Barbara Ehrenreich | Critical Review by Steven J. Kellman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Barbara Ehrenreich.
This section contains 3,970 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Steven J. Kellman

Critical Review by Steven J. Kellman

SOURCE: "Ehrenreich's Game," in Michigan Quarterly, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 375-84.

Below, Kellman offers a mixed review of Kipper's Game.

"When a scholar of John Kenneth Galbraith's immense sagacity has a tale to tell, it is time to put away our toys, sit quietly and attend with great care," wrote Barbara Ehrenreich in The New York Times Book Review of February 11, 1990. It is the opening sentence to the enthusiastic account she gave of A Tenured Professor. The book was Galbraith's third published novel, but he is much better known for his nonfiction, including The Affluent Society, The Liberal Hour, and The New Industrial State. Although he has been a tenured professor, at Harvard, for many decades, Galbraith's authority derives from his ability and propensity to address public issues in a manner that has engaged educated non-specialists. When an intellectual of Galbraith's immense accomplishment turns to fiction, it is time to wonder why and how, questions not directly addressed in Ehrenreich's discussion of his novel.

Six months later, Farrar, Straus & Giroux announced the signing of a two-book contract with Ehrenreich. The first would be a novel, the author's first, while the second would be the ninth volume of nonfiction that Ehrenreich has published alone or in collaboration. The novel, Kipper's Game, was published in 1993, while the nonfiction book, on theories of war, is still in preparation. Like the octogenarian Galbraith, Ehrenreich, who was born in 1941, belongs to the endangered species of public intellectual: an essayist who may or may not be affiliated with a university but whose constituency is the general reader and whose matter is the commonweal.

Edmund Wilson is the prototype of the American intellectual. "A professor without a university, a critic without a 'field,' a historian without a 'period,' he became the exemplary intellectual of his generation," wrote biographer David Castronovo. Wilson did publish a novel, I Think of Daisy (1929), but few think of that book—or his volumes of poetry, short fiction, and drama—when they ponder Wilson's vigorous contributions to the national dialogue. Though she left her last tenure-track position, assistant professor of health sciences at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, in 1974, Ehrenreich has become one of the most prominent intellectuals in the United States, heir to the mantle of Wilson, H. L. Mencken, Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Michael Harrington, and Irving Howe. If she—or Noam Chomsky, Garry Wills, Irving Kristol, Christopher Lasch, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Bell, or Cornel West—abandons polemical discourse for literary invention, Samuel Johnson's abusive analogy between a woman preaching and a dog walking on its hind legs applies: You marvel not so much at how well it is done but that it is done at all.

"I feel like a criminal. I didn't mean to do it," replied Ehrenreich when an interviewer for Publishers Weekly questioned why the essayist had just committed fiction. In 1973, Tom Wolfe announced the triumph of the New Journalism, boasting that the nonfiction of Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, George Plimpton, Michael Herr, Wolfe himself, and others had succeeded in "dethroning the novel as the number one literary genre." But Wolfe's own reversion to the antique form, with The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), demonstrated that the monarchy of the novel was never truly overthrown. Fiction is the tribute that sober thinkers pay to the glamour of imagination. Interring the novel has been a familiar ritual since Cervantes closed the coffin on the preposterous Amadis de Gaula, yet, even in 1994, no literary career seems complete without one in the corpus. Though William F. Buckley, Jr. and Susan Sontag are best remembered for their essays, they also indulge in the atavistic narrative. With Kipper's Game, so, too, does Ehrenreich.

