Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Worklessness

I work with this one guy and he reads.
No one else does. Reads, I mean.
And this guy reads the good stuff. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger. Stuff like that.
Today in the lunchroom he was reading The Sun Also Rises. Prior to this it was Islands In The Stream and before that, Tender Is The Night.
So, this afternoon, out of the grey [there is no blue where I work…] he looks over and says:
“Hey, what’s the deal with these people in these books? They never work!”
Even though I instantly knew what he meant, I said, “What do you mean?”
“Well…. it’s like they are constantly partying, drinking and carrying on, going to bullfights, drinking some more, traveling all over the place, but when the hell do they ever work?
And I thunk.

He is asking a question that I have often asked myself while reading some of these “dated” sort of novels, especially if they take place in Europe, where it seems like no one that has ever been a character in a novel has had a job!
Yet they spend money and “carry on” like crazy!
I don’t know.
Is it a question we are not supposed to ask when reading novels that are [say] over fifty or sixty years old?
Are we supposed to treat the phenomenon with the same sort of suspension of judgment that we employ when reading the Charlie Brown cartoons?
Think about it…. here are all these kids that live in nice houses and wear nice clothes [well, except for Pigpen], yet this Peanuts world contains no adults that are paying the bills!
Is Linus punching a time clock? Lucy? Schroeder?
No! Apparently, no one is paying that phone bill or keeping the furnace stoked and the fridge stocked!

As I thought of some sort of response to my co-worker's question I had to admit, the worklessness of some novels is a situation I have noticed.
Tender Is The Night, for instance. The main character Dick Diver and his wife Nicole are gadding about the French Riviera, partying and cavorting and spending money and traveling and hitting the beaches and staying in fancy hotels almost all the way through the book, but how are they paying for all of this?
Oh wait a second.
She was a wealthy heiress or something, right? And he had written a book about psychology or whatnot?
But regardless, the point is, they are not working, really.
Nor are any of their friends! To my recollection, not once do we hear an alarm clock! At the end, after Nicole leaves him, Diver sort of becomes a doctor again, and actually goes to work, but prior to this, were greenbacks just falling out of the sky and landing in his wallet? There seemed to be some sort of cosmic replenishing of funds.

In my opinion, modern novels can’t get away with this kind of reticence as to a person’s employment.
Take Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty. In it she is constantly aware of, and letting us know, how her characters are faring as regards employment and/or career.

The world of the modern novel is not at all like the Peanuts world of bills being inexplicably paid!
Nor is mine.
I looked at my co-worker and said, “I don’t know. It’s a good question but…. I don’t know.”
And that was pretty much the end of our discussion.
Because there was work to do!

*********

4 comments:

Isabella said...

My first, instinctive response to this is, "Hey, you're right." But then I think: Wait a second. I've been known to 'party, drink and carry on, go to bullfights, drink some more, travel all over the place,' and I work. Granted, it was only 3 weeks in Spain, on vacation, and I'd saved up money, but novels can be made out of these things.

Lots of workers in Dickens. Red and Black Julien worked. Anything more than 100 years old, you have to give this kind of leeway to — economic structures were different, people were independently wealthy.

I think it's why in more contemporary novels you find so many characters who are writers, or other artist types, because their hours are flexible and they can lead novel-worthy lives.

But gawd I wish I were a wealthy heiress.

Dorothy W. said...

I think you're right about contemporary novelists not being able to get away with writing about people who don't work quite as easily, although I like Isabella's point too that there are older novels about work.

Beth said...

I think it's all about inherited wealth. Don't read about it as much these days, but trust me, it still exists.
Lots of poor little rich kids running around. (Many of whom are spoiled brats.)

Amanda said...

I want to not work and just party all the time! Well maybe no I don't. I skipped that partying stage (well, I'm almost 24, I think I'm supposed to be right in the middle of that stage). Oh well...working builds character right?