Analysis of Toby Litt’s Adventures in Capitalism

Adventures in Capitalism was Toby Litt’s debut collection and, according to Malcolm Bradbury, foretold a novelist whose “fresh contemporary style . . . will sing in the ears of a generation” (3). The collection is divided into two sections, “Early Capitalism” and “Late Capitalism,” and each story is set in the present. Litt wages brutal assaults on the MTV generation and explores the surreal, postmodern existences lurking beneath the veneer of perfection in consumer lifestyles.

“It Could Have Been Me and It Was,” first in the volume, is the story of Brian, a man who wins the lottery and then decides to believe the messages in every advertisement but refuses to believe any humans. This story introduces a prominent theme in Litt’s work, that of the body. At one point Brian claims that “the whole world competed for my body and cash” (6), emphasizing the cannibalistic and global nature of consumerism.

Elsewhere in the collection, “The Sunflower” is a wonderful pastiche of the Kafkaesque tale of paranoia, featuring a magazine reader who turns into a sunflower. After spending the majority of his life as a recluse, he is unmasked and becomes the subject of exhaustive media attention in a tale reminiscent of that of the Elephant Man or a circus freak. The final story in the collection, “When I Met Michel Foucault,” is a haunting, vicious coup de grace in which the narrator avoids any deification of the 20th-century icon when he encounters him in an S&M club, marking, labeling, and scarring Foucault’s body with a heated poker. This meeting reinforces the relationships Litt has previously identified between the body and consumerism, pornography and power, fantasy and identity.

Among all of these pithy epithets and dark comparisons, Litt still maintains a degree of critical awareness by cleverly mixing absurd humour with biting satire. He demonstrates an awareness of the conventions of narrative by breaking them and creates a perceptive celebration of material vacuity in contemporary culture, showing its potential interest as a subject for literature.

Bradbury, Malcolm. “Real Life,” Independent, 26 May 1996, p. 3.
Litt, Toby. Adventures in Capitalism. London: Secker and Warburg, 1996.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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