Hey guys! It’s Annie again, back for the second installment of The New Classics. This week we’re going to dive into the glitz and glamour of the American Dream, where it falls short, and who has been left out of the picture so far.
The American Dream: a palimpsest of opinions–fiction loosely plastered over a harsh reality. A beacon far and wide for Americans and foreigners alike. A mystery of social ladders and closed-door connections. So in that way, for an exclusive few, the American Dream is purportedly alive and well. Whether it’s homes scattered with manicured foliage, Bugatti-filled garages and rooms accented with diamonds, white leather and art on loan from the MoMA or circles where everyone is Kennedy-adjacent, laden in designer clothes and winking at each other over bubbling glasses of champagne. That’s how I picture it, at least. The flirty, flowing freedom that comes with money. But while millions flock to the states for some semblance of this lifestyle, marginalized groups are forced out of the pop culture picture when it comes to high society.
If I were to pinpoint this garish imagery to one source–this opulent American Dream pulsating with hidden evil-that source would have to be The Great Gatsby. Gatsby’s parties precede him, flashy flexes of pomp and circumstance. His reputation spans miles; Nick Carraway, as of yet a stranger, observes his ghostly command:
“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight.”
It’s a tale of the nouveau riche and the hunger for power, rife with sultry characters and symbolism. But each time I read it, I feel something ever so slightly lacking. That something is, namely, color. We’ve seen old money New York a million times over, East Egg and West Egg clashing under various guises and pseudonyms. It is just so absolutely, glaringly white. So, while I’ll always love this book so dearly, I think it’s time we usher in a new league of classic storytellers digging into the psychology of wealth.
Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians brings this age-old story to a fresh setting. The book (just as good if not better than the feature film) tells the story of old money (like, the oldest money) set in Southeast Asia and Singapore. The upper class’ voice rings louder than the lower class’, tones of British English floating through the tropical air. Rachel, an econ professor from NYU, finds that she is a little less than welcomed into the family dynasty as she is forced to adjust to splendor, luxury and apparent royalty.
“I hear that every new Chinese billionaire is trying to get their hands on a Warhol these days.”
We read this overseas story with American eyes, and suddenly the throes of wealth become universal. This greed, these modernist symbols of American status cross borders, and, as a result, the readership for diversity in high-powered positions grows. According to a Vanity Fair article about the movie adaptation, “the economics of Hollywood are changing. There is now an eye toward an ever wealthier Chinese consumer market that will soon enough dwarf our own. Back home in the U.S., the politics of diversity has made blockbusters of films that pivoted to non-white stars.” The publishing world is following suit, shifting toward the international perspective and the intersectional persona. More novels like Crazy Rich Asians will force their way forward, showing the new faces of old money and reinventing the American Dream.
My next book rec is written by none other than the lovely Navidad Thélamour. Her novel The Other Americans exposes the tension between old money and new money that we see in classic literature, taking us into the vortex of wealthy black Southerners and the unspoken code they live by. This one is a page-turner flooded with betrayal and the treacherous fault lines of American culture.
In The Other Americans, the Desommes are a family of the African-American Southern elite, an often forgotten segment of high society wealth. There are rigid rules, both spoken and unspoken. Race and class dynamics force their way into the picture, shattering the cool exterior of corporate and cordial relations, “because, as they were all too aware of, this wasn’t the television lifestyle of new-money reality stars renting their furs for the cameras. This was real life, true exclusivity…” As we learn in The Other Americans:
“That’s the thing about prejudice: It doesn’t just disappear because you’re the same color.”
Talking about wealth in non-white communities opens the floodgates to so many more intricate tensions. It’s easy to feel unified at the bottom of the food chain; everyone above you is a threat, so you need strength in numbers. But when the claws come out and there’s more at stake, even your neighbors are stepping stools to inconceivable wealth. When race begins to play into this drama, we see fissures in humanity we otherwise couldn’t. The new classics of literature require this element. The white-washed wealth of The Great Gatsby won’t cut it in a future of diverse identities and heightened demand for more intricate, multifaceted conflict.
I wanted to throw in one last recommendation that takes a more sci-fi stance on these themes, because nothing proves power disparities like a dystopian novel. The book The Farm by Joanne Ramos tells the story of Golden Oaks luxury retreat, an oasis for women run by businesswoman Mae Yu. They are treated with the utmost care, every whim waited on, sated with organic meals, personal fitness trainers and daily massages, all for free. The catch? These women must produce the perfect babies, constantly, for high-paying, high-profile clients. White privilege underlines the plot of this novel as a young Philipino woman enters the estate, struggling to pull her daughter out of poverty. Can a taster-sized serving of the American Dream make up for the physical and emotional toll of living on this human farm? What is at stake when we give up our bodies and our brains for the sake of easy living, wealth and all the tinsel and trappings of that old-money lifestyle?
With these new classics, we gain insight into the modern schematics of the American Dream. New generations are growing disinterested in stale stories of white wealth. Intersectional authors offer reinventions of these graying and wrinkling tales. All they need is a diversifying facelift, and who better to give it than the Kwans, Thélamours and Ramoses of the modern era.
I’m Annie, a recent UC Berkeley grad and publicity intern here at Art + Deco Agency. I’ll be your resident blogger, chatting with and about emerging voices in the literary industry and getting you started on your summer reading list. Catch me here every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday!