Working the Aisles: A Life in Consumption, by Robert Appelbaum

Leslie Gofton finds this fusion of memoir and essay blending academic learning, popular culture and politics fails to fully satisfy

August 21, 2014

The excitement and consternation among the denizens of belles-lettres over Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Min Kamp (My Struggle) shows no signs of abating. If I read my auguries aright, hyper-reflexive autobiography is emphatically still the coming thing, even when these particular temps might have been better left perdu. It may be cool for sexy Scandis to provide us with a worm’s-eye view of their diet, toilet, family relations and personal neuroses, driving tips and recipes for making soup, stories about the time the brake pads started making that funny noise, etc, but this, as the song has it, ain’t my cup of meat.

On their best day, literary critic Robert Appelbaum and his publisher surely see themselves as pushing the boundaries. Early on, we are informed that Working the Aisles is “both a memoir and an essay”; “I am trying to make a point but I myself am that point”. So far so bad. “Trying to explain what my life has been about” is, unfortunately, horrifyingly accurate. For the ensuing 200-odd pages, the author unburdens his soul and explores its every orifice. It is an exhausting experience.

The snappy title is discarded very early on. I was looking forward to a disquisition on consumerism, but the news that my local Waitrose or Lidl does not really love me, or the author, somewhat took me aback, as I had been about to take our relationship to the next level. Will the author find a substitute for his false amour? Most of the rest of the book is devoted to this – as it transpires, unfulfilled – journey of the heart. In this quest for the author’s raison d’être we are led through the personal experience of his emotional, social, intellectual and professional life in detail. Here be warts, if not dragons. It failed to engross this reader.

Recovering from the faithlessness of his supermarket, Appelbaum leads us on a pilgrim’s progress through his 1970s Hunter S. Thompson period (“Apples, you’ve got to come with us. We’ve got a Cadillac. We’ve got a kilo of weed lined up, and speed, too.”). Lovers prove fickle or fail to respond to his blandishments. The allure of the road and fast food draws them ever onward (“70 miles an hour passing the law-abiding drivers doing 65, lighting up with a Bic lighter”). Miraculously, a bust leaves them unscathed and able to proceed with their studies and subsequent careers. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing it ain’t. All this to explore the nature of “desire”, apparently.

We are then taken back to an earlier time as Appelbaum grows into a consumer in the 1960s. Parents are dismissed and gradually discarded as our teenage consumer morphs into a guitar-playing protester, putting T. S. Eliot to Bob Dylan chords. His incipient bohemianism and “creative spirit” are temporarily crushed by the repressive conformity of the US education system, but as the counterculture proceeds apace, he lies awake at night (“thoughts crackling in my head”) and muses on the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane. More drugs are consumed and his parents are rejected, after a Larkinesque critique. He grows into a new level of consciousness as “getting high and paying attention undid the irreality around me”. All this is spiced with gobbets of background detail in the manner of a television chef; bowdlerised accounts of hip theorists to taste (a sprinkle of Raymond Williams, a pinch of Louis Althusser) interleaved with (of course) pop lyrics. Eventually, he submits to the lure of Rod Stewart’s Maggie May, in spite of its obvious hermeneutic inadequacies.

The story is familiar, if predictable. The conjunction of academic learning, popular culture, mysticism and politics is a standard recipe, and core elements of the life of the past half-century. In surer hands, this has been the genesis of good literature and incisive social and cultural analysis. Unfortunately, Working the Aisles is neither. At times, Appelbaum seems blithely unconscious of the sea of cliché and hyperbole generated by the style in which he has immersed himself – a middle-aged lecturer imposes his hodgepodge of analytical tropes back on to the disappointments of his earlier life. If only more of his critical targets had loved him.

Working the Aisles: A Life in Consumption

By Robert Appelbaum
Zero, 251pp, £12.99 and £6.99
ISBN 97817893571 and 3564 (e-book)
Published 30 May 2014

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