Randy Boyagoda looks at the shared theme of economic inequality in books by Thomas Piketty and Ian Williams
This interview originally aired on April 16, 2022.
He recently read Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty. It's a nonfiction book that charts rising inequality in the world as revealed in novels from the 19th century.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty
"Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty got attention because of the novelty of Piketty's proposed approach to thinking about inequality involving literature in significant ways.
"You start to notice this question of, where does a character live? What does the character occupy? Inequality comes into a fresh focus by way of Piketty's work; you get to inhabit this world in a different way than you would have thought. You start to notice in other books the trajectories the characters have related to things such as marriage or inheritance — where you just pass over it as just part of a book.
"But in fact, that can have a profound impact on where a character goes over the course of a great story.
Piketty pointed out that those are the sorts of events that novelists explore that really give us a sense of individual and then intergenerational experiences of inequality.
"Piketty suggested we turn to novels that give us ... a sense of how the trajectory of a given person is radically changed by where they end up in terms of things like birth, marriage, inheritance — all things that we read about in novels that we don't think too much about. Piketty pointed out that those are the sorts of events that novelists explore that give us a sense of individual, and then intergenerational, experiences of inequality."
"Reproduction begins with two characters who meet unexpectedly — Edgar and Felicia. Felicia is a young woman from an unnamed Caribbean island who is living in Toronto with her mother and studying. She's a teenager at this point. Edgar is the son of wealthy German immigrants to Canada who have a successful family business. Both of their mothers are ill and happen to be in the same hospital room in a Toronto hospital. Felicia and Edgar are on completely different economic planes. Edgar Hughes has inherited wealth.
"Meanwhile, Felicia is going to school. She's living in a single rented room with her aged mother and doing her best to basically make a new life in Canada. Only in Canada, in a publicly-funded health care system, would someone very wealthy on the side of things like Edgar and someone who is part of what we would call the working poor like Felicia be in the same hospital room because of universal health care.
"Both of their mothers, despite being very wealthy and very poor, happen to be in the same room together and the two of them meet there. And it's a striking juxtaposition.
How important is money to who you are and what you want to do with your life?
"Normally we look at this in terms of differences of age, differences of geographic and cultural background, but with Piketty, you also just see the assumptions that they each bring to life itself, and to what's going to happen next as they meet.
"And then Williams plays out their lives across two, in a sense, almost three generations within the small world of the Greater Toronto Area — with people living in very wealthy circumstances and people who do have to worry and think a lot about money.
"The question then becomes, 'How important is money to who you are and what you want to do with your life?'"
- How the nature of family inspired Ian Williams' novel Reproduction, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize
Randy Boyagoda's comments have been edited for length and clarity.