Book Review: New in Nonfiction
The scary tale of Elsewhere Man, the American professional with no authentic, core self
Reviewed by Tim Warden, Fri., Feb. 6, 2009
Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxietyby Dalton Conley
Pantheon, 240 pp., $24
Make no mistake: Elsewhere, U.S.A., is a frightening place, but for someone who enjoys a good dystopia, it's one worth visiting.
The main character in this nonfiction tale of how we live now is one Mr. 2009. Mr. 2009 still uses Mr. 1950s as a reference point, and while this may have been his first mistake, it will not be his last. Because, while the people described in books such as Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) or David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950) may have been struggling against a tide of conformity that would have them trade their individuality to become faceless drones who perform bland tasks that provide no sense of purpose, this Mr. 2009, this Elsewhere Man, is so fragmented by competing demands for his attention that he has no way of connecting to any authentic, core self.
By entering the class of strivers Conley calls the "America professional," Mr. 2009 ceases to be an individual, becoming instead an intravidual. This intravidual is a sort of Antichrist for Zen Buddhism (the Antibuddha?). Instead of being completely aware of his inner being and therefore able to act in the world with presence and intention, he is entirely distracted. Conley describes "a hyperactive people constantly shuttling between where we think we have to be ... and where we think we should be." The thing that distinguishes intraviduals – with their ever-climbing salaries, their ubiquitous BlackBerrys, and their increasing job insecurity – from mere on-the-go types is their wholesale rejection of leisure time as a reward for work. Like a rotund physique or lily-white flesh, the experience of leisure time, once the hallmark of the rich, is now exclusively the purview of the poor. In this dystopia, intraviduals convince themselves that all-consuming work is an end unto itself, but take a look at Conley's description of his wife's situation: "Natalie loves her work, but she constantly feels overwhelmed by it, as if her very work were an abusive, oppressive boss screaming at her." Sounds like love at first sight, no?
In his final analysis, Conley appears to bolster his thesis that a fragmented, contradictory self is the new normal by contradicting the tone of discontentment that permeates most of the book. Though Conley appears to have intentionally written a mournful lament that never fails to count the cost of entering the Elsewhere society, in his final analysis his recommendation is actually "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Believing "you can never go home again" or "hold yourself to a mythologized standard of the past," Conley advises to "blend and bend ... between the domains of life."