Like a veteran jurist nominated to the Supreme Court, an intellectual who writes a novel leaves behind a paper trail. In the prolific case of Ehrenreich, contributing editor to Ms. and Mother Jones, columnist for Time, and occasional contributor to The Nation, The New York Times, The New Republic, and other prominent publications, the trail is a veritable highway. The trendy trinity of race, class, and gender are her cardinal themes, but the greatest of these, for her, is class. The white-collar descendant of a clan of "small farmers, railroad workers, miners, shopkeepers, and migrant farm workers," Ehrenreich retains inherited class suspicions of affluence; she recalls learning from her blue-collar parents that "wealth always carried a presumption of malfeasance." She is a copper-miner's daughter, and proud of it. Fear of Falling, Ehrenreich's most considerable work, is a study of the beleaguered American bourgeoisie. Co-chairperson of the Democratic Socialists of America, she defines herself as "socialist and feminist" and contends that: "Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots." Her patriotic prose is leavened with personal references, to her two husbands, two children, and two abortions. Though she now lives in Syosset, Long Island, she was born in Butte, Montana, where her father Ben Howes mined copper and worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. Ehrenreich received a B.A., in chemical physics, from Reed College in 1963 and a Ph.D., in biology, from Rockefeller University in 1968. Long after her 1966 marriage to John Ehrenreich came to an end, she was still, in the 1989 Fear of Falling, acknowledging that: "Some of his ideas persist here, and, I hope, some trace of his clear and logical approach to things." But the book is dedicated to Gary Stevens, the Teamster organizer she married in 1983: "To Gary—and the old-fashioned struggle against class injustice that he so ably serves." Ehrenreich comes from an upwardly mobile mongrel family "of blue-eyed, Scotch-Irish Democrats" and other strains and, dissenting from the ethnic chauvinism now rampant on the left, celebrates skepticism toward jealous tribal deities. An avowed atheist, she venerates democratic socialism as "an evangelical, visionary cause, and the only one ultimately capable of reclaiming the lost language of human solidarity."

Ehrenreich's most pungent use of language is displayed in The Worst Years of Our Lives, a screed against the "decade of greed" for which she portrays the Reagan presidency as cause, symptom, and syneedoche. A collection of essays previously published in magazines and newspapers, the book employs Swiftian hyperbole to lampoon and lambaste the mores and amorality of recent American culture. Surveying the contemporary scene, she is inspired to witty indignation by consumer self-indulgence and political self-righteousness. Observing "traditional values" exploited by partisan opportunists to discredit their opponents and advance their own careers, Ehrenreich thunders: "From the vantage point of the continent's original residents, or, for example, the captive African laborers who made America a great agricultural power, our 'traditional values' have always been bigotry, greed, and belligerence, buttressed by wanton appeals to a God of love." Always be wary of pronouncements with "always." The nascent novelist demonstrates a creative flexibility toward precision in her proclamation that "there can be no more ancient and traditional American value than ignorance." In the May 24, 1993 issue of The Nation, Ehrenreich dramatized the dangers of military intervention in Bosnia by concocting a caricature: "A uniformed American with firepower is much like a three-year-old with a garden hose; someone in whose presence no one can expect to remain dry and composed for long."

Whether mocking yuppie food fads or rupturing the myth of a dearth of marriageable men, Ehrenreich's prose is neither dry nor composed. Proudly engagé, a moralist whose prose is fecundated by conjugating the verb ought, she has developed a style of discourse that is both passionate and playful. Fear of Falling, her previous book of nonfiction, even adopts the coloration of a novel. If The Worst Years of Our Lives (1990) is—like Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From (1988), also an exposé of desolation during the chipper interregnum of the Gipper—a compendium of short stories, Fear of Falling, a book length work of sustained argument, is novelistic in ambition. Its title echoes Erica Jong's randy 1973 novel, and its subtitle promises, like Middlemarch, The Awakening, and To the Lighthouse, to reveal The Inner Life of the Middle Class. Ehrenreich explicitly presents her thesis—that, contrary to its self-deceptions, the American middle class is embattled, puritanical, intolerant, and elitist—as if it were a narrative, "a more or less coherent story."

But before chronicling how, during the past three decades, the middle class became conscious of itself as a class, Ehrenreich pauses to introduce the protagonist of her plot: "Before this story can be told, I must first introduce its central character, the professional middle class." After specifying the occupations, defining experiences, income levels, and "lifestyle and tastes" of her collective anti-hero, Ehrenreich proceeds to trace its development, "from the naive solipsism of the middle class in the fifties to the thoroughly pessimistic self-assessment that accompanied the conservative mood of the eighties." Much of that story is understood in terms of inadequate or inaccurate fictions—that the middle class in permissive, that the proletariat is reactionary, that yuppies are hedonists. Ehrenreich's larger story absorbs and supersedes these, as if she were constructing an elaborate frame narrative. When, at last, her protagonist begins to repudiate its ethic of avarice and revert to the idealism it abandoned earlier, Ehrenreich can conclude: "So, in some sense, our story has come full circle."

