…priceless

‘Life cost so much money.’

Min Jin Lee’s debut novel articulates multiple existential conclusions, but this one—received wisdom, baldly expressed—stuck in my head. As the title suggests, Free Food for Millionaires is a novel that’s fascinated with the psychological experience of having, and not having, money in a capitalist society. A society, that is, in which ‘Life’ can be seen as a product, or a resource perhaps, that costs.

The first chapter of Free Food introduces Korean-American Casey Han, who’s just graduated from Princeton with excellent grades, no job and no money. Feeling ‘compelled to choose respectability and success,’ she half-heartedly aims for a career in New York City’s corporate sphere, ‘but it was glamour and insight that she craved.’ Casey is restlessly creative. Nevertheless, she can’t shake the idea that ‘Life’ and ‘money’ are symbiotic; she wants the ‘money’ a corporate career offers, in order to have a ‘Life’.

Two years ago I, like Casey, made the predictable postgraduate migration from a small university town to a global centre of finance. In my case it was London, not New York, and I’d never lived in a big city before. I was also still a student; I was fortunate enough to be doing an MA, which allowed me to fend off full-time employment for another year, and maintain the frugal but fulfilling lifestyle I’d become accustomed to as an undergraduate.

Nevertheless, my overwhelming memory of that time is of being incredibly, paralysingly conscious of the cost of living. I’m ashamed to admit it, given my privilege (unlike Casey, I come from a stable, supportive, middle-class household), but I was terrified of the time when there’d be no more subsidised rent, no more student discounts, no more loans that’d enable me to spend my days studying. Grown-up ‘life cost so much money’—money I’d have to make.

London is expensive, and it’s brimming with stuff: shops that sell products that will change your ‘Life’; advertisements for apparently necessary things that cost ‘so much money’. Meanwhile, stories of peers who’d ‘made it’ reverberated in my social circle of recent graduates. The victorious had 40K starting salaries, pensions and mortgages. They’d transitioned seamlessly into life in London, a city that seems to demand the pursuit of wealth.

At this point, I heard the siren call of corporations, which, as one of my housemates bluntly put it last week, ‘prey on lost graduates’. The late Marina Keegan wrote an article for the Yale Daily News called ‘Even artichokes have doubts’ that asks why ‘25 percent of employed Yale graduates will enter the consulting or finance industry.’ After interviewing scores of students, she concluded that many are drawn to the corporate world ‘because we’re not sure what else to do and it’s easy to apply to and it will pay us decently and it will make us feel like we’re still successful.’

She read my mind, I thought as I read this. It was precisely these reasons that led to my abrupt (and short-lived) decision, two years ago, to become a corporate lawyer—a lucrative career path that I was privileged to be able to consider, but in which I had no interest whatsoever. It just seemed like the only (read: simplest) way to support myself.

*          *          *

I’ve been banging on about Free Food for Millionaires since I finished it because I found Casey’s experience of trying and failing to enter the corporate world truly relatable. Her efforts are only slightly less half-hearted than mine were. The reader learns that in her final year of studying economics at Princeton, Casey applied for a graduate scheme at just one investment bank, Kearn Davis, while her peers applied to several. She is rejected, but a twist of fate means that by the end of the summer, she’s working at Kearn Davis as a vastly overqualified sales assistant.

Observing life from within the corporate sphere, Casey finds herself privately reflecting that, ‘In life, it seemed that the ones who talked less, ate less, and slept less usually won.’ This existential conclusion, too, emphasises the weird and worrying interrelationship between ‘Life’ and ‘money’ within Free Food’s oppressive corporate structures. Life’s ‘winners’, as Casey thinks of them, are those willing to exchange the most talking, eating and sleeping for the most money; the ‘losers’ can’t make the sacrifices.

Indeed, the capitalist society of Free Food assesses every single activity—not just ‘talking, eating and sleeping’—based on its worth. ‘Two and a half years postgraduation,’ Casey is still a sales assistant, and her wealthier and more successful friends and colleagues—‘winners’, in capitalist terms—perceive her daily pursuits as pointless. Her mentor, a self-made millionaire, tells her:

Every minute matters. Every damn second. All those times you turn on the television or go to the movies or shop for things you don’t need, […] you’re wasting your time. Your life. Your life matters, Casey. Every second. And by the time you’re my age—you’ll see that for every day and every last moment spent you were making a choice. And you’ll see that the time you had, that you were given, was wasted. It’s gone. And you cannot have any of it back.

I hated reading this speech. It so perfectly and persuasively expresses a mindset, drilled into me at school, which I am desperately trying to escape. This mindset views time (and by extension lives) as something that can be ‘wasted’, ‘given’ or ‘spent’, exchanged or lost. In other words, it uses the same rhetoric that we use to talk about money to talk about time. Time is money; lives can be valuable, be worth something, ‘cost a lot’.

*          *          *

Bowing to pressure from all sides, Casey has another stab at entering the upper echelons of the corporate sphere: she begins business school. Here, ‘all she ever heard was this distillation of the truth: The whole point of’ spending thousands of dollars on an MBA ‘was to get a summer associate position at an investment bank’ in the vacation between the two years of the course. ‘At the end of the summer, you were supposed to score an offer to return to the Wall Street firm after graduation’. Failure to do so risks devaluing the massive financial investment in business school.

