By Patricia Comitini
In the Summer of 2018, I was on plane going west to visit my daughter. I took along a book called Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. I finished it a week and a half later on the return flight east. It was…infuriating and depressing. And it was the first honest depiction of exploited labor, in a mainstream non-fiction book or novel, that I had read in years. Many, many years. So, I was curious to watch the fictionalized film version of the book that is streaming on Hulu now. I couldn’t imagine how it could honestly depict the real-life characters we meet in Jessica Bruder’s book: the hardships and losses they faced from the Great Recession, the reasons they told themselves they lived “house”less but not homeless, the quiet isolation, fear and desperation they felt as the nice middle-class life they worked to build crumbled and was replaced by a transient, travelling life of the outsider. Bruder herself tries to adopt the nomad lifestyle in the book, as well as work the manual labor jobs that are the only income for these people, and quickly comes to realize the stark Hobbesian world they are tethered to even if they see themselves as “free.”
Bruder is compassionate towards the people she depicts, and sees them as people whose lives have been uprooted by capitalism in the 21st century, and are just trying to do to what they need to do and tell themselves what they need to tell themselves in order to survive. And the verb “trying” is the important one in that sentence. Because it’s clear from the book that she can’t quite believe this is working for them. As she narrates their lives with a mix of sympathy and journalistic inquisitiveness you don’t often see, her incredulity is passed on to the reader. For example, there are moments of levity and hope, like Linda May’s desire to buy land in the dessert on the border between Arizona and Mexico so she could build her dream “Earthship”—a house made completely recycled materials that was as “off-the-grid” as one could possibly get. Of course, Bruder leaves it to the reader to wonder how Linda May—a woman well into her sixties—could build this Earthship herself even if she could manage the money to buy and then haul the materials to the dessert. And how long would it take? But Bruder understands what this land means to Linda May: “Here was tangible progress toward the dream of building something no one could take away, something she owned free and clear, something that could outlast her” (235). As respectful as the book is to the people she interviews who live in their vans and cars and travel from California to Nevada to Colorado to take seasonal jobs often part-time with no benefits, and to their understanding of their reasons, their hopes and desires, the book also pushes back gently but firmly on their own characterizations of themselves as “nomads.” The belief that they can still attain some semblance of their former lives remains, as if does for Linda May, the nomad with whom Bruder spends much of her book chronicling.
The book is able to push back because its narrator, the journalistic voice of Bruder, distances the nomads’ own self-perceptions from the oral histories she manages to extract from them. Those oral histories correspond to the upheaval of the Great Recession that began in 2008, which still is the primary reason why the masses of these “nomads” became nomads. Some of these people were already itinerant workers, some were factory workers, some owned their own businesses, others were downsized from management jobs or executive positions. While most of these nomads see this as a lifestyle choice, none of them actually chose to live in their cars or vans; it was actually more economically feasible for them to do so as their lives became an increasing struggle to pay bills, maintain a mortgage and manage the debt they accrued from medical bills and credit cards once their steady jobs slipped away. Their rejection of middle-class life only manifests when it becomes impossible to maintain. Those stories are contiguous with details of this nomadic lifestyle: from providing for one’s daily bodily functions to outfitting the van or car as a living space to where one parks without being hassled by police. But, what Bruder spends most of the book depicting is the new exploitative relationship between labor and capital, as it is shaped by the Amazon model, and other companies who use seasonal and day-laborers in order to “keep costs down” while raising profits. Bruder recognizes that economic history is also a part of their oral histories.
And this is exactly where the fictionalized film version of “Nomadland” fails. The film version of the story isfiction, despite some of the real people of Bruder’s book appearing in the film to give it credibility. The film absolutely compels empathy for them, as a reviewer of the film in Jacobin claims, but falls short when it “looks past the exploitation by employers.” The reviewer wonders if “the people making the film simply overlooked that key component of Bruder’s book, or whether it was a compromise that had to be accepted in order to film at those real locations” (110). Maybe, but it doesn’t matter. The film they made has a different point for viewers than for the readers of the book: the film is able to be empathetic towards these characters because it utilizes the tried-and-true ideologemes of the American rugged individual who doesn’t fit into the “traditional” norms of culture and so “chooses” his/her own destiny—that is, this romantic ideal of “living freely” is reinvented for late capitalism in the 21st century. Of course, what’s left out of the film is the idea that what that “freedom” actually means for the nomads is a constant struggle to meet one’s most basic needs by taking on demoralizing and/or back-breaking jobs by companies who pay little and care less about their workers. Those jobs are still the pressing demand in these real people’s lives that they cannot choose, and they must and do take whatever jobs they can get, wherever they can get them, in whatever conditions and at whatever pay they are offered.
