Oct. 29, 2009
Nickel and Dimed, award-winning journalist Barbara Ehrenreich's fascinating nonfiction account of living as a member of the poor working class,(published in 2001), and Clarice Lispector's novella, The Hour of the Star, (translated by Giovanni Pontiero, and originally published in 1977), about a pathetically poor, mistreated worker in the Brazilian slums, have in common the little people, and the writers' compassion for them which inform the reader and illumine the texts. As I read both books this past week, I was struck by their similarity -- primarily, both writers aim to raise the consciousness of readers about those that have not.
You don't need to be a social activist or a follower of Michael Moore's movies to become mesmerized by Nickel and Dimed. If you have any heart or curiosity at all, you will not be able to put the book down. It's particularly interesting to revisit it in these days when the economy is in even worse shape than when Ehrenreich started her project, testing herself at various service jobs around the country about a decade ago. According to the American Community Surveys (ACS) 2008 data, an estimated 13.2 percent of the U.S. population had income below the poverty threshold in 2007. America's poor don't just live in Kentucky and Louisiana, they are everywhere.
Ehrenreich embarked on her experiment, working service jobs, in Key West in 1998. Early in her text, she explains, she took on the challenge "just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do." A very smart woman, an accomplished professional writer and Ph.D. in biology, Ehrenreich failed time and again.
Service professionals sometimes form a weird subculture that allows waitresses in a cheap restaurant, for example, to simultaneously experience camaraderie, animosity and competitiveness with one another as they share the same toil and aggravation. But too often it's a dead end. Support just isn't there, and a worker needs two, maybe three jobs just to make ends meet, and that doesn't even allow for health care emergencies.
Much of Ehrenreich's story is not so much about the poor working class, but about poor working class girls and women and their drudge. While working as a maid, Ehrenreich encountered a particularly uppity woman who demanded a picayune cleaning, inspiring Ehrenreich to muse -- "That's not your marble bleeding. I want to tell her, it's the world-wide working class -- the people who quarried the marble, wove your Persian rug until they went blind, harvested the lovely apples in your fall-themed dining room centerpiece, smelted the steel for the rails, drove the trucks, put up the building, and now bend and squat and sweat to clean it."
By Latin American standards, North Americans, even those in Appalachia, hardly know about poverty. In Colombia and Brazil, for example, poverty devastates masses, and hordes of children become street criminals; only the wiliest survive. On the street, the poorest of the poor cheat and mistreat and are cheated and mistreated, even by their own. Hunger is constant, with never the hope of a soup kitchen or shelter to ease wanting -- even for a day.
Lispector's fictional character Macabea, may be the most pitiful poor woman I have encountered in fiction. Homely and unloved, she makes a meager living as a typist in Rio. The reader perceives her through the eyes of the self-serving narrator, Rodrigo S.M., who attempts to make her his own, to become her by a willful act of literary transmutation: "It's my obsession to become the other man. In this case, the other woman. Pale and feeling weak, I tremble just like her."
The aim of Lispector's stirring, elegant, wholly original tale is to move the reader to experience the arrogance of the narrator and the anguish of the poor. A hint of the aim is unveiled in this telling line of the narrator's -- "I know that it is very frightening to step out of oneself, but then everything which is unfamiliar can be frightening."
Both Lispector and Ehrenreich dare the reader to step out of comfortable zones into the shoes of the poor, and further, beneath their skin. Each writer succeeds brilliantly, exposing not only the artifice and arrogance of those more fortunate along with the brutality of external circumstances, but the layers of internal suffering the working class and poor constantly endure.