ASSEMBLY INSTRUCTIONS | Agri Ismaïl
The Stockholm Review of Literature
⇒”Assembly Instructions” by Agri Ismaïl is a really fascinating piece. The story grapples with some really complex, often gray-area issues without becoming flippant or reductive (though the author’s characters often do, importantly). In describing a series of more or less quotidian events in the couple’s lives, the author makes a powerful commentary on such things as economic class and race. “Assembly Instructions” does for recession-era literature (the piece takes place in 2008, the year that the global economic recession kicked off) what The Great Gatsby did for its own economically complex era.
The story takes a narrative about the relationship between the unnamed narrator and his wife Tina and uses that story to say all sorts of things about class tensions, cultural expectations, and the lengths people go to preserve or pursue a certain sense of identity. It’s really a very intimate story, but one that is quite far-reaching in its implications.
The plot: the nouveau-riche couple moves from London to an unnamed seaside location, where they occupy a four-bedroom luxury bungalow, get a sports car and an SUV (one financed, one leased), jewelry, a nice vacation, and eventually, a Filipina maid. Other things happen, too, and eventually the story resolves itself in a fairly natural manner, one that has a lot to do with the overarching economic conditions that have shaped our recent culture, politics, and everything else. The piece is compelling throughout and moves along quickly.
The piece is a great work of Recession Lit (as I’m choosing to call it). I appreciate how it handles some very none-clear-cut issues.
The Occupy Movement of 2011 ignited a popular narrative in the U.S. and elsewhere that essentially said, The rich people are screwing over the poor people. Which set up a pretty clear binary, even though the issue is far murkier than good guys versus bad guys. Consider the characters from this story, who begin by leading a lavish lifestyle that they largely buy through financing–not cash. The narrator mistakes the home’s “maid’s room” for a walk-in closet. He and his wife discuss the ethics of hiring a maid, the responsibilities of the haves toward the have-nots, and the “necessity” of luxury items like the sports car and a nice watch. The characters are not intellectually detached from the plight of the world’s economic underclass, but they simply find ways to justify their wealthy existence (social conventions are a popular scapegoat) and separate themselves from the upper class so that they won’t be the bad guys in the world’s class-conflict narrative.
There’s a lot going on in this short story, just as there’s a lot going on in Fitzgerald’s slim novel, with which this story bears more than a few similarities. Ultimately, both stories suggest, wealth and success are very tenuous things.