Saturday, June 30, 2012

Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich

I’m a huge fan of Barbara Ehrenreich and bought this book because I knew I’d enjoy it. And I did! I read most of it on an 11-hr train journey from Wellington to Auckland. I feel like Barbara and I would be really good friends. I feel as though we’re ‘on the same side’ in life—her values and ideas seem to mirror mine and she articulates many of the things I feel. Her 2009 expose of ‘positive thinking’ and its detrimental effects on US society, Bright-sided, for example, gave language to what I (and many others, it would appear) had been feeling for years regarding the positive thinking boom. I was so, so glad that she wrote Bright-sided.

Bait and Switch is an investigation into the situation of unemployed white collar workers, with a focus on the corporate and financial sectors. Barbara (I’m going to call her Barbara because I feel like she’s my friend. Also, it’s easier to spell.) goes undercover to look for a work, much like she did in her best-selling Nickel and Dimed, where she explored the world of the working poor in the US. For Bait and Switch, she created a partially fictional resume, but had to maintain elements of her real employment history so she could apply for work she was actually qualified for. Over the course of about a year, she could not find any work in her chosen field, which was PR.  

This book was criticised for being unrealistic and for the experiment being shoddily prepared for and carried out. I suppose this criticism is founded, because she certainly seemed completely clueless, whereas you would think that unemployed white collar workers would have a better idea of how to go about seeking work in their industry. She was, after all, looking for work in a field she had never worked in (therefore with no connections, and no real knowledge about where to look).

Nevertheless, she does well to illuminate the bizarre industry of career coaching and gives readers a glimpse into the depressing world of people (usually over the age of 35) who, having been ‘let go’, cannot find work despite having years of experience and a university education. She goes to numerous meetings for the ostensible purpose of ‘networking’, but which end up being classroom situations where by the unemployed sit listening to a career coach telling them, in impenetrable jargon, what they need to do to become more employable. Most of the industry is infused with positive thinking style mumbo jumbo that individualises people’s problems and places the blame for long-term unemployment squarely on the job-seeker’s shoulders. If they change their attitude, they will surely get a job.

One of Barbara’s main points was that the reality that working-class people have always lived with is now a reality for many of the middle-class. Put simply, that reality is: working really hard does not mean you’ll be rewarded. The belief that hard work will eventually result in a lifestyle that will enable you to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labour is a deeply entrenched assumption of the middle-class, originating from a Protestant work ethic, according to Barbara. This assumption, which lies at the foundation of the middle-class existence, is crumbling and the emotional and psychological repercussions on individuals, is enormous. How did this come about? Corporations seem no longer to see employees as people who deserve respect and dignity as whole human beings (with families, loved ones, lives outside work), or as long-term investments that will actually benefit the company, but as interchangeable objects of productivity.

“Organizations that used to see people as long-term assets to be nurtured and developed now see people as short-term costs to be reduced… [T]hey view people as “things” that are but one variable in the production equation, “things” that can be discarded when the profit and loss numbers do not come out as desired” (David Noer, cited in Bait and Switch, p. 225)

Towards the end of the book Barbara argues that university professors, doctors, lawyers and teachers do not face the same kind of situation as corporate workers because they are professionalised and therefore sell their skill as opposed to themselves, which is what corporate workers ultimately have to do. As I was reading this book, however, I was struck by the feelings of worthlessness and lack of dignity that many corporate workers she wrote about feel…these are exactly the same feelings that casual academics experience. That she failed to mention the plight of casual and/or short-term contracted academics, while shedding light on how wonderful it is to be a professor, was extremely disappointing. The precarious nature of work facing those in academia right now is no different to the situation of those in the corporate world. The pain and confusion of not being wanted or needed despite having spent years and years devoting oneself to the field is real, regardless of industry. The next book Barbara writes should be about this.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Surrender by Sonya Hartnett

This is a mysterious story that had me scratching my head in spots and peeking out from behind my hands in horror in others.  

