Lynn Steger Strong’s “Want”: The Adjunct Economy

Have you ever worked as an adjunct? These part-time teaching jobs can be satisfying. But sometimes you find yourself teaching subjects that are not one-size-fit-all, like remedial English composition, quite often for a challenging population, a mix of refugees from war zones and middle-aged moms, many with a dicey knowledge of reading and writing – and some literally do not speak English. So if you have a master’s or Ph.D. in English, comparative literature, anthropology, linguistics or theater, prepare to improvise.

After reading a review in The Nation of two novels about adjuncts, I picked up a copy of Lynn Steger Strong’s stunning novel, Want. It deals with two kinds of want: poverty and the want of love. What happens to people who opt out of the system to work at untraditional jobs? This novel is about the economy.

The narrator, Elizabeth, is a quiet, likable 34-year-old teacher in New York, with a Ph.D. in English, two children. and a lovable husband who left his career to become a carpenter. Her rich parents give them no money – and she doesn’t want to take it, because they are such assholes. (They threaten occasionally to take away her children.)

Elizabeth holds the family together: she teaches one English class for graduate students as a university adjunct, and is also a full-time teacher at a charter school where the impoverished Black students are underserved. I’ve got to hand it to Elizabeth: she hates the high school job, but manages to make an impression on her students. The principal, however, finds Shakespeare irrelevant. Instead of inspiring students to discuss Hamlet, she is supposed to do “test prep.” And so she is transferred to teach seniors, who have already taken all their tests, because the principal says she isn’t trained in test prep. And so she loses the class she has spent almost a year with. She starts skipping out early.

Fortunately, her home life is congenial. She and her husband are very affectionate and have two happy, well-adjusted children. But Elizabeth is so tense she gets up at five in the morning and goes running for fifteen miles (or at least that is the number that stuck in my mind).

And their money is running out. What can they do? They file bankruptcy, but that is still not enough. Her husband is buried under student debt. Should they leave Brooklyn? Their building in Brooklyn is going condo and they can’t afford to buy. Privately, I kept thinking: they could live in relative splendor on much less elsewhere! But they feel that their only other option would be to live on a farm in Maine owned by her husband’s parents, where they would be snowbound three or four months a year.

This novel is mostly about the economy, but parts are also devoted to her quasi-sexual love for her best friend, Sasha, who lived near her when she grew up in Florida. These women were so close that one summer they lived together and went out every night to read their books at a bar, where beautiful Sasha meets various men and goes home with them. Elizabeth is jealous – she is so close to Sasha that she wants her to mock the men and go back to the apartment with her. But Sasha falls apart, has a mental breakdown after she falls in love with a man who doesn’t want her, and never seems to recover after a baby she wants dies in her womb. Elizabeth realizes that Sasha’s beauty doesn’t save her -that Sasha wants everyone to love her. And Elizabeth is too exhausted to continue the friendship. But she wistfully stalks her on Instagram, which Sasha never updates.

This is an intelligent literary page-turner, which I read in a couple of sittings. I won’t tell you the decisions Elizabeth makes, except to say they are unexpected. And one wonders, not for the first time, why doing a job well and drawing on your deep knowledge can make you so poor.

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