Applying for these summer positions, Casey learns that ‘there was no point to her lovely transcript’—her good grades—‘if the fancy banks thought so little of’ the business school she attends (‘a top ten business school, but not top five’.) The banks that would pay her enough to clear her debts ‘shopped for students only at’ the very top schools. Her transcript, her work experience, her MBA—the ‘point’ of these things is highly vulnerable; they could easily become worthless, if Casey’s life doesn’t go according to plan. Again, the implication is that the corporate sphere of Free Food devalues life experience that doesn’t pay dividends. Time can be wasted.

Casey manages to fulfil the aim of business school: she gets onto the summer associate programme at Kearn Davis. But this achievement brings her no relief. After all, the point of the position is to get a job offer, and of her cohort,

At least five, if not more, would have to go back to school with no offer letter in hand. The people Casey had worked with in the past eight weeks had been perfectly nice, bright, and interesting. They had been uniformly attractive people. They were also out to beat her, so she them—it wasn’t personal.

When I first read these sentences, the conjunction jarred: ‘so’ seemed grammatically incorrect; surely it should be ‘and’? But the more I think about it, the more that ‘so’ seems to perfectly represent Casey’s psychological experience of working in the corporate sphere—a relentless competition ‘winners’ create and are created by ‘losers’. Competing doesn’t come naturally to Casey; it is a response to her situation. People are trying to get ahead of her, ‘so’ she feels compelled to play along.

In Lee’s corporate sphere, you can only superficially work with your peers. Casey has very little to do with the other people on her summer programme—the ‘personal’ element has been reduced by the fact that they ‘talked less, ate less, and slept less’ than they needed to. But when she gets a job offer, she can’t help but consider the ‘personal’ element:

At least two of the ones who didn’t get offers were men who had worked alongside her nearly every weekend. One of them had a baby. What was he going to do?

At first, Casey is concerned for her colleagues, many of whom strangely remain nameless in a book that, as I wrote last week, is very concerned with minor characters. But then the ‘so’ of corporate life kicks in: her next thought is, ‘Would they have worried about her, however, if she’d been booted?’ In other words, her natural, empathetic instinct is overwhelmed by her conditioned response to the perceived attitudes of her peers. The structure she is working within has taught her to think in terms of competition, rather than mutual support.

This passage, which describes Casey’s thought process after she finally gets a job at Kearn Davis, is stunning. All the competing external influences she’s had to contend with in Free Food make an appearance and intermingle. Casey, slightly hardened by the idea that those who lost out on a job offer wouldn’t ‘have worried about her’ had their roles been reversed, further justifies her attempt to be indifferent by thinking:

None of them would ever starve, her refugee father would’ve said quickly. Americans were goddamn lucky. The United State was a rich country. You had to work, but at the very least, you would eat. Here, they fed you even if you didn’t work, he’d say. A professional failure was zilch compared with your family lost behind the 38th parallel.

Her father, Casey thinks, would see ‘professional failure’ as ‘zilch’—nothing—in comparison to his own suffering. He takes a binary view, seeing everyone in the USA as a ‘winner’ because he’s ‘lost’ what they are very unlikely to lose: access to their families due to political circumstances.

This is a salutary reminder to everyone in politically stable countries to check their privilege, but this macro point of view—which considers the grand scheme of things—is immediately countered in Casey’s stream of consciousness by the micro—which considers the individual:

Casey peeked at Scott, the guy who’d just had a baby. He was trying to be brave—be a good fucking sport about it. Her father was wrong, she thought. Suffering was that—it sucked not to get what you want. No one wanted to fail publicly, and tragedies came in an assortment of sizes.

In this speech, we learn the name of one of Casey’s colleagues, just as we learn that Casey, like Lee, is fundamentally empathetic. She doesn’t belittle the ‘suffering’ of the privileged, seeing ‘suffering’ as a scale, rather than an absolute. Indeed, Free Food patiently reveals that multiple characters who appear to have ‘won’ are, in some ways, ‘losers’: their spouses are unfaithful, they’re addicts, they’re unfulfilled.

*          *          *

Lee juxtaposes the value system of New York City’s corporate sphere with a counter-narrative of devout Christianity. All the Korean characters attend church at some point, where everyone is ‘rich. Wealthy beyond measure in talents and love.’ In the eyes of God, ‘Your value will never rise or fall with your beauty, work, or money. Your worth is priceless.’ While everyone’s made a loser by capitalist society, in the religious sphere everyone’s a ‘winner’.

These worldviews blend, so that the ultimate existential conclusion of Free Food is that ‘there are no winners or losers’. The lives of Lee’s characters are not so simple, so one-dimensional, so consistent, that they can be categorised as ‘successes’ or ‘failures’, valuable or not. Ultimately, they cannot be judged in material terms— ‘Life’, for Lee, isn’t like a valuable resource that can be wasted, or a product that ‘cost so much money’. In a practical sense, anyone who wants to survive in a capitalist economy must see ‘Life’ in these terms; but in a spiritual sense, Lee asks, what does this mindset do to our sense of self-worth, our relationships and our dreams?

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