s the color I’m looking for. Or a variant, a concerned off-white like All Apologies. Or something more revealing, like Paperwork White or Payroll White. Or maybe I should just paint it all Property.”

As with that example, often the last sentence, image, or gesture of these chapters are like a trapdoor opening, and suddenly you’re left swinging from the gallows of thoughts you’d never imagined could hang you. It makes you want to loop right back and read each one again in that moment, to see how she pulled it off. Sometimes she can do that with a simple, well-wrought sentence; take this one: “Investment, I’m reminded, is a line of work for the wealthy.”

The delicious and delicate hybrid form she creates here—she’s otherwise widely published and lauded as both an essayist and poet—parallels her range of concerns. On some level the book is a thoughtful memoir posed as a cultural interrogation of capital. On another it rings of that age-old form the commonplace book, but one of a reader with voracious interests and no filter as to high and low cultural gates when choosing texts to consider. The unfortunately recently deceased David Graeber is one angel who graces Biss’s pages, and so is Lewis Hyde of The Gift—remember when that book had its moment back in the 1980s?—but then there’s also IKEA and Emily Dickinson, Beyonce and Virginia Woolf. Dire Straits, Donna Summer, Spy vs. Spy from Mad Magazine.

And light shined upon artists like Mierle Laderman Ukeles, not famous enough for her “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!” and “pieces” like “Touch Sanitation Performance,” when she shook hands, over months, with every New York City sanitation worker. Then documented all 8,500 of her thank yous. Biss sums up—and I use that term painfully—Ukeles this way, “She was underscoring the fact that some people get to call their work art and others have to do just do their work.”

Biss’s work in Having and Being Had is very much art, while at the same time making us constantly reconsider how we value—and I choose that word quite precisely—both art and work.