Chinua Achebe declined to write stories based on his decades in the West. Westerners already had enough storytellers, he said. He insisted on focusing not just on what he knew, but on what he knew had gone untold.
“Mona At Sea” is one of the stories Achebe had in mind. Another rich college girl is having her quarter-life crisis, and we get to read about it. Cool.
But why wouldn’t we? Who reads? Who writes? Why must the corpus of torrid, gutwrenchingly dysfunctional sexual affairs always chronicle the troubles of tweedy nerds strolling the ivied halls for intellectually curious mentees living in their sexual prime? Are humanities dorks gazing leering across the veal pen at the young things the only ones seeking and achieving such rejuvenation? Do petroleum engineers and bus drivers and public benefits claimants who mostly hang out in the neighborhood playing video games and doing some light babysitting also have affairs? Of course. What they don’t do is write. When they do write, they probably have more interesting stories to commit to paper anyway.
That’s how we get Franzen. “Ugh, he’s the person everyone wishes had died instead of David Foster Wallace.” I haven’t fictionalized the Cousin Gigolo story. “Romans-a-clef are lazy and dishonorable. They’re cheap shortcuts.” Who gives a shit? I’m too busy with nonfiction; that’s all. I don’t give a shit about the high ethics of this craft, and neither did the ancients, they of the classics. This is modernist nerd shit, the stuff of bored Victorian scolds. Vicky didn’t bang after Al died of shitwater, but the rest of them sure did. Oh, Archbishop. Fancy seeing you in the hallway this evening. Yes, I suppose I should give the Earl’s wife a rest, perhaps have a gin and tonic while she recovers.
No, I’m not planning to do the reading. It’s okay. The reviewer don’t always do the reading, either. “Mona at Sea” is of a canon many of us already know. Why else would it get dedicated segments on NPR? There is, to the best of my knowledge, no rude ditty by the title of “Bang, bang, Lourdes.” She’s forsaking her Christian name on a national news broadcast, hon. What’s going on here, hon. Sure, a girl might not have had legs for days in decades if you hire her in Lexington Market, but at least she won’t try NLP bullshit on you, hon.
Ah, an overachiever wannabe girlboss who acts like she knows what she wants in a career suddenly can’t have one because there’s no economy and we’re all idiotic enough to imagine Mocha Haole will fix it, and now she’s Online and frustrated. Gotcha. There’s a swollen population of unemployed young people with college degrees and mood disorders, and this style of literature is proliferating. Tell me something I don’t know, or don’t. We get the literature we buy. We get the literature we deserve. Something like that. Hell if I know. The parents want to know why their adult kids are so fucked up, too.
I described Mona as a rich girl, but I should specify. She isn’t hang out around the family compound doing this and that and go WASP diffident on anyone who disses her for it rich. She’s rich enough to have a reserved spot in her childhood bedroom. As Charles Carreon carried on, you don’t mess with the man from Tucson. Apparently you do mess with the woman from Tucson, if she isn’t the one suing the Ashland city government for booting her personal blog full of photoshopped pictures of Kathleen Parker sucking George W. Bush’s cock from the fiber network. We might say Mona is the real deepfake here. She’s the one who considers it her due to be living independently in New York and slaying in finance. That’s why it’s so humiliating for her to have her cheese moved on arrival in Manhattan and have to move back home to the provinces. Nothing happens in Tucson.
She isn’t exactly rich, then. She’s merely affluent. She’s mere upper-middle, not upper. A rich girl in her spot would be living in a nice apartment in a nice–maybe even up-and-coming!–neighborhood in New York on her parents’ dime and working, perhaps, in a job her parents bought for her. Or she’d be in the guest house, or hanging around the family camp up north, something of that nature. If she were old money–real money–she wouldn’t be distraught about any of that shit. She’d be like, eh, job market looks shitty and I’m bored, wanna go sailing?
Fuckups from truly rich families aren’t the ones who get hot and bothered about being failures. They have to have serious psychological difficulties or come from truly toxic families to end up like Mona. That shit’s for their subalterns, the strivers always serving them and so rarely managing to join their ranks, neurotics who are never satisfied that they’ve arrived even when they have. And yeah, some of it is just a #mindset; I’ve known people who prove it; but the hard cases skew upper middle, and they skew hard. They start showing up in families that are barely too poor to have anyone living comfortably off the portfolio yields. Just as importantly, though, they quickly vanish as the graph moves left into the fat middle, past the threshold where the only way to get a stockbroker is through one’s parents, as a legacy client. Whaddup homies.
Characters like Mona aren’t necessarily stereotypes, but they are inevitably archetypes. They have to fit into a narrow mold.
This may be TMI, and not just salaciously, but it’s worth sketching out the archetype in graphic detail. These are very specific characters. They’re specific because they’re crafted to appeal to a very specific audience with specific neuroses and terrors and NPR affiliate memberships.
They are not ones to imagine no more reading, especially after they semivoluntarily go hikikomori and have the time to read. All the fucking time in the world; grab your glasses, Bemis. We might say that our old boy Chapman “hit the mark,” in the University of Hawai Library and again in Manhattan. We whacked da limey, yeah? We just couldn’t figure out how to do the reading aloha-like. Dat’s da problematic kine, da kine ya write down, da kine da haole teach to teach da bible to da local kine.
What girls like Mona never expect to be able to do is the fun reading. They have the glasses–eh, the contacts–but they don’t have the time. All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl indeed.
But she can’t be dull. She needs to be sharp. She’ll fall through the cracks if she loses her edge. She’ll be ruined. At all times she needs to be on point. I’m Tom Assbrush.
That’s something else. It do not be nearly enough like that, as they say online, problematically. For these cases as much as any, college is not libertine. It is not Rabelaisian or Bohemian or in any other way relaxed. It could be a place of sexual fluidity and discovery, chaotic and messy but stabilized by a highly functioning community. For some students it is. For students like Mona, it’s nothing of the sort. It isn’t even a catalytic environment of any sort. Cast aside all sexual and matchmaking functions, and it’s still a spiritual and intellectual wasteland. Striver kids like Mona aren’t there to make friends, as television teaches us to be our reality, or to learn to think. They’re there to learn how to make money. Mona’s attempt to break straight into high finance in a center of the global financial system is the key point here. I knew enough business majors to know this. Marketing and communications majors are just as shallow, and also dumber.
We can easily pigeonhole Mona’s psychological type. She’s a Type A who bottles her feelings up until the dam bursts and they spill where they will. In her case, they flood out in dramatically, in full public view. A review on GoodReads mentions a drinking problem. Color me shocked, Kwesi. If you’ve been around elite college kids, you’ll recognize the unacknowledged, unconfronted dysregulation. You’ll recognize the unmentionable, haphazardly treated mental health, behavioral health, and substance abuse problems. This shit’s classic.
We’re dealing with people whose attitudes towards the human body and mind are truly deranged. They verge, quite crassly, on gnosticism, the body being filthy and in need of subjugation, and since we’re on the subject the mind as well. lt’s a fascist mindset, albeit one focused on mental rather than physical athletics. These are intensely intimidated young people, adult dependents whose parents pay for them to be hazed for four years in the hope that the kids will graduate into a career track where they get paid to complete additional hazing rituals until their pledgmasters are satisfied or just bored. One of the precipitating events turning Mona’s life into a crisis after graduation is her suddenly being denied her due opportunity to prove herself in a paid hazing program.
It’s Parris Island for con artists. The job she was offered and then denied because the employer offering it abruptly closed was of the sort that never has professional qualifications. It isn’t dentistry or the law. She’d need more professional training to be a CNA or a hairdresser.
The big firms could hire whizzes straight off the street to work their portfolios if they wanted. They choose to hire hungry kids fresh out of college. It’s about class perpetuation as much as business. I could figure out market analysis pretty quickly. I know quite a bit about commodities and some types of stocks. I know a lot about the operations and markets of a variety of companies.
What I’m not about to do is live like a goddamn crackhead. That’s the problem. I’d leave for lunch and keep walking. They hire kids who’d sooner commit suicide or defenestrate in an amphetamine fugue. I’d answer my cell and tell them the report’s their problem now. The hustlers they hire will never let go of their sense of duty. Duty to what? They don’t care. They’ll never care. It doesn’t occur to them that maybe the analysis of brain-fried 25-year-olds shouldn’t be a critical factor in a $10m short of the Brazilian corn market or whatever the hell they think makes sense as an economy.
These kids have to conform to a very specific, very narrow type. If they deviate they won’t get hired. Maybe if they’re honest-to-God whizzes they would, or if they know people, or if they’re charming enough to compensate, but it’s striking how many of them are slender, often to the point of looking like they have eating disorders. They’re all on drugs, of course. They’re obsequious neurotics who miscalibrate their speedballs and fly off the handle. After hours they’re absolute wrecks.
They’re trained for this shit starting in high school, if not preschool. They need perfect GPA’s. They need extracurriculars. They need compelling personal narratives. There’s no time to slack off, to be children, to be adolescents. They’ll be ruined if they try.
This is why they converge on the same eerily sick physical and psychological profile. The ladies have to be slim. The gents have the latitude to be buff, but not generally husky. The bosses would rather not have anyone, of either or any sex, looking like a roustabout who pulls crab pots all day and eats like a longshoreman. The idea is that these eager young things can find the money for dentists, dermatologists, gym memberships, dietary supplements, and whatever else they need to look great when they eat and live for shit.
The college girl who’s going places needs to be daintily pushy. She doesn’t have to smell clean as an escort, but she needs to smell good, and under no circumstances ethnic or poor. Liquor breath or a postgame sheen are fine. Smelling like months of Top Ramen, cigarettes, and hidden corners of weekly motel rooms is not. She needs just enough time to go to the bathroom, but not a minute more, unless it’s to break down in tears over shit a reasonable, assertive person wouldn’t tolerate in the first place. Her stools can look as awful as her gut feels, but she can’t have gas that won’t wait for a toilet.
She should sexualize herself for the gratification of her bosses, but not do anything coarsely womanly like mention her period or accidentally show it. It’s probably no accident that there’s been so much overwrought discourse about menstruation in middle-highbrow circles recently. Like any other bodily fluid or gas, menstrual blood is more noticeable on a white-collar clean freak than on a woman who’s been mucking livestock stalls. Oh, did I bleed through my pants? I’ll keep that in mind when I hose off the pigshit. Fewer and fewer affluent Americans under thirty have ever changed a baby’s diaper.
There’s a very real, very bad trend back towards companies asserting ownership of their employees’ bodies. Amazon basically won’t allow its employees bathroom breaks. Jim Beam asked its employees to report their periods to help it monitor time theft in the bathrooms. It’s been harder and harder to find public restrooms over the past few decades, a situation that suddenly got much worse with the Covid-19 shutdowns. Thankfully, this much is finally starting to reverse in earnest. On the other hand, public schools have been forcing this extreme bodily discipline on their students for centuries. This applies in Britain, too. *Under the Eton Privy voice* There may not be a bottom below, chap, but there’s always a bottom above!
Despite their obnoxiousness and intermittent misandry, feminist loudmouths have a point about the objecification and possession of women’s bodies. The Dallas Cowboys got into trouble for bullying and demeaning their cheerleaders–who are obscenely underpaid, by the way–with lectures about things like portion control at meals and how often they should change their tampons. These assholes hired women to be crack performative athletes, and they act like they’ve made it into their twenties unable to properly attend to their own personal hygiene. The problems here go beyond bad bosses. We shouldn’t have people who think like that in positions of power, period.
Heh. Look on the bright side, though. *Yogi Berra Patriotism Voice* Only in America can a fat Jewish truck stop hooker from Salt Lake City sing the National Anthem in a Major League ballpark.
It’s extremely neoliberal idpol to focus on menstruation as a burden in a society with pervasive, extreme fatigue and mental illness. How much of the problem is premenstrual or menstrual pain, and how much of it is delirious fatigue and Ford Stomach in inexcusably harsh academic and corporate environments?
On second thot, tho, that’s more a faildaughter vealpen thing than a girlboss thing. The Business Success Girls (and Guys!) are too busy climbing the greasy pole to give much mind to any of that. For the failspawn, it’s a transference of serious failures of neoliberal Western society onto sexualized grievances conferring extra idpol points. On the serious career track, it’s an unacceptable admission of weakness. A woman can’t admit to being tired for any other reason, either.
This shit might be excusable if it were ordered towards motherhood. Raising children is exhausting, and childrearing duties usually get dumped on women. If my ex is reading this, I’m eager to do my part to change this again, but for real, raising kids is no joke, especially for anyone trying to equal her as a mother. The thing is, if aggro college girls were trying to train for motherhood, they’d have kids already. They wouldn’t be waiting until their mid-thirties to fob one or two brats onto a Guatemalan nanny so they can go back to Goldman Sachs two months postpartum to express breast milk in a special stall.
We’re just about back to wet nurses in this country. You and me, baby, unfortunately, ain’t nothing but mammals.
This whole system is obviously broken. The writing about the corporate agenda for the white-collar workforce was on the wall by the time Clinton was elected; for the blue-collar workforce, Reagan wrote it in boldface starting on day one. The bosses kept throwing enough scraps into the pit to keep the office drones mostly in line until the 2008 crash. They spent the next decade and change fucking around and kinda sorta finding out. Then the Rona hit. They inside-traded the shit out of the pandemic and the restrictions it triggered, and they’ve pretty successfully turned public opinion against laid-off service workers who want to stay on unemployment benefits, but they’ve blown it with their cube monkeys. No one wants to come back to the office. Employers are facing mass resignations for forcing employees to return to the office full-time.
This is the arrangement Elizabeth Gonzalez James has Mona begging to join. It’s garbage, but college trained us to chase garbage. Those of us who refuse suffer for our refusal. Those who comply suffer in different ways. Most of this suffering is needless. It’s destructive and parasitic. Everybody’s just trying to justify taking a bigger slice of a possibly growing but also possibly shrinking pie. That’s all high finance is.
Occupy Wall Street comes in for criticism, rightly enough, for being the sour grapes of young people who would have demanded their own jobs on Wall Street if they’d discerned a chance in hell of being chosen from the midst of the scrum. From the perspective of figuring out who the hell is actually trying to run this joint instead of looting it, critics like Partial Objects were right. From the perspective of what the graduating classes of, say, 2007 onward were promised and not delivered, desperate strivers like Mona are entirely in the right. What kind of whipped little bitch would allow moneyed authority figures to promise and then revoke opportunities to make a killing busting ass for the machine, instead plunging the educated young into unemployment, underemployment, even precarity, even poverty? Surely that demands loud, explicit pushback.
That’s no time to let Larry Summers off the hook. His ilk should reap what they sowed. They sowed mass dispossession of the educated. Historically, the harvest that yields is revolution.
Contra the scurrilous implications of America’s legion Dignity of Work scolds, a great many Americans would do productive work if they got the chance or have the chance and do exactly that. We often don’t see counterfactual happen in the wild, because America runs not on Dunkin, but on coercion. If extended unemployment isn’t axed, who will be willing to work at Applebee’s? We’re trying to run a business here! We’re trying to run an economy! I dunno. Maybe try not groping $2.13-an-hour teenyboppers in the walk-in freezer for a while. See what happens then. Notice, too, that we’re running low on the local kids who historically staff the restaurant industry because of exactly the set of incentives that allowed the restaurant industry to become so bloated in the first place, i.e., ordering the national economy to the proliferation of one-child-policy yuppies.
This is the future conservatives want, too, especially Never Trump conservatives. Sic, mostly. The same people who get up and yell about soft whiners and their avocado toast take every opportunity to deputize volunteer programs as arms of the state, on the theory that forcing the unemployed to work or volunteer (hey, asshole, could you give me the dignity of saying that I work?) will forcibly build character in the otherwise restive poor. One thing this definitely accomplishes is turning volunteer programs into strange attractors for the worst sorts of beancounters and busybodies, repelling good people who mind their own business enough to actually get shit done.
The way this country is structured and run, it’s impossible to piece together a national labor budget. It’s impossible to figure out how many billions of hours of work a day or year it actually takes to run this fucking joint. It can be impossible to come up with a county-level labor budget. This is before we even try to figure out how much extra work we’d have to do if we made our own shit instead of importing it all from China and Bangladesh. Maybe that’d inspire us to buy less shit.
For the same reasons, it’s impossible to come up with a budget for how much of the work, or “work,” we do as a nation is bullshit. How can we fault Mona for wanting to milk this beast dry? It’s hard to get by these days without pulling that titty, and it’s a hard titty to pull. You won’t have the energy to crank it and yank it if you think about how the hell there’s a drop left in the udder. That’s for Mexicans and Chinamen.
