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'Elsewhere U.S.A.' by Dalton Conley

You know how Andy Rooney always asks these whiny questions about why things don't work the way he thinks they should? You agree with him, sure, but you also feel a little stupid for being duped by the march of progress. Way too many sociologists sound like Andy Rooney -- with their smug little I-told-you-so's, picking their noses and chuckling ominously at human idiocy.

Beneath this tone is a larger problem of methodology. Personal anecdotes stacked to approach theories are precarious at best. On the other hand, you say, isn't it better to have our sociologists on the ground, reporting what they see, pointing out, like Rooney, the practical implications of our rat-in-a-maze-like behavior? "It's the job of the sociologist to show us how," Dalton Conley writes in his author's note at the end of "Elsewhere, U.S.A.," "in the words of C. Wright Mills, our personal troubles are connected to public issues."

The problem rests in that little phrase "our personal troubles." "Elsewhere, U.S.A." is about Conley's personal troubles. It's about loss; not being here now, the loss of leisure time, the high cost of not working all the time for big wage-earners in the knowledge economy, the blurring of public and private space, the commercialization of everything, "the outsourcing of previously nonmarket processes (like cooking dinner)," and "the development of technologies to facilitate constant labor." Read that sentence three times fast and your voice will rise to an Andy Rooney-like pitch. "Welcome to Elsewhere, U.S.A.," Conley says gleefully. I want to kill myself, you think. But do go on.

Constant motion has replaced authenticity. We used to be a country that prized individualism, "the ethical imperative was to first find oneself -- that is, one's authentic inner core." Now, we are a country with a belief in what he calls "intravidualism," "an ethic of managing the myriad data streams, impulses, desires, and even consciousnesses that we experience in our heads as we navigate multiple worlds." We used to be a society held together by mutual dependence, division of labor or, as other sociologists have written, by "cohesion based on sameness," "like the segments of a worm." Now we cling to the trickle-down economy, the only thing that holds us all together. Waiting for scraps and contracts from the rich folks.

Leisure is only for the poor. The family that instant-messages together stays together: "Multitasking mothers have reshaped many of our norms and boundaries regarding home and work life." We keep our kids busy too: "Every second is an opportunity for investment in their human and cultural capital -- that is, in their cognitive and noncognitive skill sets." Gone are the good old days of gender transparency.

Why work so hard? Because it's a long free fall to the bottom as the income inequality gap in this country widens. "The 13,000 richest families in America," Conley quotes economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, "had incomes 300 times that of average families." Inequality means insecurity. And insecurity affects every decision we make, "the mere presence of pecuniary rewards tends to erode other motives for doing things," including choosing a mate. High wage-earners are more likely to marry other high wage-earners, further increasing the inequality gap and enforcing the neurotic behavior of the jobaholics Conley encounters. And there's more good news: "Inequality tends to favor polygamy." How is that? "It may be worth it to be the fourth wife of the very rich man rather than the first and only wife of the poor one."

Conley admits to a high level of guilt, which he says is the "moral ax" in the Elsewhere society that further splits our "selfhood into intravidualistic fragments." He feels bad about all the money he makes. He feels bad when he runs into an old college buddy who is his waiter at a fancy restaurant. He feels like a "nerdy sociologist who is overly class-conscious and suffers from a particularly large dose of fraud anxiety."

Perhaps most important, Conley is riddled with nostalgia for his grandparents' lifestyle. "That rocking chair," he writes of their peaceful porch, "sounds real nice about now. But I can't seem to find it in this Elsewhere Society in which we live."

Rather than suggest we resist the frenetic pace, the technology, the fear/money-driven decision-making, poor Conley concludes, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." "Do not hold yourself to a mythologized standard of the past in which everyone's attention was focused on only one task at a time," he advises at book's end. "Blend and bend."

Conley, Conley, Conley: You want to shake him and then say, "Run along home. Your house is on fire." You forgive him entirely for using a book to sort through his own "personal troubles." He's raised some good warning flags but is desperately short on reasonable replacement models like, for example, just don't buy a BlackBerry, or, check your e-mail only twice a day. That sound Andy Rooney makes -- it's the sound of a small animal caught in a trap. Head for the rocking chair, Conley. It's on the porch!

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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