Working the Aisles takes the reader on tumultuous driving trips across the United States and France, on phone sex escapades in San Francisco, on banking battles in Sweden, and many other adventures – including, of course, on trips to supermarkets, where the author has had to ‘work the aisles’. Moving back and forth through time, like a novelist, indeed in something of a memoirist tour de force, the book develops the story of struggle, of poverty and depression, but also of gaiety and desire, of a will to live in spite of it all, and to keep working the aisles. It moves the reader through highs and lows, through episodes of ecstasy and thoughts about suicide, and tells how this particular Everyman ended up sane but sorry.
REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS
Robert Appelbaum, Working the Aisles: A Life in Consumption. Winchester:
Zero Books, 2013. 244 pp. £12.99 pb. ISBN 978-1-78279-357-1.
In this autobiographical history of consumption from the 1960s onwards,
Robert Appelbaum teeters on the balancing wire between depression and
desire. ‘The first thing you have to remember when you walk down the aisles of
your local supermarket is that they do not love you’ (1): that is Appelbaum’s mantra
to avoid the pitfall of vacuous elation in a consumer-driven society with the
supermarket at its centre. It is also the thread on which this engagingly curious
tale hangs, about how a New York-born, Chicago-bred, Jewish boy restlessly
crisscrosses North America before making a leap for Europe, hopping from
professional despair to prosperity. His heart and mind are as complex and
multifaceted as the culture around him. A sometime limousine driver-gigolo
and second-hand purveyor of semi-sadistic telesex, he is also an unhappily
distant father, a love-thirsty boyfriend and, later, a devoted husband, tossed
between being a victim of and a hapless semi-agent within neoliberal consumer
society. The book successfully entwines personal and cultural history through
a dope-fuelled cross-continental car journey, with its only interruption a night
spent in jail, a booze-cruise with a twist and a fortnight drenched in a tent in
the Loire Valley.
One of Appelbaum’s absolute strengths is his flawless sensitivity to the
significance to be found in meticulous detail. Casually situating his analysis
in the context of Raymond Williams, Appelbaum lifts his gaze to reflect on
his own arduously attained maturity in terms of ‘the gap between my parents
and me [being] representative of the new salience of “culture” as a domain
of struggle’ (77). To shape his analysis, he compares a good range of national
contexts from the ‘orderly, mannerly, respectful’ aisles of a British Sainsbury’s
supermarket (8) to the suave casualness of a French youth coming out of
his local supermarché carrying a baguette. The Swedish state-monopoly alcohol
shop, Systembolaget, comes off by far the worst as ‘in effect a communist
supermarket’ with its mission ‘to serve the people [and] to give them what
they think they want. But not too much: its mission is also to shame the people
and suppress the crime of excess’ (229). At the other extreme, Applebaum
finds the alienating brutality of an American Walmart or Meijer’s hypermarket
‘where the ketchup bottles are next to the athlete’s foot powder and the pantyhose,
and the beef steaks are set across from a stack of polyester sweaters’ (9).
Appelbaum’s everyday paranoia about supermarkets’ power to simulate
love seems wholly justified. What connects these mercantile ventures globally
is how they lure customers by appealing to their supposedly individual tastes,
while at the same time enforcing predefined and artificial categories of
personal identity. By providing its customers with tailor-made special offers
and other forms of targeted advertising, supermarkets use complex algorithms
to calculate who we are based only on what we buy, even when the choices we
make as customers are at their most erratic.
This is a racy, provocative and largely male-centred story, at times a tad
bitter, which embodies its publisher Zero Books’ commitment to ‘another
kind of discourse – intellectual without being academic, popular without being
populist’ (245). The occasional editorial roughness gives the text authenticity
and immediacy, and although there are a few too many typos, the pace of the
text makes up for the odd copy-editing slip.
Appelbaum ties the two narrative strands of cultural analysis and cathartic
memoir together with physical precision. At one point, he even ends up with
a shopping bag round his head in a failed suicide attempt. Tacitly explored
throughout is the impact on mental health in general of a neoliberal system
living off consumerism, individualism, isolation and humiliation.
But there is hope. What Appelbaum really mourns in the supermarketisation
of the West and beyond is heart and connectedness: interhuman contact as
well as contact between us and the raw materials of existence. He finds such
humanity and warmth in France: in the delicate sensitivity of a provincial
restaurateur who has gently boiled and seasoned the bouillabaisse he serves to
his customers, and who cares with his heart and soul about its delectation. As
an upbeat mock-Joycean conclusion to this often rather gloomy cross section
of contemporary everyday life comes a handful of semi-orgasmic yeses in the
protagonist’s sleep (244); though it remains unsaid whether these are spoken
in good faith or in bad.
Örebro University ~ Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism 13 (2015)
Walter Benjamin writes of the “idea of what the commodity whispers to a poor wretch who passes a shop window containing beautiful and expensive things. These objects are not interested in this person; they do not empathize with him.” This is precisely the point at which Robert Appelbaum begins his incisive and wide-ranging analysis – except that Appelbaum extends the scope of his work to include not only the commodity, but also those persons and corporate entities that sell, distribute, advertise, and otherwise market those commodities.
Frances Corner has opined that "It was at the end of the nineteenth century when Marx dubbed religion 'the opium of the people'. In our increasingly secular world, I would now replace 'religion' with 'shopping'." All of “Working the Aisles: A Life in Consumption” can be seen as an object lesson demonstrating the validity of this statement.
Coincidentally, right before reading Appelbaum’s book, I had gotten through memoirs by Joseph Brodsky, Geoff Dyer, and Sonali Deraniyagala, plus another two by Edmund White. Appelbaum’s prose is more evocative than all of the aforementioned: he presents complex ideas more lucidly, his writing flows better, and he tells better stories. For example, don’t miss the college road-trip episode that reads like a zany Hollywood comedy take on Jack Kerouac; or, likewise, the quite definitive account of what it’s like to be kept up all night by an alcoholic who is determined to drag you along into their current party-cum-binge and all the hoops they make you jump through along the way. And Appelbaum's descriptions of the San Francisco Bay Area are as trenchant as any I’ve read anywhere.
It takes a special writing talent to turn philosophy into fun, and commodity fetishism into comic material: Prof. Appelbaum has succeeded admirably. ~ Glenn Peterson, Amazon.com
This book sticks in your head well after you put it it down. The author is a great story teller. His personal journey is both funny and profoundly sad. This was a great read for anyone anyone who enjoys a good book. ~ Dale Ridge, Amazon.com
By Chrispher Schaberg, Loyola Unversity, Excerpts:
Ostensibly a nonfiction account of growing up and living in various corners of consumer culture in the twentieth century and beyond, Appelbaum’s book works its way into all sorts of unexpected zones of thought and life. As the book’s story unfolds, the author questions the very possibilities and limits of memoir and academic study in modern society. To say this book is hard to pin down genre-wise doesn’t quite get it right, because the book sticks together so well that one has the distinct sensation of experiencing an altogether new form. ..............................................................................................................................................................................
Working the Aisles is profoundly sad and intensely harrowing at times—yet it also manages to elicit bursts of laughter, even a joyful sense of camaraderie (at least it did from this reader). It is a book that so deftly manages its narrative movements, intellectual struggles, and emotional energies, all while paragraphs unfurl and pages turn, that it actually warrants its definition of being a “book.” This may sound obvious or odd, but in fact I think it is another way that this book rubs critically against its topic of consumption. .....................................................................................................................................................................
Appelbaum has written a book that reminds us what a book is, what it can be. This is especially important for the “us” who are academics, whose writing can all too often seem destined only to the miserably predictable forms of monograph or edited collection. And this goes as well for creative writers, who must produce marketable forms at regular intervals (or else). But a book need not be another commodity in the chain of consumption—whether it happens for the bored traveler in the airport bookstore, in the academic’s abject file for tenure and promotion, or for the superstar novelist who delivers the same reading bookstore after bookstore before profitable book signings. A book might be something to be digested, maybe even something difficult to digest. Working the Aisles reminds us of this, of the pleasures and sorrows of life, and of reading—and how these things can be rendered in writing, written in a book. ~ Christopher Schaberg, New Orleans Review
By Peter C. Herman - Published on Amazon.com. June 9, 2014.
This is a magnificent book that beautifully combines an unsparing analysis of capitalism and an equally unsparing memoir of Appelbaum's struggle to find a place in this world. This is not a book for the faint of heart, or for readers who expect easy solutions. But it will remain in your memory. With all due respect to Appelbaum's critique of the culture of consumption, I urge the reader to buy this book. It's amazing.
~ Peter C. Herman, San Diego State University, Amazon.com
Robert Appelbaum's new book is a deep and passionate meditation on the meaning of consumption in contemporary society. Its engagement with the concept, while primarily auto-biographical, offers a number of theoretical pointers and extended critical openings that turn this book into an example of what good, experientially relevant, cultural studies might read like today. There is a lot here to remind us that capitalism is as much about systemic expropriation and value accumulation as about `immaterial' struggle on the terrain of affects and desires. Appelbaum's incantatory and recurrent motto - `they do not love you' - comes to life in a series of vignettes, ranging from the warmly frivolous to the painfully moving, in which the alien seductions of the commodified universe of the supermarket combine and alternate with the enslaving pressures of precarious work. Whether recreating scenes of youthful angst or adult pleasure, of despair or survival, his claim is coherent and indisputable: either way, whether it is your spurious satisfaction or your capacity to sell and provide satisfaction for others that is on offer, they do not love you because love is what exceeds the limits of the marketable. Appelbaum makes a very Spinozian and revolutionary point in reclaiming desire - and love - from the claws of the system and in reminding us of what is really at stake in this universe of 24/7 capitalism. ~ Roberto del Valle Alcala, Amazon.co.uk
This exploration of our desires, commercial and otherwise, and how we are manipulated by them and how we manipulate, reaches far beyond the shopping mall critique: Mr Appelbaum ranges from the highly intellectual social psychology and literary deconstruction to a highly personal narrative, with dramatic scenes of arrest and odd love encounters and vivid details from the United States, England, and France. Covering roughly 50 years, from 1960 till a few years ago, Working the Aisles paints a telling picture of the astounding economic and social changes of the half century. This is a very entertaining and at the same time melancholy and thoughtful novel-like trip into our ever-growing appetites. It should satisfy reading appetites of nearly everybody: rigorous scholars and those looking for a good and fresh story. Mr Appelbaum will keep you lively company for a couple of nights. You might even want to light a pipe.
~ Josip Novakovich, finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, author of April Fool's Day and Shopping for a Better Country.
Robert Appelbaum’s Working the Aisles is a harrowing performance in lived theory. In these pages, Appelbaum reflects on life within our cultural of consumerism, and identifies the ways in which his decisions and desires have been circumscribed by the market itself. Appelbaum turns a clear and brave eye on the events of his own life, and reveals, in surprising and sometimes heartbreaking detail, the humanity that aches to be loved, wanted,valued, both within the system and independent of it. Appelbaum's experiences, even the exorbitant ones, are striking not because they could never have happened to anyone else among us, but because they are happening in some version all the time, to all of us.
~ Kimberly Johnson, Brigham Young University, author of Uncommon Prayer and translator of Virgil's Georgics: A Poem of the Land.