The Land of Steady Habits is the debut novel by Ted Thompson, published in 2014. It was adapted into a Netflix original movie in 2018. The novel is literary fiction, set among the upper classes of Connecticut, detailing both their privilege and their discontent.
The protagonist of the book is one Anders Harris, a former financier in his 60s, suffering emotional and physical burnout, as well as the dissolution of his marriage to his wife Helene, and the continuing problems of his adult son Preston. They interact with another family, whose son Charlie is showing a dangerous rebellious streak. Helene also has rekindled a relationship with her original boyfriend, who was Anders' college roommate at Bowdoin. The story traces the interlocking history of the characters over decades, and focuses on a pivotal point where they can no longer keep up their illusions.
A few weeks ago, after reading another book of literary fiction, I wrote that one of the hallmarks of this genre is that it exists in a world where it can be assumed that physical survival, and even comfort, can be taken for granted, and that most literary fiction takes place in a world where the main conflict is between the safety and comfort those institutions provide, and people's lack of spiritual and psychological fulfillment from them. And so it is here: Anders feels uncomfortable working in finance, but still has lots of what could be called "social capital". His wife's "hobby job" is as the director of a well-funded non-profit. His son has a degree from a prestigious university, that jumps between rehab and unemployment. All of their problems are caused by maladjustment, and it was difficult for me reading the book, to not spend some time game planning out the things the characters could do that were less stupid than what they were doing.
Obviously, not every book can cover every situation, and the topics at hand: dissatisfaction and lack of meaning, can be serious problems. But the reasons why it bothers me is that while we are sometimes given glimpses of things outside of the scope of upper-class anxieties, they are treated as only accessories to the plot. One of the plot points of the book is where Helene discovers that her son Preston, who she has against her better judgement given a job as a reading tutor at her non-profit, has asked the student he is tutoring to give him money to gamble at jai alai, and lost the money. The student is an immigrant from Haiti, and while many of the characters of the book can be feckless with money, this man can not. But other than instigating a crisis, the fall-out of this for the man in question is never discussed. And this character, playing a minor role, is one of the few characters in the book that is not white and upper-class.
It also is kind of impossible for me to not read this book with the date in mind. I am writing this on January 18th, 2021. When I wrote a few weeks previously, about Fresh Complaint, I said that the central conceit of literary fiction is that institutions are safe and reliable, and that is no longer the case. That was before a riot/coup attempt that left people dead by gunfire in the Capitol. Institutional stability is not something we take for granted. A big point of books like this is to point out the hollowness of a life that looks fine on the surface, but at this point, "hollowness" doesn't describe things. The world of 2015 is very different from the world of 2021. While this book is a parody, a deconstruction or a subversion of "middle-class" life in New England, I just feel we are beyond the point of those things being gently mocked in literary fiction. It isn't to say that writing about these things doesn't have a place, but reading this book, I just felt that so little of it was relevant to my life.
It may be no fault of the author's, but reading this book, I am wondering what changes literature will have to take, post-Pandemic, and post-Trump.