Longing for comfort

One of the consequences of future shock may be discovering that the middle class exists only in fiction. This is an impact of the 21st century, and even more so if we look out over the horizon of the decades to come. This breaks with the traditional ties between novels and the middle class. It is a mutation.

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n The Mandibles, Lionel Shriver narrates the effects of a future financial meltdown on several generations of a middle-class family in the United States between 2029 and 2047: the dollar is no longer the reserve currency, Russia and China dominate the world, and the Rio Grande wall keeps Americans from crossing the border into Mexico. The Mandibles can no longer pay for their elderly relatives to live in a nursing home and have to share their flat in Brooklyn. A lettuce costs twenty dollars, olive oil is a luxury product and the younger generation has to learn to survive without education, with a dark sense of humour and loads of creativity in managing their household budget. Less satirical, in The Heart Goes Last Margaret Atwood tells the story of a young married couple from the US North-east that has to live in their car because of the recession. Rape and organ theft aren’t the worst misfortunes in the region and their dream is to get back to a meaningful life. Protection from what ails them may lead them to accept a job and forever home in Consilience, a housing development designed to look like white America’s puritanical suburbs from the 1950s: Doris Day is the example to follow.

“The Heart Goes Last”, Margaret Atwood

More apocalyptic, the present Cormac McCarthy describes in The Road is a burnt-out forest full of ashes. The only horizon is a motionless road where the dream of wellbeing no longer exists and the only question is how to protect your family when there’s no longer anything to protect. In all three of these recent dystopias, testimonies of present trends and phenomenon taken to their worst extremes, McCarthy, Atwood and Shriver reflect the concerns and fears of the time they were written. “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed,” said William Gibson in 2003. This great science fiction author has moved towards novels set in the present about intimate relationships with technology.

UNATTAINABLE PIPE-DREAMS. This is far from the sharp, ironic snapshot of 1960s consumer society, the mystification of comfort, the pleasures of a world that offers up multiple mirages of unattainable pipe-dreams that Georges Perec created in Things: A Story of the Sixties.

“Things”, Georges Perec

Despite their precarious jobs and having to live in a tiny, uncomfortable flat, Jérôme and Sylvie are hopeful enough to give in to the irresistible temptation of dreaming they will one day be rich and enjoy the opulence and refined items on display in shop windows around Paris. In the end, it was another way to look at dissatisfaction with life and aspiration to bourgeoisie values that Flaubert portrayed in Sentimental Education (“I see three parties…those who have, those who have nothing, and those who are trying to have.”).

“Madame Bovary”, Gustave Flaubert

Or in Madame Bovary: if Emma accrues such insurmountable debt with the local moneylender it is because she doesn’t have access to the great department stores Émile Zola makes the main character of his The Ladies’ Paradise. This was the first novel to feature a new concept of sales that revolutionised commerce, caused social upheaval and directly affects those who come in looking for a product they desire but hadn’t even imagined they needed fiercely: salespeople and customers are satisfied to live in a new land full of the promise of fresh products. But the work is exhausting and their personal lives suffer: “They were all nothing but cogs, caught up in the workings of the machine, surrendering their personalities, merely adding their strength to the mighty whole of the phalanstery. It was only outside that they could resume their individual lives, with the sudden flame of reawakening passions.”

“Lost illusions”, Honoré de Balzac

But in Lost Illusions, Balzac warned that it is so difficult for someone from the provinces to succeed in the heart of the metropolis that they may only find their ruin, and Dickens, in Great Expectations, warns of the unpleasant surprises that come from an encounter with the “great reality”. The same happens to Ramón Villaamil, the bureaucrat in Pérez Galdós’ great novel Miau, who is fired just two months before retirement and the hit to his pride drives him crazy and pushes him to suicide.

PIZZA DELIVERY. More pragmatic, perhaps because the fluctuations in the Argentinian economy have given them a great instinct for survival, the two pensioners in The Nights of Flores by César Aira (one of the most precise portrayers of the ticks of today’s middle class) start delivering pizzas at night: their only hope is that the street gang don’t rob them.  Aria’s elderly couple discover that any state of decadence brings new types of frustration and unhappiness. This is the first thing you notice in Laury Leite’s En la soledad de un cielo muerto, the story of a character travelling through the ruins progress have left in its wake: André, a Mexican man living in Madrid, has a shop, a girlfriend and a home. But the financial crisis of 2007 disrupts the course of things and the life he led before crumbles. He loses the shop, he loses his home and, when money begins to be scarce, his relationship with his girlfriend deteriorates. The collective crisis turns into an existential crisis and the main character suddenly finds himself completely lost and disoriented. And, then, it is worth remembering that philosopher Byung-Chul Han says, in Foucault’s society of surveillance, the marginalised were crazy people and criminals and now they are people with anxiety and depression.

“Quédate este día y esta noche conmigo”, Belén Gopegui

This is one of the consequences of discovering that the middle class only exists as fiction, an idea Belén Gopegui has demonstrated in each and every one of her anti-capitalists novels: in Quédate este día y esta noche conmigo the main character, Mateo, thinks he no longer has to comply with any sort of social contract, workplace discipline is a waste of time and, as individual progress is impossible, he doesn’t think it is crazy to consider that leaving a homemade bomb at the Google headquarters could be a way to fix some of the injustices. It is another way to put in practice the diagnosis of Ricardo Piglia: “Tolstoy’s individualistic anarchy is an extreme response to the capitalist mentality, but also to Lenin’s theory of revolutionary violence.”

“Puja a casa”, Jordi Nopca

Less combative and more resigned, the protagonists of Marta Rojals’ novels (Primavera, estiu, etcètera and L’altra) and Jordi Nopca’s stories (Puja a casa) show that they don’t need to study so hard just to stand in the queue at the dole office, to get lost in the labyrinth of the cities, to tie themselves to the strings moved from the shadows, prisoners of a strangeness that permeates the most intimate parts of their privacy, and without any chance to check the veracity of the memories of their ancestors’ experiences. They’ve become accustomed to living on the edge, looking for cheap flats, and making do with a job that lasts a bit longer than the previous one.

PARENTS AND CHILDREN. If Jérôme and Sylvie were to leave the pages of The Things and could read Roberto Saviano’s latest book La paranza dei bambini, they’d go right back to their tiny flat and never step foot outside again, having seen that the youth in Naples no longer read books but get their education from YouTube and PornHub, that they despise their parents for being simple workers earning a low wage, and admire IS terrorists because they aren’t afraid to die and have no regrets about killing. In Roberto Saviano’s critique/novel, being an adult is no longer about having a family and raising children, but about instant satisfaction, at any price, of any desire because the only thing that is certain is that there is no tomorrow. “Friend, enemy, life or death…it’s all the same”, says one of Saviano’s characters and, clearly, with this sort of expectations, the tranquil life of the middle class doesn’t seem to have much of a chance at survival.