Ehrenreich deplores the middle-class tendency to obscure social realities through abstract, impersonal rhetoric. She berates professional jargon for being disingenuous and, by privileging the general over the individual, undemocratic. "Is there a way to 're-embody' the middle class's impersonal mode of discourse, so that it no longer serves to conceal the individual and variable speaker?" she asks, "For we may need to find ourselves in the language of abstraction, if we are ever to find the 'others' in the language of daily life."

Academic sociology rarely speaks that lucid, supple language, but Ehrenreich has, through eight books of social observation and admonition, evolved an idiom that is accessible to the general reader and responsive to the individual instance. Even without inspiration from the versatile intellectual whom, in a 1988 essay in Mother Jones, she called "the perennially clever John Kenneth Galbraith," Ehrenreich was ripe to write a novel, the form with enough residual prestige to remain the number one literary genre. When a tycoon's jilted wife or a president's disgraced aide writes a novel, the result is likely to be a roman à clef whose key is in the events of the author's public frustration. When an intellectual indulges in fiction, we expect a roman à thèse, in which the novel becomes the conflict of ideas through other means. In that, Kipper's Game does not disappoint.

At the outset of Fear of Falling, Ehrenreich, decrying the myopia of current culture, includes recent novels in her censure. "Much, though certainly not all, contemporary fiction shows a similar narrowness of focus," she complains. "A typical 'quality' novel of recent vintage will explore the relationships and reveries of people who live in large houses and employ at least one servant to manage all those details of daily living that are extraneous to the plot." It is hard to credit Ehrenreich as a literary critic, or even to determine just which "quality" novels she has in mind, unless they be by Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon. Danielle Steel, or other popular fantasists of material gratification. It is hard to think of a recent "quality" novel whose main characters lead privileged lives insulated from the material needs of others. The description certainly does not apply at all to the works of William Kennedy. Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Jane Smiley, Louise Erdrich, or Oscar Hijuelos, and only rarely to those of Saul Bellow, John Barth, John Updike, E. L. Doctorow, Philip Roth, or Joyce Carol Oates. Fear of Falling offers itself as an alternative vision to the otiose fiction that Ehrenreich imagines, in order to denounce. So does Kipper's Game.

It begins in a drear suburban landscape that is the physical correlative of the moral devastation diagnosed in Fear of Falling, where, at the outset of the nonfiction story, the 1950s middle class is seen as suffering from malaise, some indeterminate dread. In the opening pages of Kipper's [Game], set in an undefined near future in an unnamed American locale, the sky is permanently dimmed by haze, the vegetation has been devoured by a plague of grayish caterpillars, and electrical brown-outs are commonplace. Anthropologists at the local university have devised an Index of Mass Anxiety, and the signs are not salutary. Even the shopping mall has "reached a steady state of disrepair and abandoned promises. Huge drapes of plastic sheeting hung from the see-through plastic ceiling, which let in rain now, and starlings. Paper cups and Styrofoam containers drifted along on the floor, piling up against the benches made deliberately uncomfortable to discourage teenagers and vagrants. From the aggressive interiors of the clothing shops, clerks looked out on the fake outdoors of the mall interior—a part of the world that had died, somehow, in captivity." Della Markson's twenty-year marriage dies, as well, when she picks up an extension phone and accidentally overhears her husband Leo in passionate conversation with another woman.

Assisted by their black maid Maisy, the Marksons might, before the start of Ehrenreich's novel, have been precisely what the author deplored in current fiction—"people who live in large houses and employ at least one servant to manage all those details of daily living that are extraneous to the plot." But Della immediately moves out and into a modest apartment of her own, in a subdivided former private house. She obtains a low-paying job at the Human Ecology Complex (HEC), a vast, dilapidated research empire oozing with toxic waste, on the campus of a nearby university. Della serves as an assistant in a laboratory where scientists are closing in on the virus that causes a mysterious and fatal new disease. The entire HEC is run by Richard Leitbetter, an academic celebrity adept at raising funds and enhancing his own reputation by appropriating the work of others. Through an insidious system of internal espionage, Leitbetter keeps tabs on the work in Della's laboratory and ends up claiming personal credit for its discoveries.

