Private Citizens review: ‘Middlemarch’ for millennials
Tony Tulathimutte offers a comic portrait of privilege and friendship in noughties ’Frisco
A love of storytelling: debut novelist Tony Tulathimutte
“In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life.” The first of many epigraphs in Tony Tulathimutte’s dizzying debut nails the book’s central thesis from the off. The line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It comes from the fool Touchstone, who, as his name suggests, is the play’s assessor of authenticity, constantly seeking to expose society’s sophistry.
A modern-day bullshit detector is cranked to the max in Private Citizens, as an omniscient narrator takes on the pretensions of the millennial lifestyle. This droll portrait of privilege and friendship follows four unique narrators as they stumble through drugs, activism, mental illness and reality TV horror.
A graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Tulathimutte has an O Henry Award to his name and has written for a range of publications, including The New Yorker, Salon and The Paris Review. The recent whip-smart debuts of American writers such as Ted McDermott, Greg Jackson and Jessica Winter all come to mind with this latest account of millennial living.
Now in their mid-20s, the Stanford alumni find themselves reconnecting after a few years apart. There’s Linda, the caustic and hyper-intelligent writing major who fled to New York, “the city all others merely quoted, that tremendous vile heart pumping bedlam through its boroughs”. A recovering drug addict, Linda has relinquished her career as a dominatrix and has returned to San Francisco to sponge off her friends.
The least likeable of the four, Linda is also perhaps the most complex. A history of abuse is tackled by Tulathimutte in a meta-narrative of a diary-come-novel that cleverly highlights the fine line between fiction and reality.
Linda’s hard edge is tempered by her wit, which is particularly sharp on the grandiose ambitions of amateur writers and the reality of their output: “Afternoons were bad for writing, with their sunshine and lunchy torpor – but evenings were booked for living, and mornings for recovery.”
The quality and confidence of Tulathimutte’s writing is evident throughout the book; even Linda’s metafiction has a memorable opener: “They meet late in a year of record lows. The fifteen-degree summer. Invasion abroad, recall at home, Schwarzenegger by a landslide. A SARS quarantine on campus.”
Structure into titled chapters and various interludes, with epigraphs aplenty, Private Citizens is an ambitious and proudly literary book that has garnered comparisons to George Eliot’s Middlemarch in the US. A love for storytelling is to the forefront. Linda’s argument for a return to omniscience is supported by the novel as a whole.
At times the characters’ rants about everything from racism against Asian men to yoga being a “capitulation to the male gaze marketed as fitness” are not reined in enough by their creator. The virtuosity and verbosity of all four narrators can feel fictive – readers will long for a bumbling everyman – but it is forgivable in a novel teeming with observations and cynical humour. Great set pieces underpin the insights, including a stint at a cultish self-help programme and a showdown with a racist teenager that becomes a YouTube sensation.
Henrik is a lovable counterpoint to Linda, his former girlfriend, a young man whose father dragged him up as they travelled America living on their wits. His lonesome adult life offers a convincing portrait of bipolar illness: “The worst thing about the pills was that they worked. Without them, you might just adapt.” As he loses his research funding and experiences increasingly manic episodes, Henrik finds himself turning to his former friends.
An unlikely support is the robotic, porn-addicted Will, whose every move is geared towards keeping his borderline psychotic (but incredibly hot) girlfriend Vanya happy. A nymphomaniac paraplegic in pursuit of “relentless improvement”, Vanya turns their lives into a nonstop reality TV show.
Initially unsympathetic, Will’s generosity towards his friends and his pathetic attempts to make Vanya happy prove heart-breaking – and genuinely shocking – when a truly modern, self-inflicted trauma occurs.
Finishing the foursome is Cory, an idealistic and diligent activist whose bleeding-heart rants are tempered by a love of wordplay and self-esteem issues. A vegetarian who “loved meat and hated kale and yoga and hated women who fetishized kale and yoga,” Cory acts as a modern sage on the self-centredness of her peers: “Her generation’s failure was not of comprehension but of compassion.”
A hilariously drawn relationship with Cory’s father/adversary gets a harsh dose of reality by the book’s close, mirrored by the equally affecting awakenings of her three friends. Private Citizens works so well because there’s a realness to everything the characters experience. This is not parody or satire, just the sometimes grotesque behaviour of millennials under a searing spotlight.
Tulathimutte’s wannabe adults have grown up by the end, recalling another of Touchstone’s pronouncements: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist.