The Neoliberal Imagination

Mask, Switzerland, New Year 2000-2001
Susanne Neunhoeffer, Mask, Switzerland, New Year 2000-2001, silver gelatin print, varied dimensions. Courtesy of the artist.

The scariest thing about the first day of school in two recent novels—Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons—is finding out what the other girls are wearing (the answer at both schools is flip-flops and shorts), and the toughest moment is when your family meets your new roommate’s family. Charlotte is relieved when she sees the flip-flops and the shorts, since she’s wearing shorts, too; Sittenfeld’s Lee is horrified, since she’s wearing “a long dress with peach and lavender flowers and a lace collar.” But Charlotte’s advantage disappears when it comes to the meeting of families, because although Lee is embarrassed by her father, Charlotte is “mortified” by hers. What embarrasses Lee is that her father responds, “‘No sir, I’m in the mattress business’” to her roommate’s father who, having heard they’re from South Bend, says, “‘I take it you teach at Notre Dame.’” “I was embarrassed that my father called Dede’s father sir,” Lee says, “embarrassed by his job, embarrassed by our rusty white Datsun.” Charlotte’s mortification trumps Lee’s embarrassment on every count, from the car—her daddy drives a rusted-out pickup truck with a fiberglass camper top—to the job, or lack of one: “‘Used to be I operated a last-cutting machine over’t the Thom McAn factory in Sparta, but Thom McAn, they relocated to Mexico’”; now “‘I take care’—keer—‘of a house some summer people got over’t Roaring Gap.’”

Charlotte is at her college (something like Duke) on a scholarship, and Lee is also on scholarship at her prep school—modeled on Groton, where Sittenfeld herself went (and where Charlotte’s roommate is supposed to have gone). And the meaning of all the embarrassment is more social than personal. Anybody can be embarrassed by her parents, but these girls are embarrassed by their parents’ class, by the fact that (at Groton and Duke if not in the world) everybody else is rich, or at least richer. Charlotte’s daddy produces a few rueful complaints about globalization for the edification of the roommate’s CEO dad until he remembers his manners and apologizes for talking politics at the dinner table. But Wolfe’s point is made. “Americans,” Lionel Trilling wrote in The Liberal Imagination, “have a kind of resistance to looking closely at society,” and by society he meant “class” and, in particular, “the meeting and conflict of diverse social classes.” Of course, it was “American writers of genius” (Faulkner, Dos Passos, et cetera) whom Trilling was interested in, and, while the verdict is still out on the 30-year-old Curtis Sittenfeld, it’s pretty clear that the 70-something Tom Wolfe hasn’t made it. But they do get credit for attempting to imagine an America in which the fact that some people have more money than others matters. Reading Philip Roth’s new novel, you’d think the big issue in American life was anti-Semitism. Which is not that far from what you’d think reading recent novels by Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon; at least Wolfe and Sittenfeld aren’t writing about the Holocaust.

This is not to say that the downside of globalization is Wolfe’s central preoccupation. He is, after all, one of President Bush’s favorite novelists, and he tells every interviewer who will talk to him how much he enjoys taunting the out-of-touch “liberal elite” at dinner parties with his own support for the President. (They react, he says, as if he’d announced he was a child molester.) So it isn’t her poverty that makes college life hard for Charlotte; it’s her Shamela-like “vartue” and her intellectual seriousness. Where all the other kids want to get drunk and hook up, Charlotte just wants to have deep thoughts. But even that isn’t the real problem—what drives Charlotte and Wolfe crazy is not the anti-intellectualism or the promiscuity (which, in fact, he describes with a kind of creepy enthusiasm that makes the child molester thing hit a little too close to home). It’s the “condescension”; it’s the way all the students who went to Groton and whose parents never got laid off by Thom McAn and who know exactly what to wear and what attitudes to have—“the liberal elite”—make Charlotte feel as if they are better than she is. And this isn’t just Tom Wolfe’s issue. The equivalent in Prep is being identified as “LMC”—lower middle class. And if Prep has a more interesting relation to elitism than Charlotte Simmons does, it’s because Sittenfeld’s Lee is not immune to its attractions. Charlotte despises a world in which anybody is judged as LMC; Lee doesn’t like the world in which she is judged as LMC—being LMC is what she went to Groton to escape.

So both these novels understand themselves as concerned with class privilege, and Prep even ends with Lee being interviewed by the Times and getting into trouble when she tells the reporter that the difference between the rich and the poor is visible in “the quality of their stuff” and in the fact that some people send their laundry “to a service” while others do it themselves “in the dorm machines.” Hence the “condescension” problem, the suggestion that at elite institutions, the poor are made to feel their poverty. And hence the solution—poor people shouldn’t be made to feel inferior, either in novels or in life. Thus, in a recent real-world instance, the Harvard Crimson is unhappy about a new $85 student-room-cleaning service—the “obvious display of wealth,” the Crimson objects (neither Charlotte nor Lee could afford DormAid), “would establish a perceived, if unspoken, barrier between students of different economic means” and thus compromise the “egalitarian nature of dorm life.” “There are both rich people and poor people at Harvard,” the Crimson (and Prep and I Am Charlotte Simmons) tells us, and keeping maids out of the dorms will eliminate what the Crimson brilliantly calls the “unneeded distinctions between the rich and the poor.”

But of course it’s not really true that there are rich people and poor people at Harvard—there are very few poor people at Harvard or, for that matter, at any of the 146 colleges that count as “selective”: 3 percent of the students in these institutions come from where Charlotte Simmons is supposed to come from, the lowest socioeconomic quarter of American society; 74 percent come from the highest. And from this standpoint, we can see that the purpose of objecting to conspicuous displays of wealth at school is not so much to avoid offending the poor people at Harvard as it is to pretend that there are enough poor people at Harvard to offend. Indeed, that’s what the attraction of the scholarship novel is all about—the work it does is not to expose the injustices of class difference at Groton and Duke but to pretend that there are class differences at Groton and Duke. If Trilling thought that major American writers were unwilling to write about the class differences that were staring them in the face in 1947, minor American writers in 2005 are so eager to write about class difference that they describe it even where it doesn’t actually exist.

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