7 Over-the-Top Comedies that Critique Capitalism
Elisabeth Cohen, author of ‘The Glitch,’ on books that shine light on the inequities and absurdities of the capitalist machine
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When I was in high school, whenever my mother left the house, this was how she said goodbye: “Be productive!” Another popular expression from my childhood was “make yourself useful,” despite which I did not.
Some people lounge in bed reading cookbooks for dishes they’ll never make, admiring a photo of a bronzed tarte Tatin without needing to actualize it. I enjoy lazy afternoons of reading the websites of time management experts, the blogs of highly productive people, or old paperbacks from thrift stores that tell you how often to vacuum. I especially love books on decluttering, and I settle in to read them in my living room nest of books, papers, coffee mugs, board game pieces, and children’s socks. I recently signed up for a series of emails from the New York Times about how to organize a linen closet.
My debut novel, The Glitch, is about someone else who doesn’t vacuum her house, but for entirely different reasons. Shelley is the CEO of a tech company, and she maximizes her productivity by waking at 3:30am, multitasking on the stationary bike, having household staff to shop, drive, clean, cook, and care for her children, and relentlessly applying herself, every moment of the day, to getting things done. Her company makes a device that’s supposed to tell users what they need to be more productive, but the devices are giving out bad information. It’s a lot to manage, even for Shelley. And as with Lucy and Ethel on the chocolate line, humans pitted against the means of production usually lose.
The books below take a daffy but illuminating look at what it’s like to succeed, or fail, within the capitalist machine. They don’t just skewer the inanities of office politics but shine light on the inequities and absurdities of the system. Here are seven funny novels that critique capitalism:
JR by William Gaddis
Dial Elizabeth Holmes back to the age of 11 and you might get JR, a capitalist wunderkind who uses a handkerchief and a single share of stock to build a financial house of cards. (The handkerchief is wrapped around the handset of a pay phone to make JR sound older.) Published in 1975 and written almost entirely in dialogue, JR is a warning about capitalism run amok, including radios that won’t turn off, faucets that won’t stop running, and the challenge of creating art (or anything) among the distractions of modern life.
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
If you’ve ever scrolled through a clickbait listicle on “50 Things Only ’80s Kids Can Understand” or “’Memba This?” and taken joy in the shock of recognizing mundane objects from a lost world, you’ll understand the strange pleasure of Baker’s novel, with its probing examination of ephemera like stapled CVS bags, Jiffy Pop foil, the performance of turning the page in a Page-a-Day calendar, and “a once great shampoo like Prell,” now banished to the drugstore’s bottom shelf. The plot is simple: a man enters a lobby and rides an escalator up one floor to the mezzanine. The action, such as it is, takes place in his head, as he recalls his morning and lunch-hour errands. Ordinary situations take on dramatic scope: for a new hire, “the corporate bathroom is the one place in the whole office where you understand completely what is expected of you.” In its own way a philosophically intense exploration of noticing, this book asks to what do we pay attention and what do we miss?
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
It’s not just her ramshackle house is at odds with increasingly posh Palo Alto. Veblen Amundsen-Hovda (her first name might be a clue to her anti-materialistic inclinations) is living her own form of counterculture, in her case by an ESP-like connection to a particularly incisive squirrel. Her handsome, affectionate fiancé Paul does not share her love of small mammals, and employs them as test subjects in his brain research — he’s developing a device to treat traumatic brain injuries by punching holes in the cranium. His military-industrial ties and her complicated (which is to say unstable) mother, not to mention their disparate views on squirrels, stress the relationship, in a lively, prickly story that posits, cheerily, that “marriage is a continuous inevitable confrontation that can be resolved only through death.”
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Among the funniest (and least unprintable) jokes in Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout are the experiments performed on the narrator by his psychologist father, including in-the-cradle aversion therapy to The Economist. He’s forced to choose between a Harriet Tubman doll or a Ken and Malibu Barbie set. (He chooses the latter, because they have a speedboat and a dune buggy.) After he makes almost every other wrong choice imaginable — including reinstituting slavery and segregation in his Los Angeles suburb — the narrator’s twisted approach to righting the wrongs of racism and exploitative capitalism in America are thrown into sharpest relief when he becomes the plaintiff in Me v. the United States of America and inspires “the Black justice” on the Supreme Court to ask a question for the first time in his career.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
Is it better to live as a poor poet in “mingy circumstances” or give up on your dreams and write copy for Truweet Breakfast Crisps? This is the dilemma that confronts Gordon Comstock as he counts out his cigarettes and bemoans his lack of funds in this very funny evocation of artistic despair in 1930s London. “Everything costs money,” Gordon complains, even “cleanness, decency, energy, self-respect.” Even (because of his “horribly observant” landlord) privacy with his girlfriend, Rosemary (“It is not easy to make love in a cold climate when you have no money.”) A turn of events forces Gordon to choose between devoting himself to his ambitious poetic work-in-progress, London Pleasures, or the bourgeois security of writing adverts for a product to cure P.P. (Pedic Perspiration, aka smelly feet.)
Better Food for a Better World by Erin McGraw
Three couples, one previously a booker of vaudeville and circus acts, shambolically run a California ice cream shop in this comedy about utopian business and remaking yourself. Set in a town that is “a dot at the east edge of the Sacramento Valley,” the ice cream shop owners are all also members of a strangely doctrinaire marital support group run by the local Unitarian church. It’s a group where old-timers fill in newcomers: “She poured wine onto his computer…she shot his dog.” The emphasis is on openness and priding oneself on one’s ability to change. Despite the couples’ commitment to stability and loyalty to the group (the store’s napkins are printed with messages like “The Boat of Commitment Can Sail Over the Waters of Uncertainty”), the experiment in entrepreneurship-for-good comes up against the tangled reality of fraying marriages, the bottom line, and the problem of pleasing an audience.
Startup by Doree Shafrir
When watching old movies, I often have to remind myself that the shiny oblong objects the characters keep taking out and fondling are cigarette cases, not iPhones. They look surprisingly similar, and like iPhone users, smokers are never at a loss for something to do. In Shafrir’s very funny sendup of tech culture, cigarettes and iPhones — operating via the smoke break and the dick pic — play key plot roles in bringing together characters who would be better off apart. Startup is sharp on the psychological burdens of the modern office: instead of Office Space-style “drudgery” with “zero intellectual or creative fulfillment,” today’s tech-company drudges must do the work while also pretending to love it. The millennials, like Isabel the Engagement Hero, seem to eagerly embrace the startup culture, but Sabrina, a frazzled Park Slope mom (is there any other kind?) struggles to. Rather than seeing a vision of the future, Sabrina regards the employees, with their shared apartments and intertwined social lives, as a contemporary company town, like something out of “the days of Henry Ford.”