At one point in my matriculation I had ambition to be an Americanist. I had a giant crush on the writing of Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen (which is to say a big crush on justifiably self-confident men/writers) and I thought I could spend all my time reading great big books about American life (as N. well knows, this ambition was short lived and I have since refused on numerous occasions the (allegedly) siren call of David Foster Wallace, Don Delillo and Thomas Pynchon). If memory serves I was mostly preoccupied with the representation of the American family.
Had I read Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges (or had it been available yet – it was published in 2010) I’d probably have added it to my list of novels preoccupied with the American family, the American dream, American life. The jist? The American dream lives! Sort of. True love exists! Sort of. Here’s the plot: novel open with Adam and Cynthia getting married. Their marriage is funded by Cynthia’s step father (her real father being something of a cipher). They have little money, but much ambition, much sense of entitlement for something more. Chapter close. New chapter opens several years later (consistent leaps of time allow for dramatic changes in circumstance in this novel) with Adam working at a hedge fund and Cynthia at home with two small children – April and Jonah. Cynthia isn’t fond of being a full-time parent. Adam figures out that by insider trading he can make a lot of money. And nobody gets hurt, right? Chapter close. New chapter opens several years later when Adam has – after stealing via insider trading – made heaps of money and opened his own hedge fund. Children want for nothing and are maybe getting a bit snobby as a result. Cynthia remains bored. All that they have is deserved. Chapter close. Several years later. Family wealth now rivals that of a small country. Cynthia has opened a charity. The children suffer from ‘lack of authentic experience.’ I keep waiting for someone to either go to jail or be cannibalized.
As I write this I realize that I didn’t really like the book. I thought I did. I enjoyed reading it because it’s lush. For the same reasons I like watching movies where no one wants for anything, everyone looks polished and fashionable, the houses have the latest technology and sleek design. Because it’s the life the dream promises and makes it out like everyone can have so easily (just put it on the credit card, right? because you’re entitled to that life and if you don’t have the money for it now you will in a few months). The book knows it’s being lush. It purposefully trying to send up and explore this idea of entitlement (how much more transparent can this attention get than the title). I guess I just felt that the novel got a bit distracted by itself: the flash of well coiffed women distracted from its own critique. The gloss from the substance.
Speaking of well coiffed women: another similarity with Franzen, the women in this novel are wooden and flat. With ample opportunity for character development – these characters do not lack for conflict-driven-change – both mother and daughter read as predictable and lacking in nuance.
So… where do I land? It’s a pleasure to read in a sort of aspirational I too want to be wealthy enough to buy a pony while also pleasurable for the disdain we (masses) can hold the rich that sort of privilege is disgustingly self-indulgent (even in charity – a thread the novel readily picks up). But when you stop to look beneath the gloss, examine beyond the flash, we find… it’s not that great.