Instead, the film depicts Fern—the main character of the film who is not in the book—in long, panoramic scenes: by the ocean, in the dessert rocks of Arizona, by the Redwoods in California. Cinematically, freedom becomes the old cliché of being on the road, a female version of Jack Kerouac. Sure, she shits in a 5-gallon bucket in her van but, the movie tells us, it’s worth it for that kind of freedom. And while we feel Fern’s loneliness at various times in the film, we also see her connecting with people on the road with whom she shares a cigarette, or getting help from Swankie (one of the real characters from Bruder’s book who plays a role in the film) when she has a flat tire. The one character, Dave, played by actor David Strathairn, with whom she seems to want, almost against her will, to be closer, she rejects in order to return to the road. We learn later that she still feels married to her husband who died many years ago, along with the company town of Empire, Nevada, where Gypsum wallboard was manufactured. Her husband and the town of Empire, which we see in the one of the last scenes of the film, are the ghosts that haunt Fern, that keep her from entering back into society even though she has choices: to live with David in his son’s house or live with her sister in California where they grew up. Thus, the film not only psychologizes her “choice,” but makes her seem like she has not one but a few in the first place. Fern is looking for something else, out there, down the road from what she left behind—and that is implied by the closing shot of the film. The myth of choice is yoked to this call to “freedom” of the nomadic life, romanticized in the image of the sadness and loneliness of Fern. We feel sympathy for her, for her losses, but not contempt as we might for many “house”less folks. So, maybe that’s a good thing?
However, the film could have chosen to show the mind-numbing world of back-breaking work that Bruder spends much time depicting. We have glimpses of it here and there, but the balance of the film rides on watching Fern. Fern is the guide for our introduction to this world, but unlike Bruder’s journalistic voice that maintains some neutrality, some distance between this nomadic world and ours, Fern is clearly part of that world not ours. There is no way for her to think about her losses except in personal terms. We are spectators following Fern, but the film leaves no distance for us to think about causation. The film spends the majority of its time presenting how Fern lives now, and the physical and psychological limitations she encounters in order to maintain her almost pathological choice to stay on the road. The viewer is like the gas station manager in the film who says something like “I may be overstepping here, but there’s a Church down the road that has cots and a warm meal.” We want to help, but Fern rejects that help. So does the film. And in the end, the film seems to suggest that these nomads are happy with their lives—well, maybe not happy, but content with the lot they’ve chosen. This relationship between Fern and the gas station owner, the film and the audience, is the ideology the film produces. To see Fern’s life as a choice she’s made to deal with her personal problems lets its viewers off the hook. We do not need to think about causality, as the book prods us to do. We can feel deeply as we watch Fern and romanticize her plight as a quest for something always just out of her reach, just down the road at the next stop or the next seasonal job. And we can be bystanders who, slightly horrified at Fern’s dirty face, politely respect that lifestyle choice.
The audience for Bruder’s book is not much different than the audience for the film. I’m sure that those who read Bruder’s book, like myself, are also the intended audience for the film; though given that it was streaming on Hulu as well as had a theatrical release during a pandemic suggests that studios thought a larger audience possible. Frances McDormand, who plays Fern and produced the film, knows how to make a film that sells and is probably the only reason the film version exists. As a NYTimes article claims it is the power of McDormand’s performance that makes the film: “But the result is a performance that McDormand has never given before, one that has less to do with acting and more to do with simply being.” As the Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang wrote in his “Nomadland” review, “McDormand doesn’t disappear into Fern; she’s revealed by Fern, and Fern is revealed by her.’” It is an article mostly about McDormand’s rejection of the Hollywood system, her refusal to do press for movies, or to be made into a Hollywood commodity: the celebrity. Fern is a fictional character who is meant to represent McDormand more than she is meant to represent these Nomads. The fact that the Times is writing about her, of course, is press for the movie: she is Fern. And as such, the film has less to do with saying something about the nomads, and much more about the production of an ideology that maintains that myth of “choice” and “freedom.”
