Purity in a Pandemic — Inherited Wealth
Pip arrives in Bolivia while Andreas is not there, a paradise where she is able to jump into the clean water and escape her problems in the United States of student debt, at least for a little while. Unbeknownst to her, she is sitting on a trust fund of up to one billion dollars, though I suspect that it is not lost on Andreas Wolf and Annagret. In fact, once the reader comes to the part where the questionnaire is not really a process shared among the other attractive women and capable men at The Sunlight Project, and once you see the difference in background between the young elite at the compound and Pip, whose hostility threatens and saddens the others, you begin to see that Pip is likely there for ominous reasons.
Hopefully by now the reader is not fooled into thinking that Pip is somehow special like Annagret suggests, but that she has inherited wealth of a sort that could keep Andreas Wolf afloat for a very long time in one of the poorest countries in South America, a place that is south of the equator, the half the that is already more poor. Wolf seems so profoundly desperate for Pip to stay in Bolivia that he is willing to try anything, including revealing his murder to Pip, which I thought would occur much later in the book.
It is all a classic New Criticism example of irony, where the reader knows more than the characters, and therefore we grow nervous and anxious about the prospect of having characters make poor decisions without perfect information. Whether Franzen knows it or not, even the structure of literature is assisting his idea of transparency and information, where the reader too must come to terms with what the story is here when several disparate details place Andreas in a poor light, even with his honesty to Pip. Wolf believes there might be a hidden journalist in the compound trying to discredit and undermine him. Paranoia or genuine fear are both possibilities. Does Wolf know that Pip is Tom’s daughter? He must, surely. Which means that already, before she even knows about who her father is, Andreas is trying to pit them both against each other. That is dastardly.
What happened in the intervening time between Pip’s stay in Bolivia with the Sunlight Project and her internship with Tom and Leila?
I have started The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits, and I think it has some use here. When Pip arrives at the compound, she finds herself clearly surrounded by people of a higher caliber in skills and training and ambition. Markovits’s book begins in part one by remarking on the startling changeover in working hours between the rich and the poor. In previous eras, it was the poor’s lot to work a lot, while the rich enjoyed leisure and recreational activities. Now, there is a sort of reversal, where the rich are doomed to incredible working hours and private education and test taking tutorials that rip the young elite apart and encourage substance abuse and sleep deprivation. Meanwhile, the poor are working less hours due to massive technological change. It is not that they want to work less, however, it is that there is simply no work available. Some of the poor must now take to working multiple jobs in order to make ends meet, while some have left the workforce entirely.
This is what Markovits means by a “trap.” It creates a society that forces people on wheels they cannot escape from, and in order to make sure their children have the same advantages, they must provide for their place in an increasingly static and socially immobile way as well.
Looking at these early scenes with young men and women at the Sunlight Project, it is easy to see this played out. They are pining for fame, and Wolf, rather than be flattered by the advances, feels so stifled that he runs with Pip into the city and away from the compound so he can be himself. They “project” their aspirations onto him, according to Wolf, so he must escape his own facility in order to grant transparency to himself, which must be a curse all its own. Meanwhile the most magnetic of the people Pip meets, Colleen, sees the sham for what it is: it is a desperate rat race to get ahead. Colleen has resigned herself to being second or third place, while maintaining the rights and relishing what she does have. She knows where the money comes from, she has a room to herself, and she gets to have her two cigarettes after dinner.
Poverty has been alleviated to some extent in the United States, but so too has inequality widened, the middle class has dropped out, and the elite have garnered a greater share of the wealth. We must cling to the simple things in life, in the world of “everybody else.” It’s all we’re going to get.
Meanwhile those young ambitious elites must go off to internships with political powerhouses and globalized technology movements like The Sunlight Project to gain a leg up and acquire the skills necessary to propagate private wealth and reputation.
Who would have thought the world would be so calcified as to prevent options for those hardworking?
Now when my poor students in school do not turn in homework, it is easier to see why.