Having and Being Had by Eula Biss review – saturated in capitalism

We are locked into a game we can’t escape … an interrogation of work, possessions and daily life by the acclaimed US writer

As a writer Eula Biss has two great gifts. The first is her ability to reveal to the reader what has, all along, been hidden in plain sight. She did this in Notes from No Man’s Land, her collection of essays that ruminate on the pervasiveness of racism in everyday life in America. In the opening essay she tells of how, in the late 1800s, white Americans complained about telegraph poles being put up in their neighbourhoods – until they found an inventive new use for them, as gibbets on which to lynch black men. Her other talent is for laying bare our submerged fears. In her 2015 book On Immunity, Biss traces the history of vaccinations and the fear many Americans have of inoculation, and connects them to the anxieties of modern motherhood.

In Having and Being Had, both gifts are on display. Biss traces the roots of our assumptions about wealth, work and property, and reveals the ways in which capitalism is inculcated and internalised – how we subscribe to its demands from the moment we are born. We have been saturated in it for so long we no longer feel it, in the way that fish don’t know that water is wet. If you are over 40 and ever wondered what exactly happened to your life, Biss puts her finger on it, and then presses hard.

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