Dreamworlds of Debt
The German philosopher Ernst Bloch in his massive tome The Spirit of Utopia, devoted an entire section to what he called ” Little Daydreams”. Overflowing each page are mystical and impressionistic descriptions of phenomena like wishful thinking, social utopias, daydreams, hope, Marxism, technological utopias, art, utopian blueprints, fairy-tales and myth, excitement, travel logs, and various forms of religion. The longing for various things is what drives wishes and daydreams as well as negative or regretful dreams in the bourgeois world, he instructs us, and in the “Invention of new pleasure” section he writes, the bourgeois mostly dream about money. Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic series are extended dreams about money — intertwined with dreams about marriage, about social status, about celebrity, and most importantly, about release from the bondage of debt that money also creates. The books are fantasies about debt couched in fantasies of a more mundane kind, of romance, career advancement and bourgeois domesticity. What is the element of magic that the cycle of debt produces, and how can we apprehend some of its mystique through its representation? Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella was published in 2001, as a stand alone novel. Its original title, The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic reveals more about its ethos than the later Americanized title it takes on — the idea of uncovering a secret dreamworld rather than recording a series of confessions, captures more candidly the reality of the series and its symbolic registers. The series revolves around the life of a recent college graduate in Britain, Rebecca Bloomwood, who is offered a hefty line of credit by a London bank. Within a few months, she has exceeded her balance and the book chronicles her spiraling out of control debt, as it delights in detailing her romantic crisis, her friendships, and most of all, her shopping addiction. The irony underlying Becky’s life is that she is employed as a writer for a magazine called “Successful Saving”. The book became part of a phenomenon that sparked a series of sequels-Shopaholic ties the Knot, Shopaholic and Sister, Shopaholic Takes Manhatten, Shopaholic Abroad, Shopaholic and Baby, and Mini Shopaholic. Each book follows the same formula — Becky’s line of credit is extended by Endwich Bank, she encounters new opportunities and vehicles for extravagant spending (in one book, it is the discovery of a secret sister, in another a wedding, in a third a baby), she falls deeply into debt and conceals it, and finally, she is reformed through some kind of re-engagement with the institute of credit itself. Each book is not just a catalogue of her shopping addiction, it is a vehicle for her reformation.
Confessions of a Shopaholic series are representations of shopping and of consumerism and wealth that double as cautionary tales about excess. They reformulate debt from a comic perspective, channeling the anxiety, fear and hopelessness engendered by real debt into a comedy of errors and transforming panic from a state of hysterical immobility and anxiety into a mode of character building. Each series begins with the same injunction — Becky willing herself not to panic. “Ok, don’t panic. Don’t panic.” The contrast between Becky’s hysteria around her debt and the tranquility she gets from the act of consumption form the drama in the book. The series makes the link between shopping and panic explicit, mirroring in the dreamworld and psyche of the protagonist the states of economic downturn that structure the real world. This is what makes the series different from others in the chick lit genre, and not purely about the romance of marriage. What drives the plot and infuses real scariness is the accumulated debt and the hysteria in induces. Ultimately, debt functions as the constant reality principle in a book mired in unreality and fantasy.
As the critic Kathleen Stewart writes “A world of shared banalities can be a basis of sociality, or an exhausting undertow, or just something to do. It can pop up as a picture of staged perfection, as a momentary recognition, or as a sense of shock or relief at being “in” something with others.”1 The world of shared banalities that structures Confessions of a Shopaholic is punctured by the drama and the fantasy of consumption, but its instructive to attend to the ways the series humanizes and mocks bureaucracies. The epistolary frame that structures all the books represents this banality — the standard impersonal notifications from the bank — become personalized correspondence. “Dear Miss Bloomdwood” one letter begins, “I am glad that my letter of July 18th proved helpful. I should, however, be grateful if you refrained from referring to me personally on your television show as ‘Sweetie Smeathie’ and the ‘best bank manager in the world’. Although naturally I am pleased that you feel this way, my superiors are a little anxious at the image of Endwich Bank which is being presented, and have asked that I write to you on the matter.” The letter ends with the stamp “Endwich — Because we care”2, an ironic footnote to the purpose and the sentiments of the bank’s letters. The bank writes to Becky both to entice her into debt, by offering lines of credit, and to recoup their loss, to remind her of her financial obligations. The letters are not all so sweet, rather they are quite terrifying in their persistent and anonymous numerical calculations, their implacable urgency.