The ideological force of the book is different, because its point is different: to encourage thought by giving causes. If the book was simply about these nomadic characters, as is the film, then surely the ideological function would be the same. However, the book explains the reason for the emergence of this nomadic life, as it is the very backstory of Fern that appears in the text on the blank screen that opens the film. In a chapter entitle “Surviving America,” it provides the causal explanation of disappearing white, working- and middle-class people in America, from whose ranks the nomads are drawn. And yes, in both the book and the film, a person of color is rarely to be seen. That’s a whole other story of levels of privilege, or lack thereof, in the relationship between races. But the chapter contrasts the factory town of Empire, where something like 1950s small town prosperity kept workers working and living for US Gypsum, which subsidized rents, maintained the town’s infrastructure, paid for TV, sewer and trash services: “Empire felt like a town suspended in the 1950s, as if the postwar economy had never ended” (40). An exception to the market realities of late capitalism, but still the promise we want to find in America, and the passing of which we still mourn. But, like all factories susceptible to bad management and the vicissitudes of the market as well as global competition, the Great Recession murdered the “lifestyle” of Empire, leaving it a ghost town. This is the genesis of Fern. And the film leaves it there.
In Nomadland, the story of Empire, NV is deliberately contrasted with the rise of Amazon, the new model of labor relations in America. And while in the film we see Fern smile at coworkers as she walks through the Amazon warehouse and tapes packages as a CamperForce temporary employee during the Christmas season, Bruder explains the exploitation of these workers and the pain their bodies suffer because of the work especially at the median age of these workers. CamperForce was aimed at recruiting older Americans, despite the well-documented rigors of working at Amazon and despite record profits for its CEO; CamperForce hires mostly retirees or those who aren’t quite old enough for social security payments (this is actually depicted in the movie). The film makes no mention of 10-hour shifts, the constant motion workers endure in order to do their jobs “walking more than fifteen miles on concrete floors, stooping, squatting, reaching and climbing stairs” with few breaks and a security system that takes away cell phones and has cameras everywhere in the warehouses (45). Bruder doesn’t claim that working or living in Empire was paradise either. She clearly sees it as a “company” town that makes promises and seduces its residents into believing they are living the good life. But that is a far cry from Amazon, the “new company town” that wasn’t even attempting to promise its workers anything except a paycheck: “Rather than offering middle-class stability, this village was populated by members of the ‘precariat’: temporary laborers doing short-term jobs in exchange for low wages” (44). And to be clear, America has always had a precariat; but it was not generally made up of formerly middle-class white people, as it is now in growing numbers. Bruder shifts the conversation to the ostensible cause, and focuses on the laborers caught in this transition of capital investment. The film doesn’t, or can’t. I’m not sure how cinematic or entertaining watching someone’s daily suffering doing a physically demanding job would be.
The film “Nomadland” works to do the job it was meant to do: to produce a relationship between the “haves”—those middle-class white people who can stream Netflix during the pandemic in the safety of their homes—and the “have nots”—those who might stream it in on their laptops in their vans, if they care to at all. But since the film neglects the economic conditions that led to the Nomads in the first place, the middle class can feel a sense of “distinction” from those Nomads—it is their choice to live this way, and hey that’s the price of freedom from the daily grind the rest of us “choose” to do, right? In Bruder’s Nomadland, it’s not quite that easy. While Bruder’ book leaves open the idea of “choice,” because she acknowledges there are people who tried not to be “house”less or homeless, she also makes the reader understand that these people were once very similar to the middle-class audience that she undoubtably intends to be the readers of her book. It can happen to us and we have no control over it. And Bruder, as an ivy-league educated journalist, sees herself at once the same as and different from them: she struggles with the menial work, the fear of physical danger living on the road, and the worry about her van breaking down. As she takes on the role of Nomad in the book, she says that she is comforted by the reality, the knowledge, that she can leave this roaming existence behind—she can leave Amazon after a week, she can drive her “Van Halen” home to her NYC apt. She is a tourist in this world. Nomadland works to show us a world that could be our future. And we are comforted by the reality that that is not us—at least not at the moment. So, we can “think” about the causes, and maybe that enough. But, even with that knowledge, the book leaves us nowhere.
Bruder, Jessica. Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. NY: Norton, 2017.
Buchanan, Kyle. “What Frances McDormand Would (and Wouldn’t) Give to ‘Nomadland’.” New York Times, February 22, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/22/movies/frances-mcdormand-nomadland.html.
Marx, Paris. “Nomads in Search of a Villain.” Jacobin. 40: Winter 2020 (108-110).