Anwell is a young boy growing up in a small town, Mulyan. His parents are seen as the ‘kooks’ of the town, and as a result, he doesn’t have any friends. His parents are in fact more than kooks—they are nasty, cold and negligent parents, but more about that later.

The story opens with Gabriel, at the age of 20, dying. He reflects on what led him to his current situation and through his narration we are drawn into the story of his childhood—a childhood of sadness and horror. Or simply a story of someone who suffered a dreadful mental illness for most of his life? It becomes clear that this story is open to interpretation. Gabriel and Anwell are, after all, the same person.

One day when Gabriel is about 10 years old, he is in the back yard playing on his own when he meets a boy of around about the same age—Finnigan. Finnigan is a wild and unruly boy with unkempt hair and old, dirty clothes. He never mentions his home or family and he doesn’t go to school. Gabriel is in awe of Finnigan and desperately wants to be his friend. They make a pact (or a ‘packet’, as the delinquent and unschooled Finnigan calls it) that Finnigan will carry out all the bad deeds that need to be done so that Gabriel can remain angelic. In this way they become the perfect and complete blood brother, the yin and the yang.

Mulyan is then terrorised for years by an elusive arsonist. It is apparently Finnigan and the only person who knows this is Gabriel. Gabriel’s father sets out to capture him out of a desire to humiliate the local policeman more than a desire to keep the town safe. Gabriel’s father is a cold bully and his mother is a basket case, but not in a nice way.

Gabriel, or Anwell (he is Gabriel only to Finnigan and himself) grew up with a severely mentally handicapped older brother. When Anwell was seven years old, his brother died under his watch. This, I believe, was the catalyst for Anwell’s decline into mental illness. His family environment was the perfect incubator for going crazy, but his brother’s death, which he blames himself for, pushed him headlong into madness. In this sense I read Gabriel as an unreliable narrator. His version of the facts is a creation of crazed mind. This is a story of a person with a horrible imaginary friend—an alter ago—who can be blamed for all the bad things that occur (or the bad things that Anwell does, or imagines). But this doesn’t really explain Anwell’s own horrific actions towards the end of the story. Instead, only questions are raised: How much of it actually happened and how much of it was imagined? Was there even a series of arson attacks on the town or was this a fantasy of Anwell’s? 

So where does Surrender come into all of this? Surrender is Anwell’s dog. The dog is like Finnigan—he is untamed and free, everything that Anwell wants to be but is not.  After Surrender is caught killing some kids (baby goats), he is condemned to death by Anwell’s father who commands Anwell pull the trigger himself. This is a very harrowing sequence in the novel and also the point at which a few things come together. First of all, we see Anwell’s father for the comprehensively cruel and heartless person that he is. Importantly, this is also the point where Anwell and Finnigan become one. Anwell decides to ‘surrender’ Surrender to Finnigan so that the dog escapes being killed. Unsurprisingly, instead of staying in the forest with Finnigan, Surrender follows Anwell home. Anwell tells himself that it’s only Surrender’s body that is being shot and that his soul is with Finnigan. The impossibility of separating good from evil is embodied in the shooting of Surrender and with this Anwell’s struggle to compartmentalise his good and bad sides finally wear him down. This failure triggers the desperate and tragic final act—after years of repressed guilt and shame over his brother’s death, he takes out his loss in the most gruesome manner, perhaps also as a way of revenging his brother against neglectful and callous parents.

I’m still digesting this book. I can’t explain massive chunks of it. Like Evangeline? Not sure where she fits into the story… she was a point of contention between Gabriel and Finnigan, but I’m not sure of the significance of her other than being another reason for Gabriel’s general humiliation in life.

I recommend this novel because it is beautifully written and will mess with your head a little (a good thing now and then, don’t you think...?) It was quite scary in some spots because I knew that something terrible was going to happen but I couldn’t predict when or what. With Finnigan looming in the background the spectre of evil was omnipresent. This made for quite a dark and somewhat terrifying story.