In examining a series of popular books with a shallow and materialistic protagonist that shore up capitalist and consumerist fantasies, a critique is easily made of the anti-radicalness and corporate politics embedded in the narrative. Confessions of a Shopaholic after all, is full of product placements, and no matter how in debt Becky gets, there are always magical amounts of cash ready to bail her out. It participates in and helps create a romantic consumer culture that elevates objects, and particularly objects of luxury, as conduits of happiness. All of these critiques of the book co-exist with its dreamlike and utopian elements. The desire to recreate magic makes the products into magical things. For Becky, shopping is a ‘transcendent experience rarely, if ever felt, in the mundane world’3
Becky’s shopping is less to do with spending and all about the excitement of desire, and the search for belonging. Becky’s life is a series of little daydreams. Kathleen Stewart writes that “Ordinary affects are an animate circuit that conducts force and maps connections, routes, and disjuncture’s. They are a kind of contact zone where the over determinations of circulations, events, conditions, technologies, and flows of power literally take place. To attend to ordinary affects is to trace how the potency of forces lies in their immanence to things that are both flighty and hardwired, shifty and unsteady but palpable too. At once abstract and concrete, ordinary affects are more directly compelling than ideologies, as well as more fractious, multiplicitous, and unpredictable than symbolic meanings. They are not the kind of analytic object that can be laid out on a single, static plane of analysis.”4
In the series, shopping becomes a way to access what Stewart calls ‘ordinary affects’–one that most consumers or residents of a 21st century developed society can relate to. After all, what is more mundane, and yet also magical, then consumption? In Becky’s un-ironic and seemingly sweet sentiment that “If everyone would wear new clothes every day, I reckon depression wouldn’t exist anymore”5, there lies a utopian impulse.
What kind of heroine can thwart the institutional power of the ultimate villain, the bank? According to Confessions of a Shopaholic, a clueless and endearingly financially ignorant working girl. The success of the series revolves around the likeability and sympatheticness of Becky herself. Her emotionality, her cycles of debt and spending, her sincerity and her complete lack of irony construct her as a naïve victim of a system of debt bondage. While her spending habits, tastes, and luck in marriage are the stuff of novelistic fantasy, her indebtedness is what makes her relatable. The book doesn’t ever give a description of the main character, and the author herself has noted this was a conscious decision, I like the fact that it’s not specified. I think it means anyone can identify with her. I want my readers to feel they are inside Becky’s head, seeing the world through her eyes and not looking at her from the outside”. Becky is the imaginary resolution of real social contradictions. She is an answer to the gender paradox of domesticity and public life, the hysterical and addicted shopping woman, and the ambitious competent working girl; to the divide between middle class and the elite and celebrities, but most importantly she is the imaginary resolution to the divide between the realm of business, society, worldliness and the realm of comfort, family and materialism. In getting us to believe in, and empathize with, a ‘shopaholic’ Sophie Kinsella is creating a dreamworld of debt where debt is an engine of character building, drama, fantasy, as well as redemption.
Writing about Latin American fiction during the Cold War, the astute cultural critic Jean Franco writes of the ways that “culture is overwhelmingly the province of entertainment and of comfort activities that in turn, generate ‘lite’ criticism that never challenges the doxa…what counts as literature has changed, for it is no longer confined to categories that separate fiction from reality. Hybrids of fiction and ‘real life’, of true and invented history, of travel literature and novel blur such boundaries. There are new possibilities and constraints.”6
In using popular culture as a diagnostic tool, and in examining fiction that does not challenge the orthodoxies of capitalism, I hope to have briefly examined both the possibilities and constraints of bourgeoisie fantasies of money that Bloch introduces. Confessions of a Shopaholic straddles genres and blends modes of ‘real life’ with fiction to represent the surrealness and realities of debt itself as a system of cultural and not just monetary exchange.
Even for Becky, for whom credit is the most tangible form of ‘money’ and debt the most tangible form of constraint, the real and the fictional are always colliding. “God , I keep forgetting how tidy you have to be in Manhattan. Like, I have my nails done twice a week at a nail bar round the corner from where I live–but sometimes I think I should increase it to every other day. I mean, its only $9. Which in real money is….Well, its $9. I’m kind of getting used to thinking in dollars.” Real money intrudes on the dream of luxury, beauty and self improvement, reminding us and Becky, of the weightiness of the debt it also demands.
- 1. Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. 14. Print.
- 2. Kinsella, Sophie. Shopaholic Abroad. London, UK: Random House, 2001. 11. Print
- 3. Pleck, Elizabeth H. Otnes, Cele. Ewing, New Jersey: University of California Press, 2003.69.Print.
- 4. Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.25.Print
- 5. Kinsella, Sophie. Confessions of a Shopaholic. London, UK: Random House, 2001. 26. Print.
- 6. Franco, Jean. The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City: Latin America and the Cold War. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. 262.Print.