Ancient Rome by Kyle McCarthy, 2016
The magic trick:
Layering privilege and awareness in a very early 21st century way
“Ancient Rome” takes us inside the privileged world of New York City, where the white privilege in Brooklyn casts itself as no-hope, ragtag working poor in comparison to the billionaire white privilege across the bridge in Manhattan.
It’s the kind of “privileged victim” claiming that I’ve complained about in the stories of Ann Beattie and Curtis Sittenfeld. But here? Here, I’m going to say that it’s not a flaw within the story. It is the story.
McCarthy seems to know her narrator is pulling this stunt. She seems to know it’s central to her character. In fact, I’d argue the narrator seems to know that she’s pulling this stunt.
There are layers upon layers upon layers here. Which feels so true to our age, doesn’t it? We as a society seem stuck in this collective transition phase, recognizing (many of us for the first time) the privileges and limitations inherent to our society but not yet knowing what to do to fix the problem.
In that way, this feels like a perfect story for people to read in 50 years when they want to get a feel for what it was like in this weird 2020 time period.
And that’s quite a trick on McCarthy’s part.
We might as well begin with the homes. The condos, the townhouses, the penthouses, the classic sixes and sevens. Let’s begin there and with the servants that cook and clean them, though “servant” is not the term used. The wealthy prefer “housekeeper.”
This one time, I was called for an emergency paper intervention, dispatched on twenty-four hours’ notice to Seventieth and Park, where Isabel Shear led me past her snowy-white bedroom, a capacious boudoir whose proportions easily exceeded my Brooklyn studio, and into her office, a tiny little space by the back staircase dedicated solely to the serious intellectual work of eighth grade.
The assignment that had caused Isabel Shear so much grief read as follows: Compare the impact of the cult of domesticity on an upper-class woman, a working-class woman, and a slave during the last years of the Roman Empire. If you send your child to a top Manhattan independent school, she will complete essentially this assignment for the next twelve years of her life. Note the nod to historical relevance, the dutiful attention to women and minorities. Note, too, that Isabel must complete this assignment using only primary documents, because Trinity wants to train her to be a real historian. How many primary documents from 100 AD, do you think, discuss the housekeeping practices of slaves?
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