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Book Review March 6, 2002
 
How I Harrassed The Working Class
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 3 of 6
 
But who would not reply to something like this? DeLillo, for God's sake! DeLILLO! He's one of those prima facie convictions: if you like DeLillo you're a fraud -- a fool and a fraud. DeLillo is a whore's whore, a corporate stand-up comic who's in demand as the hired entertainment at academic sales conventions. And that's all he is, or will ever be. Strictly for suckers. Not that I said all that to the DeLillo impresario. That would've been rude. I wrote back in my kindliest Jed Clampitt ethos:

>>> John Dolan <John.Dolan@stonebow.otago.ac.nz> 01/15/02 22:02 PM >>>

I guess...but like don't you think you're kind of missing the point? That is: DDL is a novelist in name only; he's writing the kind of articles you write, and you're finding in those disguised articles the theses you and he agreed to put there. It's a little like an easter-egg hunt, isn't it? Not really sporting. And not really very good, either.

In reply I got this serviceable, properly slappy answer:

Dear Mr. Dolan:

Huh? What point am I missing? I've never met Mr. DeLillo, and so it would be difficult for us to "agree" to "put" anything in his books, which are novels, not articles. If you know anything at all about DeLillo, you'd know that he resists any kind of co-optation by academics. He goes his own way, as do I.

I wonder if you've actually read anything by DeLillo.

Yrs,
Mark Osteen

There! The game as it should be played: I hate you and you hate me. Fine. A fair field and no favor, as Behan would say. But this pleasant bit of slapstick recreation emboldened me further. I...well, better get it off my chest: I...insulted a working-class poet.

"Working Class" is one of those terms you learned to snicker at in Berkeley. In fact, the entire vocabulary of class, as applied to the population of an American university, is disingenuous even by the standards of that habitat. (Which is somewhat like calling vegetation "lush even by the standards of the Amazon rain forest.")

Lush indeed: an Eden of blossoming lies. At Berkeley I learned that "middle class" meant REALLY, REALLY RICH. It had to; there was no word for "rich" which was admissible in polite circles. Which was odd, because they were mostly rich, those people. I had thought it meant people like us: three bedrooms and two mortgages in Pleasant Hill.

It was never very clear what "working class" meant in the Bay Area. If I had to sum it up in one word, it'd be "Hispanic." But for some reason nobody liked them or talked about them very much. They were ethnic; "working class" was mostly a white people's term.

Nobody wanted to be in the target area of the white middle class, so everybody in Berkeley worked hard on a bio which got them out, into a safely "marginalized" zone. Anything to get that white paint off you. Like: bad childhood? Write it up! Make something of it! Thus the spectacle of poets writing "semi-autobiographical" accounts of rapes that never happened, abusive fathers who would have blushed just to hear the names of the acts ascribed to them by their upwardly/downwardly mobile daughters. I remember jousts between bad-childhood contestants which went on for hours.

So the term "working-class" got used for a very complex menagerie of variously fucked-up families: drunk, Napa, cult, Gate 5, SSI.... None of them bore much resemblance to the row houses Marx was talking about. There were a few people who fit that bill, but they always dropped out. And that is an important thing to remember about "working class": it is a term which can be profitably deployed only by people to whom it no longer applies.

For the unluckily ungroped, there were other options: suicide in the family? Any attempts yourself? (It worked for Sylvia; she became the Goddess of Victims, and she sure as Hell wasn't "working class"!)

The same grim avidity which these people devoted to the "Extracurricular Activities" they were planning to list on their application to Berkeley was transferred to their desperate search for some genealogical claim to wretchedness. Because it was the equivalent of the Chess Club or Hiking Team at the next level: it was what separated you from all the other straight-A applicants to law school.


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