ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The novel "Abundance" begins with a birthday celebration. Henry's son, Junior, is turning 8, and so Henry splurges on a dinner at McDonald's. While Junior runs around the PlayPlace, Henry stuffs ketchup packets into his pockets for when he gets hungry later. The first chapter is titled $89.34. It's all the money Henry has. Each chapter title is a different dollar amount, Henry's cash in hand. And so I asked the author, Jakob Guanzon, on why he wanted to put those numbers in the foreground of his first novel.
JAKOB GUANZON: I knew I wanted to explore wealth inequality and the experience of poverty, yet that's not necessarily anything new to literature, right? But one aspect that I really did want to hone in on was the ever present and really inescapable knowledge of your budget, your spending power and really, in turn, you know, one's human worth, you know, just right there in really brutal, irrefutable digits, and how that kind of weighs down on you, on a person who's living in poverty and even in a situation that's less dire than Henry's, the protagonist of "Abundance." Just when you're living paycheck to paycheck, you know, this is a really - a tragically all-too-familiar experience.
SHAPIRO: So as you were thinking about what your first novel would be, what led you to this particular story of hunger and need? Why was this what you wanted to invest your energies in for your first work of fiction?
GUANZON: (Laughter) It was a bit ambitious and heavy and...
GUANZON: I know - but not a cheeky rom-com peek-a-boo debut, which, you know, I do enjoy that kind of writing myself. I always imagined myself as a bit more - I've always thought of myself as a short story writer. And "Abundance" did start out as a short story as well. And I really wanted to tap into some of my experience back in Minnesota. I had worked on a landscaping crew through high school and put myself through college doing that and really just, you know, grueling manual labor. And in that experience, I was studying sociology. And it was this really bizarre time in my life where all the social critical theory topics that we were discussing in air-conditioned classrooms, I was getting to watch play out in the lives of my friends on the crew.
SHAPIRO: Oh, interesting.
GUANZON: And so graduation was this surreal experience of, you know, launching myself into these opportunities that my very, very close friends would never experience just because of an education and...
SHAPIRO: Because while you were working on a landscaping crew to pay your way through college, some of your fellow landscapers were doing this as - to make a living, support a family for their career.
GUANZON: Yeah. They were the lifers, we called them. And I never thought about the kind of brutality of that term because it sounds like a prison sentence, but it can be when you just - when you don't know what other chances you're going to have in life. So I really wanted to mine that experience. Yeah.
SHAPIRO: Henry has a young son who he calls Junior, who's in elementary school. Why was it important to you to include the perspective of a child in this story about living with extreme poverty?
GUANZON: I thought it was really essential that we had a child in this story because the consequences of poverty and the way we as a society put the onus and the blame on somebody who's going through hard times, right? There's just this way of kind of holding them culpable for life choices that they've made on a very individual level, and I fiercely oppose that way of looking at it. But I know that's kind of a knee-jerk reaction to the way we view poverty in this culture.
And that said, a child, especially at Junior's age - he's 8 years old - is entirely removed from any responsibility for the situation in which he finds himself in this novel. And so having that alongside Henry, who has made some, you know, questionable decisions in his life, I think complicates the views of poverty in a way that I hope gives the reader pause.
SHAPIRO: In the news business, we often talk about issues like food insecurity and the criminal justice system and housing instability and addiction and abuse in a kind of siloed way and your novel really illustrates how interconnected they are. Like, this is one big, tangled problem that can't be separated out.
GUANZON: When we're - when we watch the news, when we're listening to these little tidbits from the campaign trail and we hear these statistics, they're really jarring. But like you said, they're siloed, and ultimately, they're abstractions. They're really hard to conceive of on the micro level, the individual level. And once you zoom down to that really intimate plane of the individual's experience, that's where we're able to experience how inextricable these social issues are on a visceral and immediate level. And I think that's one of the great social functions of fiction and narrative in a society.
SHAPIRO: One of the things that I think is just so elegant about this book is that it begins in a McDonald's and it ends in a Walmart, which are these two kind of pinnacles of American capitalism. Why did you want to bookend the story in this way?
GUANZON: I worked at McDonald's. That was my first job as a 14-year-old myself. And a part of me, when I first drafted this, I imagined myself as the pimply cashier in that first - I guess that's the second chapter. And fast food and McDonald's in particular are to a lot of lower income communities, you know, one of very few sources of employment. And I wanted to start in a McDonald's because, you know, of course, we have the Happy Meal facades and the PlayPlaces. But behind the scenes is, you know, people living, working on starvation wages and with very limited opportunities. I wanted to start there.
But then I really wanted to end with Walmart because I think the general understanding of Walmart as an institution is amplified sense of consumerism. And to have Henry not be able to access, you know, anything within this store because of the situation he's in I thought was a really tragic way of pushing this point forth, that it becomes a taunt to anybody who has been told that this material comfort is part of your American birthright and yet he's denied that because of his situation.
SHAPIRO: Jakob Guanzon's debut novel is "Abundance."
Thank you for talking with us about it.
GUANZON: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.
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