There’s some darkly amusing meta to the literary enterprise that produces works like “Mona at Sea.” We discussed the rich versus the truly rich earlier. Too much leisure can be toxic. This is something American voters and officials might want to consider before setting the same dogshit employment policy as ever. In any event, the true upper class is much more comfortable with leisure than the upper middle class, and it shows. Actual abundance is the best way to develop a mindset of abundance, not that Stephen Covey would know this as the grandson of charter members of the LDS Church and all that. Decent scions of families like his are no-names, not A-List self-help authors who grift the VA with their training seminar materials.
Upper-middles are scared to death that they’ll collapse into ruin if they ever stop running. That’s one of the things that horrifies and scandalizes them about their unemployed Millennial children and peers. We show them show them some of their alternatiive life paths, paths they might have taken if they weren’t balls-to-the-wall hustlers who punch down at every opportunity, paths they even still might take to make room for decent people who just can’t compete with them. I don’t know what our hikikomori are getting out of their anime habits. Maybe it includes an understanding of why so many salarymen raised hikikomori back in the bukkake motherland.
One of the cultural effects of upper middle class striver neurosis is discomfort with storylines that don’t involve some kind of apocalyptic quest. Their literature can’t be one of comfortable stasis in life, or merely entertaining stasis. The postmodern canon has no room for authors like Faulkner. Americans today can’t cope with fiction mostly bereft of sex, grand adventures, grand quests, and rites of passage. We can’t process characters who are drawn as object lessons, not role models. We’ve been raised not to understand any of this shit.
Conservatives like to critique sexualized literature as coarsening. It’s reasonable enough to read “I Am Charlotte Simmons” as a lengthy anti-sex bildungsroman, full as it is of shambolic characters who are sexually active and miserable. Tom Wolfe, another great of the Southern Canon, was too hypomanic to keep it in a fellow’s pants himself. There we have it. Sex–which, as the discography of Soulja Boy and Robin Thicke shows, we aren’t particularly having–gives a quick and dirty dopamine hit, not the kind of maintenance dose Faulkner administers with his collection of schizoids and paranoiacs and so forth. That Swedish beefcake in “Snow Falling On Cedars” gets to nut in his white wife in the shower after work while her Japanese ex-boyfriend goes on trial for murder, in a story surprisingly free of suicide for the maritime side of Washington State. Real smart collection of ethnics they propagated up there, huh. The author went on to win a bad sex writing award in absentia for a retelling of Oedipus Rex, conferred upon him in the name of “David Guterous.”
Is sex what’s wrong with bad literature, then? I wish that were it. It isn’t what’s wrong with Harry Potter. The Potterverse doesn’t have any, if I understand it correctly. For a generation and a class so focused on status and purged of sensuality, that sounds about right, flying around on broom adventures for clout while the Cockneys dutifully run the physical plant. The UK doesn’t account for its actual economy, either. As financial hubs go, London is arguably even worse than New York. The Potterverse is Downton Abbey for twerps with an excessive interest in ersatz paranormal phenomena. The biggest problem with these cases is that they’re given white-collar jobs.
I’d rather bust in some dude’s Swedish wife like I’m Chad Kroeger than grant that horseshit children’s series the validity its fans demand. Maybe I’ll skim “Mona At Sea” after all, for possible sex. The reviews mention something along the lines of blackmail material from social media. That’s the kind of dirt fraternity and sorority archivists used to keep on graduates. It was enough for Turkish intelligence to get Dennis Hastert to sandbag resolutions condemning the Armenian genocide. It is good and normal that an entire generation of digital natives has been lectured about the reputational threat of posting nudes or drinking pictures, and meanwhile the longest-serving Republican Speaker of the House was being blackmailed for sexually initiating high school wrestlers under his authority. Put me in Coach!
More people actually working for a living would reduce this crap. The problem is, it’s hard to make a living working, and that’s exactly as capital wants it. Uber is out of drivers? Well shucks. Can’t see how that happened! Let’s see how it does with inside-sales subprime auto loans as a recruitment tool.
Meanwhile a girl in Tucson is out of college and out of work. It’s good to hear about a novel whose moral is that hustling ain’t worth shit. It won’t become worth anything again until we do less of it.