Meanwhile, Della is intent on tracking down her missing son Steve, a twenty-one-year-old computer genius who used to work for Leitbetter and who walked out on his parents a year ago. Within the underworld of hackers, Steve goes by the code name Kipper and is said to have been developing the consummate cybernetic game. Her search parallels and intersects with one conducted by Alex MacBride, a bibulous academic hack who is described as being "suspended between whiskey and science." Deprived of grants and any prospect of scientific accomplishment, Alex has become Leitbetter's factotum. Leitbetter, who plans to survive the story through cryonic technology, dispatches Alex to track down the papers of Henry Relnik, a brilliant scientist who died in the fifties and was involved with Nazi experiments conducted on involuntary Jewish subjects. The ultimate goal of both Relnik and Kipper is both inclusiveness and concision—to condense the entirely of human knowledge into the most compact portable form, in order to pass it all on to an alien visitor.

This is no ordinary potboiler. For the plot of her first novel, Ehrenreich has cooked up a bizarre bouillabaisse, but, concludes the psychiatrist in the hospital where a distraught Della is finally confined, "when you mix together Nazis and extraterrestrials and mind-altering computer technologies, you are traveling down one of the main thoroughfares of the contemporary mind." That is a thoroughfare that Ehrenreich has been attempting to navigate throughout her career as a writer. Is fiction her most efficient vehicle?

"The chief defect of a novel of ideas," observes Philip Quarles, the intellectual protagonist of Aldous Huxley's 1928 novel of ideas Point Counter Point, "is that you must write about people who have ideas to express—which excludes all but about .01 percent of the human race." Such exclusiveness would seem at odds with Ehrenreich's populist sympathies, her mistrust of fiction that centers on an affluent minority whose exploitation of others labor allows them to indulge in cogitation. But Ehrenreich clearly has ideas to express, and she has constructed Kipper's Game as a medium to express them. Despite the dishwashers, charwomen, and bartenders who lurk at its peripheries, this is an academic novel whose erudite and articulate characters obsess over difficult ideas. This is intellectual debate by other means, though it is unlikely that the book will reach the wide readership that Ehrenreich commands in Time.

In the May 20, 1991 issue of that weekly newsmagazine, Ehrenreich published a column, "Science, Lies, and the Ultimate Truth," that addresses the ethical issues raised by the David Baltimore scandal. A Nobel laureate and president of Ehrenreich's alma mater, Rockefeller University, Baltimore published the defective results of a research project in which a zealous subordinate had altered the data to fit what they were seeking. Occupied with a wide range of activities, Baltimore claimed to be unaware of what had been done in his name, but he did attempt to intimidate and stifle the whistleblower who first challenged the validity of the published study. "If a Nobel laureate in science could sink to the moral level of Milli Vanilli or a White House spin doctor," raged Ehrenreich, "then maybe the deconstructionists are right and there is no truth anywhere, only self-interest masked as objective fact." As if to test that hypothesis, Ehrenreich inserts a deconstructionists into her novel, a trendy interdisciplinary scholar named Caragiola who gives a televised guest lecture at the HEC on the analogies between science and literature. Deconstructing both, she notes that the prevailing criterion for scientific truth is an aesthetic one: the elegance and economy of a proof. The rest of the novel unmasks the self-interest that motivates the scientists at the institute that Dr. Caragiola visits.

The megalomaniacal charlatan Leitbetter, who even describes himself as "a narcissist, a martinet, a vain and callow bully," is Ehrenreich's cautionary caricature of Big Science run amok, a way to extend her indictment of David Baltimore without courting libel. He is an empirebuilder as ambitious as Robert Gallo, the powerful AIDS researcher reportedly more intent on humbling a rival French laboratory than curing the disease. But Leitbetter, the host of a TV series called The Limits of Knowledge and a frequent guest on a news program called Nightzone, is a flamboyant showman and in that resembles the more benign Carl Sagan. Like Sagan, a champion of the SETI (Search For Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) program, Leitbetter is obsessed with making contact with a being from beyond the earth.

"Through research," wrote Ehrenreich in her Baltimore column, "we seek to know that ultimate Other, which could be called Nature if the term didn't sound so tame and beaten, or God if the word weren't loaded with so much human hope and superstition." Through Kipper's Game, Ehrenreich seeks to illustrate the ways in which the scientific spirit, even when corrupted and distorted, approaches the ultimate Other. Kipper's search for artificial intelligence becomes a search for extraterrestrial intelligence, for a celestial visitor who patrols the cosmos collecting information about each world. The project on which Relnik was working, like the program Kipper is developing, would provide a transistorized rendition of all earthly information for the benefit of a foreign intelligence. "The whole point of the Human Ecology Complex," according to Leitbetter, "is to put together all knowledge of human life. In case we should be asked."

To be both complete and concise. It is the ancient dream of poets and of scientists, and nothing perhaps fulfills it as well as the microscopic threads that write the genetic code. Like everything else, even the strange new virus isolated in the HEC aspires to the principle of condensation: invading the brain, it forces linkages and mergers among all nerve cells. In 1937, in a nonfiction book he called World Brain, H.G. Wells declared: "There is no practical obstacle whatever now to the creation of an efficient index to all human knowledge, ideas and achievements, to the creation, that is, of a complete planetary memory for all mankind. And not simply an index; the direct reproduction of the thing itself can be summoned to any properly prepared spot. "Wells was reformulating the encyclopedic quest of epic bards and lexicographers, even as he was anticipating current work by computer scientists, geneticists, cosmologists, and even conceptual artist On Kawara, whose One Million Years (1970) is a ten-volume list of all the years that humans have inhabited the earth. Ehrenreich makes no reference to Wells, but her contribution to the theme is to join pleasure to comprehensiveness, to suggest that gratification is the basis of both our urge to know it all and what we want to know. The joy of science, "the unbridled hedonism that impels the search for truth" according to Relnik, has its echo in the fact that, as a relative of his puts it, "the universe desires to be known." If only they can find and activate the brain's pleasure center, the men in charge of the HEC hope to consolidate all knowledge into a form appropriate to the advent of the Visitor.

For all her militant skepticism, Ehrenreich is flirting with messianic mysticism. She is not entirely contemptuous of Claire, the stridently Christian lab assistant who loudly denounces her bosses as infidels. A radio preacher named Sister Bertha pronounces oracular gibberish, and the author seems to take her almost as seriously as do Kipper and Della, who are willing to follow Bertha's babble anywhere. They manage to track her down with merely a portable radio and the confidence that the clearer the transmission the closer they are to its source. The FCC could save considerable time, energy, and money if technology so primitive sufficed to pinpoint pirate broadcasters.

Ehrenreich peppers her plot with abductions, murders, and enough conspiracies to earn her a fellowship to the Academy of Fiction as Cosmic System run by Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, and Joseph McElroy. "In many ways," maintains Dr. Hershey, determined to isolate a lethal new virus, "science was a test, perhaps the highest test, of man's mettle and will to survive—a game, the ultimate game perhaps." Often, however, Della Markson's amateur sleuthing about the fate of Kipper and the truth behind the HEC resembles a Nancy Drew caper. Ehrenreich's game can sometimes seem metallic, like a test of the reader's will to persist.

Devastated to find herself suddenly déclassée and divorcée, Della is a figure familiar to readers of Ehrenreich's social commentary. She is another reminder of the fragility of middle-class security and the frailty of feminine power. The author described Della to Publishers Weekly as "a character I had been thinking about for quite a while, because I had written a few articles about middle-class women who are suddenly divorced and completely unprepared to enter the world." She has also written articles about ethics in science, environmental degradation, spiritual hunger, academic fraud, and other contemporary issues now kippered together to produce her first novel. "Maybe this is all crap, invented by someone who thought I was running out of conversational topics," suggests Alex about the outlandish story he has assembled linking Holocaust experiments with artificial intelligence, epidemiology, spiritualism, commercialism, and the search for life on this and other worlds. A reader is likely to run out of patience before the clever Kipper's Game runs out of topics. "Trouble with you," says the bartender Chris to his devoted patron Alex MacBride, "professors and so on, think everything comes from ideas." In Ehrenreich's compelling prose, everything does indeed come from ideas. Because the essay form has offered her the best forum for her ideas, an opportunity to exercise her wit, acumen, and moral indignation, Ehrenreich might be more temperamentally suited to the short story than the novel. She has yet to master the mystery of completeness and concision.

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This section contains 3,970 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Steven J. Kellman