Private Citizens

pcThe Short Version: Four college friends (Cory, Will, Henrik, and Linda) are trying to make their various ways through post-college life in San Francisco with varying levels of success in late 2007/early 2008. But as the year wears on, the four of them come back together in ways they might never have expected – and maybe they’ve even matured a little bit.

The Review: I didn’t know much about this novel going in other than that Alex Kleeman recommended it when she came on So Many Damn Books and that the blurbs & jacket copy mentioned both Middlemarch and Adelle Waldman (The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.) – and that it was “the first great novel about Millennials.”

And while I think that is a phrase we’re going to hear for years to come (and while I think that we’ve already seen some great novels about Millennials, thanks), I do think the Adelle Waldman comparison is a smart one: this book got under my skin in a way that made me think “Hey, what the hell, have you been watching my friends and I?” even though no single moment jumps out as something any of us have necessarily done. Tulathimutte just captures the moment, the oddity even, of being a twentysomething in the no-longer-quite-so-early days of the 21st Century with the kind of skill that comes from living that truth.

We open with a car trip that introduces us to all four characters: two sets of roommates from their Stanford days, now all estranged in one way or another (beyond the occasional hangout or e-interaction). Each character gets a moment to shine and introduce themselves and Tulathimutte swirls their voices together like he’s mixing a Woolfian cocktail as the intro concludes – the first of many moments to tip the hat to authors who’ve come before – before launching off into a series of chapters that begin with each character existing separately and slowly come to feature more and more characters until the points-of-view switch off every few pages instead of every chapter. It’s not always a rewarding construction – the timeline feels a little muddled at times and it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint when things are taking place in relation to other events (all within a few days or weeks, but the slight rewind/fast-forward jumps are jarring) – but it is a bold one and it allows the author to more convincingly orchestrate the quartet of voices into something that sounds cacophonously like life (as opposed to something more rigid and artificial).

I mentioned that Tulathimutte tips the hat to authors who’ve come before and I sort of wish I’d kept a running list while reading. Off the top of my head, I can think of the aforementioned Woolf, Eliot, and Waldman but also Joyce, Shakespeare, Maupin, Conrad, Bukowski, Kingsley Amis, Camus… and there are even quite a few I know I’m missing who are referenced in the extended academic discussions between characters (specifically Linda and Henrik), like the sort of thing you’d expect that compelling-yet-insufferable college couple to’ve been debating at your best friend’s St. Patrick’s Day party. He never makes it seem like he’s bragging or showing off – but he’s just aware of how these authors influenced and shaped not only his writing but his worldview and so of course they’re getting referenced (directly or obliquely, it matters not) here in this novel. Non-Millennials may consider this a sign of Millennialism – but to me, it just felt like how I write and how I think. Having computers at our fingertips from early adolescence has certainly helped us know more – and, as Tulathimutte’s case shows, that can be a very good thing.

But he’s also deeply concerned with authenticity and emotional health – another sign of Millennialism, or so the papers tell me when op-eds bemoan how lazy/entitled/listless/distractible/etc my generation is. The thing is, I just read a New York article about how young people have been getting more anxious and depressed over the last 80 years. So maybe we’re not actually getting worse but just getting better at noticing/acknowledging things.
But I digress.

All four main characters in this book (and much of the supporting cast as well) are pursuing lives of integrity. What that means looks different to each of them, of course – Will likes his privacy while his girlfriend Vanya wants to livestream their entire lives over the internet, Linda is young and crazy and can’t be responsible while Cory wants to be responsible for everyone including the non-profit she is unexpectedly given the keys to, Henrik can’t figure out what to do except go off his meds after backing himself into a corner in academia – but they’re all trying to be themselves while simultaneously figuring out what it means to be oneself.

This sort of thing can be exhausting in the hands of a lesser writer, but Tulathimutte is hilarious. His humor borrows equally from our meme-driven modern day and the pithy & dry wit of Wilde, Parker, and Wodehouse, making simple moments into absurd ones – all the more absurd for how real they feel. The humor ranges from an actual hilarious incident to a line like “In October, Cory was promoted again, because her boss died.” His satire aims at tech startups, self-help gurus with hashtaggable mantras, protest culture pre-Occupy (and post-Occupy frankly), party culture, the internet’s affect on our lives, the university system, and more.
He’s also, it’s important to note, sensitive. As the four main characters fall down, you can’t help but feel your heart go out to them – and as things take a particularly dark and physically detrimental turn for each of them in the back half of the novel, something more than that occurs. You start thinking about how you, yourself, would interact with a moment like that – if you were in a car accident, if your friend lost their job and apartment, and so on. The big moments of failure when the safety net is no longer there… your friends are the ones who’ll pick you up, or at least you hope they will because you want to do the same for them. It’s that sense of camaraderie that Tulathimutte nails, here, and that (for me) makes this novel more Millennial than any other thing.

Rating: 4 out of 5. It drifts a bit at times and the panoramic scope is just too wide for the novel to sustain – but Tony Tulathimutte has a keen ear for dialogue, a gift for making the ridiculousness of our present culture seem utterly plausible, and the ability to write four characters who you end up loving despite all their totally ridiculous flaws. Because you know them, or somebody quite like them. And when he writes dialogues about the truthfulness (or not) of being an author, of trying to grapple with the world through writing, you not only see the meta wink but wink right back – because chance are you’re thinking about it too. It’s a great debut and one that captures better than most just how it is that we’re living today.

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