Saturday, August 15, 2020

Brendan Hodge, If You Can Get It


Opening Passage:

The cell phone buzzing in her hand was a reproach. Jen had promised herself she would avoid screens and spend her Sunday morning relaxing. Instead she had been checking her work e-mail, and now Katie was calling. (p. 7)

Summary: Jen Nilsson has an excellent job, but in the modern world it is better to have an excellent resume, as Jen learns when she is suddenly laid off shortly after her sister Katie shows up at her doorstep in need of a place to stay. The first job afterward is something of a bust, when Jen is sent immediately to China to make sure a special project will meet its deadlines and finds the experience less than satisfactory. A new job surfaces almost immediately, but this one requires moving across the country.

Jen's world is a world in which the most real things are brands, which are stable and familiar and often genuinely handy, and the story is filled with brands, both real and fictional: AppLogix, Aspire, Mercedes-Benz, Schneider and Sons, Starbucks, Coke, Jaguar, Home Depot, and more. Her life there is a busy life, a life full of things she likes. They are the usual building blocks of our modern world, in much the way that personal reputation and family name once were. But this brand-structured world in which we live, while it provides endless opportunities to fill your life full of useful things and interesting activities, creates a strange gap between a life filled full and a fulfilled life. What we like often falls short of what we want; we can and do distract ourselves from the lack, paper the gap over by filling our time with other things, many of which are often interesting but none of which are the right kind of thing for fulfillment. Busy-ness is not the business of life. But by filling up our time we can miss seeing how much we are missing until something shakes things up.

Moving to the new location, Jen and Katie buy a nice little Sears home, updating and redecorating which gives them an extra focus in their lives, and introduces them to the handyman, Paul Burke, whose world and life is in some ways very different from Jen's, quiet and local, Catholic and focused on productive craftsmanship. Her work continues to be important to her, but everything having been unsettled through such a short stretch of time leaves her much more open to seeing the ways in which her life, busy and satisfying as it might often be, is not covering all the bases.

It was a bit interesting coming to this book after The Screwtape Letters, because I think there's a sense in which one can say that if that work is about internal temptations, this one is about the external temptations of the World. One thing that's very nice about the story is that it takes no easy roads out. It's not that the brand-structured culture of global consumerism is all hollow, or unproductive, or even always unsatisfying. It's not that the world would be better if we were all farmers or craftsmen and there were no product managers with MBAs or the endless layers of middlemen that make up the modern corporation. There are reasons why we have these things, and some of them are tied to very genuine benefits. Nor is it the case that there is any position -- any position at all, no matter how true -- to which you can convert and magically all things will thereby align with the ideal. We are all seekers, always in need of more, in this life. But the world around us can distract us from the fact that we are, in fact, in need of more; it can fill our bellies without nourishing us, fill our minds without enlightening us, and fill our time without cultivating us. What it offers is often fine in itself; it's just not everything we need. Brands and endless choices and availability are often great. They just can't replace faith or family or friendship, or any number of other things. The danger is that we can get so filled up with what is offered that we fail to get what we need -- indeed, that we sometimes fail even to realize that we aren't getting what we need. Sometimes we need a new vantage point to see some of the gaps in our life. And then we need to make the choices that start to fill them.

Favorite Passage:

This visit was followed by others, similar in outline but each excruciating in its own way. One factory had produced a bag that looked, to the native eye, exactly like the prototype but had been reduced slightly in dimensions such that it no longer fit a fifteen-inch laptop. At another factory, the Courier design had been abandoned entirely and replaced by one that the factory already had patterns cut out for. (It was a very popular bag, the owner assured her. Jen remained unmoved.) In the most extreme case, not only did the design presented not match the prototype at all, but the factory they toured clearly did not manufacture bags at all. Under heavy questioning, it was eventually admitted that the bags were being provided by the factory owner's cousin. "From where?" was a question that no one was willing to answer.... (p. 82)

Recommendation: Recommended.

Brendan Hodge, If You Can Get It, Ignatius Press (San Francisco: 2020).