By Dalton Conley
Pantheon, 240 pp.
When my father was born in 1950, there were no iPhones, no BlackBerries, no Facebook, no iPods, no YouTube, no blogs, no broadband Internet, no digital cameras, no DVDs, no dial-up Internet, no Nintendos, no cell phones, no personal computers, no CDs, no Sony Walkmans, no VHS tapes, no fax machines, no 8-tracks, no rock music, no cassette tapes, no touch-tone phones, no cable, no intercontinental ballistic missiles and no color TV. (His parents, of course, were born into a world without commercial aviation, nuclear bombs, broadcast television or even FM radio.)
In 1970 Alvin Toffler coined the term "future shock" to describe this oddly postmodern sensation of having outlived oneself, to have experienced over the course of one's lifetime such widespread technological and social change that the world you were born into becomes almost unrecognizable.
And it is future shock—though he never uses the phrase—that afflicts Dalton Conley in his new book, Elsewhere, U.S.A., which juxtaposes our 24/7 BlackBerry economy to those halcyon days of 1950s America, when a nuclear family could buy a home and be supported comfortably on a single income, when leaving the office meant work was finished for the night and a home-cooked dinner was waiting on the kitchen table.
It is a time that Conley looks back on with undisguised and often unqualified nostalgia. The book begins with two separate evocations of this simpler, better time: first, a rose-colored description of his grandparents' 50-year marriage; and second, the relaxed morning routine of "Mr. 1959" juxtaposed against the comparatively chaotic morning of "Mr. 2009," who must wrangle the children on his way to work because his wife is off in London for a meeting with her clients.
Here, already, is our first hint that Conley's nostalgia hinges on inequitable systems of power and privilege, with a second hint coming with the book's self-conscious limitation of its scope, on page 9, to the top third of wage earners. Maybe some white heterosexual men might be tempted to look back on the 1950s and see an unvarnished utopia of simplicity and stability—maybe—but change any of those personal qualities and the picture changes fairly dramatically.
At various points in the book, Conley's nostalgia begins to bleed into explicitly conservative politics. New habits of work have led to tax obligations that can be awfully confusing—just ask Tom Daschle and Timothy Geithner—so what we need is a flat tax. Consumerism has caused severe damage to the environment, so what we need to do is privatize everything, even the air. A critique of feminism, in particular, seems always just at the margins of all this; that the world is better for gender equality is commonly overlooked in favor of a catalog of all the ways Conley thinks it is worse, including rising divorce rates, neglected children, diminished leisure time and frustratingly busy schedules. Even rising income inequality becomes the inevitable consequence not of Reaganomics but of women leaving the home.
Compare the anxious difficulties of life in our contemporary "Elsewhere, U.S.A." to the earlier, highly gendered division of labor, which, Conley tells us on the book's first page, may not have been "quite fair," but "seemed—from outward appearances—to work." "Work," that is, in a way our world does not. For a sharper (albeit fictional) take on the 1950s and '60s, we could do worse than AMC's Mad Men, whose pre-feminist female characters have endured hidden pregnancies, infidelity, domestic violence, depression and marital rape as direct consequences of living in this simpler, better time—and on which there is no character, male or female, whose life is not made dramatically worse by patriarchy and misogyny.
I'm certain Conley would insist here that I'm misreading him—but I can't help feeling that a radically unjust system of male privilege is being uncritically misremembered. And I suspect I'm not alone in this reaction; anyone taking Conley's invitation to Google him, for instance, will discover as the fifth hit a New York Times Op-Ed from 2005 arguing that a man should have the legal authority to veto his partner's right to an abortion. Such a claim should remind us both of what we've gained since 1959 and in which direction we want to be heading.
Now, to be sure, Elsewhere, U.S.A. is no right-wing tract. Conley's slight tendency to moralize aside, his analysis is largely class-based, drawing from Émile Durkheim, Georg Simmel and even Karl Marx to argue that many of our most potent social problems stem from labor alienation, wage inequality and the growing commodification of all aspects of life. Conservatives will likely find as much to disagree with in this book as liberals and leftists will. And if I disagree with many of Conley's prescriptions, at least we agree on most of the symptoms.
Putting politics aside, though, I find some of the book's nostalgic ruminations to be downright problematic. Sometimes I recognize immediately what Conley is saying—yes, I hate the new trend of commercials at the movies and agree that people shouldn't buy bottled water where tap water is freely available—but other times he just seems Grandpa-Simpson curmudgeonly, as when he devotes multiple pages to how we have to tip too many people nowadays and even that we have to throw away our own trash at McDonald's.
Conley's real genius may lie in nothing so much as in nomenclature. He is quite literally a wordsmith. From weisure (the pursuit of leisure activities that are a lot like work) and convestment (consumer spending that masquerades as financial investment) to dynamic polygamy (Conley's proposed replacement for serial monogamy) and intravidual (the divided, short-attention-span self of BlackBerry America), Conley is a master of the coined phrase and the bon mot. If he ever grows tired of sociology, perhaps he might someday turn to Elsewhere, U.S.A.'s most-essential industry: advertising.
And for that, too, he could find worse primers than Mad Men....
Dalton Conley will read at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 18, at Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh.