Emily Yang: A diptych of indecision and social value
Edith Wharton’s second novel, “The House Of Mirth,” depicts a world that I knew almost nothing about before picking it up — the New York “fashionable” society of the late 19th century, a world that mirrors the European aristocracy in its social aesthetic but is made up of industrialists, real-estate magnates (like Wharton’s parents), Wall Street speculators. That every rich person in America is nouveau riche when compared to the European aristocracy means that participation in high society has more to do with taste, refinement, manners and other immaterial, vague qualities. It’s interesting that this is the social formation that accompanied a period of intense income inequality — in the Gilded Age, the very rich are mostly concerned with being better at being rich than their friends and acquaintances.
Awaiting women in this world is a system of rigid control structured around marriage, and Wharton’s novel is a depiction of the viciousness of this system. Her protagonist, Lily Bart, was born into “fashion” but, being an orphan, doesn’t have the means to stay there without marrying a rich man. She is nearly thirty and is reaching the point where her youthful beauty is just beginning to fade — she starts to notice circles around her mouth and wrinkles on her forehead — but her problem is really more psychological. Having been raised in an environment saturated with opulence, she is hesitant to leave it, even as she finds its trappings intolerable. The beginning of the novel has her faced with the prospect of marrying Percy Gryce, a man so dull she nearly can’t stand spending several afternoons with him at a country house. She vacillates between feeling incapable of marrying Gryce and feeling like she needs to charm him, win him over, so she can at least avoid falling into the “dinginess” that surrounds her charmed circle. She is of two minds, on the one hand needing to stay in the presence of money at any cost to her mental life, and on the other hand fully aware of how ill-suited she is mentally for life among the leisure class.
This aspect of the plot rests on what amount to vague judgements about social aesthetics — it’s possible that Wharton’s intended audience would have a good awareness of what Lily means in her subtle judgements of the habits of the wealthy. For a reader in the 21st century, what comes across most readily is the mutability of Lily’s judgements, her propensity to change her mind not just about her own role in this “social tapestry,” but about the entire nature of the thing itself. Lily’s simultaneous attraction and repulsion, not just from single men or situations, but to the entire situation of her life, expands the novel of manners into something resembling a psychodrama.
Wharton is also very deliberate in creating a character who is entirely dependent on the money of these people to maintain her lifestyle, which is the only one she has ever known. Over and over again, Lily comes close to repudiating her cruel, petty friends before remembering that she also lives in terror of having to make a life for herself outside of this context. Usually she repudiates for just long enough to miss important chances — she spends an afternoon in the country with Lawrence Selden, a charming lawyer just outside the circle of “fashion,” and when she returns to the house finds that Percy Gryce has gotten upset and left.
Money saturates the social system Wharton depicts — there’s a gift economy for “tips” on Wall Street, newly rich families try to display their wealth to each other in banquets and parties. Every act of consumption is conspicuous. This doesn’t mean that restrictive social codes no longer exist, though, it just means that they are overlaid with an intensely marketized logic. Money mixes with everything else. Lily falls into a debt in the first half of the book to an investor, Gus Trenor, which quickly turns into an implied sexual debt that Lily flees from in horror. Later, she receives a marriage offer from Simon Rosedale, a man she finds repellant, who says “I’m just giving you a plain business account of the consequences. You’re not very fond of me — yet — but you’re fond of luxury, and style, and amusement, and not having to worry about cash.” As time goes on Lily becomes more and more desperate, she finds this proposal more and more appealing, even as she shrinks from it.
The cruelty of “The House Of Mirth” lies in its reduction of everything to value — every bit of social behavior, every signifying piece of clothing or jewelry has a vector that ties it to money. Wharton’s novel reveals, as Lily says, “the cords at the back of the social tapestry,” the identical image of society with all the material workings visible.
There’s something about the structure of indecision that makes caricatures of the objects under consideration. Writing indecision, then, often requires stating the patently ridiculous. The titular character of Adelle Waldman’s 2013 novel “The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P” is performing a kind of lower-stakes version of Lily Bart’s social weighing; instead of two distinct, relatively fixed systems, Nate is evaluating a string of women for compatibility, never quite being able to settle on what he actually wants from them. He is instead afloat in a sea of atomized social and sexual characteristics that never quite settle into preferences or opinions. Essentially, he is of two minds as well — one desiring company and one seeing himself as akin to Mailer and Roth, the mid-century writers who were able to view their sexual gratification as akin to the fulfilment of their intellectual wills, independent of romantic involvement. He has inherited a lot of misogyny from his ambient encounters with masculinity, represented by his friend Jason who frequently regales Nate about his softer side. Nate frequently finds himself judging women on Jason’s metric of one to 10 before stopping himself. But he does have a genuine tender streak that occasionally and unpredictably finds its way to the surface.
This pendulousness makes his behavior in relationships strange and erratic. He is not a jerk; he is in fact sensitive when he wants to be, but is still capable of being unfeeling and even cruel. He entertains moments of “embarrassing tenderness” and refers to the feeling of having a girlfriend as having an “an alien presence” in his bed with him. He is unable to face these contradictions, because it seems like his mind is only capable of entertaining one set of feelings at a time. Nate’s emotions are always described with fluid words — affection comes over him in “a wave,” resentment “flows” through him. Nothing can be pinned down or reversed in a wave, it has to be followed. Nate is at the mercy of his emotions, wherever they may lead him.
The novel occasionally feels like it simplifies everything in life to writing and sex, but in that I feel like it represents how a sizable contingent of people in the contemporary era of overwork and individualism think. As much as his social life is tied up in his work, he sees work as completely distinct from the rest of his life, and is prone to seeing anything else as a distraction. Nate has a hard time having a dignified relationship with anyone because he sees, essentially, a dignified relationship as compromising his working ideal. This does not stop him from pursuing relationships, though. He is unable to fully settle on this ideal, unable to fully commit to it.
Maybe this tug-of-war settles on a synthesis in the way that Nate tends to value women. No one in this book seems particularly intellectually rigorous, instead drawing from a hodgepodge of reference points to make ad-hoc arguments over drinks for the fun of it. Similarly, Nate judges women based on a bewildering array of overlapping social cues and codes, some of which have to do with writing and some of which have to do with simple attractiveness. He judges women the way a bad book reviewer judges a book, succinctly and based on surface characteristics — he’s giving a recommendation, more or less.
The novel being set in 2013, gentrification is already well underway in Brooklyn. He is aware of this and feels guilty about his presence in the city, but of course he is also of the set that values “detachment” — more than once he posits caring too much as a sort of fault or at least something that bores him. This attitude seems nearly brutal when Nate’s writerly preoccupations are set against a world of evictions and rapid development, which Waldman does not shy away from depicting. Even among his friends, he often doesn’t like hanging out with people whose careers have stalled out, as their frustrations feed back into their ability to maintain this sense of cool, “detached” engagement with ideas that Nate values so highly. His entire world is an economy of aesthetics.