The most successful contemporary novels about The American Dream are coming from Italy.
This fall, Elena Ferrante’s beloved Neapolitan series of novels came to a close. Starting with My Brilliant Friend and ending with The Story of the Lost Child, the series’s two central characters, best friends Elena and Lila, ascend from the impoverished bottom of Italian society to, if not the top, then the comfortable middle class. While most critics and commentators have focused on the series’s portrayal of the women’s tortured but enduring friendship, I find that the books captivate American readers — myself included — for another reason: the main character’s sensational social ascent.
I scanned through reviews on Amazon to see if I alone was lured by their story of class mobility. I could be expected to thrill to this theme. My day job is running a journalism nonprofit devoted to these questions; my grandparents spent their lives selling shoes. But other Ferrante superfans made it plain that the main draw is not the books’ pulpy aspects but their social consciousness: “By embracing pure intellectualism, these girls find a way to cope with their existence and to gather a glimmer of hope … challenging all to rise above circumstance and need,” wrote one Amazon reviewer.
“What is brilliant about the book’s treatment of these problems, is that while it is placed in a specific place and time (Naples in 1950s), it gets to the universal effects these problems create in people’s lives from childhood onwards. In essence, it says a lot about poor rural areas or urban ghettoes in the US in 2014,” writes another. As one of the books puts it: “The women fought among themselves more than the men, they pulled each other’s hair, they hurt each other. To cause pain was a disease.”
Economic ascents of the sort featured in Ferrante’s novels have become a rarity in American literature and life. The young upwardly mobile professionals are now in the past, replaced by a generation motivated primarily by fear of falling, as our median household income has stagnated. The poor tend to remain poor: They simply made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents, as Michael Harrington would say.
However, in the Neapolitan books, the girls are not stuck in place. While at first they merely dream of escape through financial gain and success, “In that last year of elementary school, wealth became our obsession,” Elena, My Brilliant Friend’s narrator, recounts, and the twosome then actually rise through the ranks, in an ambiguous, conflicted fashion. A porter’s daughter and a shoemaker’s daughter, respectively, the protagonists vault from the bottom of the heap in a desperate post-war Naples to positions of influence in the cultural establishment — Elena as a writer, and Lila as an programmer and entrepreneur in the country’s budding technology sector.
It was the girls’ social class story that spoke to me. I think of my own family’s mobility: My immigrant grandparents had a small shoe store in the Bronx. As a child I played on the floor with polish, a shoehorn, and a footwear stretcher. My other grandmother worked as a teenager in New York City’s Lower East Side putting feathers on hats. In the East Village in the early naughts, where the primary music was a steady buzz of receipts being printed out in thousands of franchises and boutiques, where everyone was slouching toward perfection, I kept seeing the shadows of those early-20th-century work rooms hanging around like ghosts. I thought of how my mother got through college by working at a department store, how I was sent to a private school on my parents’ (low) middle-class salaries, where I got to be a special flower, with poetry recitals and Cuisenaire rods. This is a transformation that happens less and less frequently.
When we read Ferrante, we enter a portal and return back to this period between the 1950s and the 1970s, when such huge fluctuations actually happened more easily on our shores. Or as one of the Amazon reviewers put it: “I was raised in the kind of poverty that the girls experienced and know that Ferrante gets that sociological piece just right.”
One of the friends, Lila, was born in abject poverty; enough shoe leather and glue was a luxury. She is beguiled by a shopkeeper husband into a comparatively affluent life, and she molds herself into a provincial Jackie O. When that marriage comes violently undone, the undereducated Lila works in a sausage factory, where she is waist-deep in mortadella. Her mobility is reversed. But eventually she becomes a whiz at computing and starts a successful business with her partner. When does this happen now in this country? From mortadella to Microsoft? Almost never.
I spend my days editing personal narratives of people — journalists — who are themselves poor but were once affluent or are close to people who are trapped in an endless cycle of precariousness. Their families may be in three-quarter housing or dwelling permanently in motels. Sometimes, something happened and they tumbled down and never got back up. I want the outcomes to be different.
