“I Want to Not Be Someone Who Says No All the Time to Every Impulse”
On desire in Lynn Steger Strong's latest novel, "Want."
Last night my boyfriend told me, “You’re kind of neurotic about money.”
We were talking about how and if I could afford to go to grad school. Really, we were talking about how I could not afford it, and weighing potential debts until the difference between $25,000 and $30,000 seemed negligible.
“I don’t want to be this person who’s so afraid of financial precarity that I never do any of the things I want to,” I said. But I am. $25,000 is still less than the national average student debt, or one very expensive latte every day for ten years. (Since when did everyone decide to measure savings and expenses in coffee?) I want the degree and the coffee, too.
“I want to not be someone who says no all the time to every impulse,” declares Elizabeth, the narrator of Lynn Steger Strong’s new novel, Want. Elizabeth and her husband are in the process of declaring bankruptcy. She works two jobs as a high school teacher and an adjunct professor of literature. In the afternoons, when she is supposed to be preparing lessons or tutoring students, Elizabeth escapes into the city to read books in the park or wander the Guggenheim.
These unsanctioned outings are funded by the “magic” credit card, the only one that still works, and purchases include a movie ticket, an artist biography, gummy candy, eye cream, T-shirts, and an expensive outfit from a West Village boutique in which to attend the bankruptcy hearing. (“I will dispose of it before I get home, evidence of all the ways I am still a spoiled rich kid, as if my husband will not also see the charge on our account,” Elizabeth says.) Every item seems like it might be the last, a fatalist’s attempt at a brief and doomed happiness.
In early March, when I was still commuting on the subway and buying coffee from a cart, I bought an outfit I couldn’t really afford online after a random stylist posted it to her Depop. I texted all my friends about it, thumb hovering over the checkout button, justifying the potential purchase as “Mormon chic.” It seemed like the kind of thing I would wear and be able to afford if I was the kind of person I hoped to be: three inches taller, quippy, manicured, well-read. Someone who wears outfits in the most elegant sense of the word. If only I’d have known then that I’d be wearing variations on pajamas for three months in a row. That I’d be clinging gratefully to my job. Reading Want, I see myself in Elizabeth’s memories, the temporary sense of safety and potential she found in her early twenties, like the exhale of a match before it catches fire.
While Want is primarily the story of Elizabeth and her husband as they care for their two daughters and attempt to survive under an impossible burden of medical and student debts, Steger Strong uses Elizabeth to witness greater precarity and structural violence. Alongside Elizabeth’s experience are repeated instances of systemic failure: She fears retribution as a vulnerable adjunct while reporting the widespread but silenced accusations against a male professor, and her whiteness makes her a “hero” for doing the “good, important work” of teaching primarily Black, low-income students at an “underserved” high school. A tragedy in her apartment building, which is “half rent-controlled apartments and half gentrifiers who can’t afford renovated apartments,” spurs the landlord to begin pushing tenants out in favor of a coop.
Though Elizabeth herself is a victim of some of these dynamics of inequality, she is also in a position of relative security. She grew up wealthy with access to an Ivy League education and elite social circle. While she can get away with leaving work early and calling in favors without notice, her co-homeroom teachers, both Black women, likely could not. Even as the family’s financial situation grows increasingly dire, Elizabeth is still at an advantage compared to those around her. “What my students do need -- an obliteration of the same systems I grew up in, a burning down and re-creation of the spaces that I relied on all these years to keep me safe,” she admits, “I can’t and don’t know how to do.”
But her ability to go unnoticed and unimpeded in the world is not limitless. What she loves—her children, language, an enigmatic childhood friend—are equally perilous, resulting in medical debt (emergency C-section), an unstable career path, and a mutually destructive relationship. “Self-inflicted dangers are a different thing,” Elizabeth says at one point in reference to her adolescent detachment, and the same could be said for her own desires. Want becomes anxiety. Ambitions become vulnerabilities. Elizabeth’s husband left a career in finance for carpentry after the market crash, but years later former colleagues are hiring him to make custom shelving and mistaking Elizabeth for a nanny at parties. Even though abandoning work and using the magic credit card means gambling on the edge of destitution, Elizabeth does it anyway; she wants “to play briefly at not caring.”
Working from home, I like to fill up my shopping cart at various online retailers and then slowly go through and delete each purchase until it’s empty again, or leave the tab open so long the items disappear on their own. Before quarantine, I felt safe in the knowledge that I could always find odd jobs. In school I worked as a bartender and server, babysat, explained Microsoft Word to an elderly writer, and tutored students in economics. Whenever I felt nervous about money, I’d walk back into my old cafe and ask for shifts.
Now, my current job is my backup job. There are no available shifts. Gig work, which I foolishly saw as my safety net, will never seem stable again.
I Google people I admire all day to figure out how they did it, and nine times out of ten they have trust funds. On Wikipedia I discover that every big break in Hollywood—except Viola Davis—was from nepotism. I think that nearly everything I’ve ever achieved has been the product of privilege and luck, but when I say this people always correct me with “hard work.” No one wants to believe in those odds.
The truth is that the only real danger I’m in is self-inflicted. I wish I could stop but I can’t—I sock away career goals and hobbies and books I hope to read the day I can stop working all the time. I save my online shopping cart for later.
At one point Elizabeth gives in and asks her estranged parents for a loan. “Don’t pretend you’ll be able to pay us back,” her father says. “At what point is it time to give up on this whole dream thing?” her mother asks. “What dream?” she replies.
When I first got to college I called my best friend from high school to announce that the 1% was so much bigger than we could have thought. I’d met a boy who was one of six (six!) to get accepted from his public high school in a wealthy zip code. I was invited to parties in penthouses, vacations upstate, black-tie galas, dinners that cost more than my semesterly groceries. I wondered where everyone else was, all the regular people, and they probably wondered the same of me.
Want is a book about precarity, but it’s also a book about a woman with every possible privilege. If she can barely survive, who of us can?
- Lynn Steger Strong