In Ferrante’s novels, the outcomes are very different. Elena escapes the stink, heat, dialect, and blood of Naples for what Ferrante describes in another one of her novels as the “bourgeois decorum” of Florence, where she sidesteps “the black well I came from.” Elena leaves the neighborhood on a scholarship, marries into a well-placed socialist academic family, and becomes a novelist. Part of the story, of course, is the 1960s boom that allowed Elena and others in the novel to ascend in different ways, including mobility by marriage. It is her future husband’s incredibly connected family, and his mother, Adele, who propel Elena’s upward mobility as a novelist.
Here we come to one of the unsung lures of Ferrante’s books: that the main character becomes famous and well-off through writing fiction. She is called upon to lecture to groups of women and then swelling groups of both sexes on her novels. In the series’s third book, Elena struggles with guilt over leaving her children, yes, but she leaves them not for dreary, poorly paid white-collar work but for an enriching life as an author — multicity book and lecture tours, surely expensive, organized by her publisher, a constant stream of article assignments, book deal after book deal, generous enough to help her sustain her household of three children. (That much of this rise is through publishing acclaimed books — usually an impoverishing activity — must only intensify critics’ love of the series.)
In America, most journalists are not being paid enough for their literary output and have become increasingly forced to rely on philanthropy, on nonprofits, squeezing their word counts for extra pennies, unable to pay their collective rent. In the novel, Elena’s despair and lust seem like luxuries for a member of the creative class. I read the books’ combined length in no more than two weeks’ time (binge-reading feels better than binge TV!) — the protagonist’s well-remunerated, renowned, and very literary suffering has become a kind of pornography for me.
Where is the American equivalent of Ferrante? It would be good for our writers to tell our sordid story of the Great Recession and its aftermath and of inequality in the round like Ferrante has done: how wages have stagnated since 1979, how we have thrown the concept of standard of living out the window. There’s great literature to be written about people being frozen in place by their origins, incomes, and jobs. There’s even greater fiction to be written about citizens’ monumental zigzags from nothings to “somebodies” to nobodies.
Where are today’s American social novels about the downturn or its manic twin, class mobility? The inequality novel that Americans will read in droves, that critics pay attention to? There was once The Great Gatsby, Bellow’s Augie March, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and The Financier, even Raymond Carver’s working-class silent men of 30 years ago. Certainly those who claim the neorealist caption — Jonathan Franzen, recently dubbed an author of “failed-marriage razzmatazz” by one critic — have neglected this story.
Yet Ferrante is the writer that American readers are flocking to; perhaps our own most talented writers should take notice. Maybe the great American novel about our recent recession hasn’t happened for a reason. Maybe the novels of inequality were undone first by minimalism, then by $50,000-a-year MFA programs and the personal wealth they may require.
Who in American literature today deals with the subtleties of class difference in such a painful and sensitive way, while achieving even a fraction of Ferrante’s massive popularity? The girls of her novels, after all, were born in the poorest neighborhood in a large, grimy city, at the end of World War II. They were not expected to go to college or even high school. Instead, they were expected to do manual labor, to marry men who would routinely hurt their bodies. They were not supposed to change their cities or their country.
There was this great age of American literature when these gaps and deprivations would be the centerpiece of our fiction. No longer.
One reason for this can be found in recent studies of Americans’ social mobility, which is low in comparison to many European countries. In today’s Mississippi, there is less mobility statistically than in the rest of First World as a whole. Among children who might be categorized as working-class or lower-middle-class, the likelihood that they might move up to the top quintile has fallen significantly. The writer Timothy Noah put it well in an article on the subject last year: “If you want to travel from the bottom to the top, try being born in western Europe.”
And so I — and we — must go to the fictionalized Naples of Ferrante to read the story we want to believe can happen again in our country and to encounter a brilliant panorama of women as they rise, fall, and rise again