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A dubious privilege.

November 23, 2010

The Privileges by Jonathan Dee, Corsair, $29.95

On ABC TV’s First Tuesday Book Club this month, Marieke Hardy remarked that Jonathan Franzen could write ‘a colonoscopy pamphlet’ and she would happily declare it to be a work of genius. I admit to sharing this sentiment, so when I heard about Jonathan Dee’s new novel, The Privileges, and saw that it featured a glowing quote from Franzen on the front cover (‘cunning, seductive…delicious page by page’), I knew that reading this book was not a choice–it was a duty.

The Privileges is familiar territory for those who enjoy a certain type of narrative about contemporary American society, particularly those that feature families or individuals whose material wealth seems inversely proportionate to their emotional maturity. Franzen’s last two novels are positively burdened with these tropes, but he’s far from the only writer working today who does such a fine job of forcing us to confront our less-than-radiant societal reflection: Zoe Heller’s The Believers, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic are just a few other worthy examples. It seems that we can’t get enough of reading about the modern middle class and their lurking flaws.

But Dee’s approach is a slightly different one. In The Privileges, he draws us into the world of Adam and Cynthia Morey, a very modern sort of power couple. We first meet them when they marry at just twenty-one; by their mid-twenties, they have two small children and an expensive apartment in New York. But this is far from enough to satisfy them, and the novel then follows their inevitable rise through the echelons of Wall Street and Manhattan society. It’s a rise that is propelled by their desire for a life of privilege–not simply monetary privilege, but ideological privilege, a kind of aspirational freedom: a desire for the possibility of everything that precedes the desire for the everything itself. It is, perhaps, a peculiarly modern sort of affliction. Adam, gainfully employed in the world of private equity, makes a morally questionable choice in order to rapidly further the family’s fortunes; because ‘it wasn’t enough to trust in your future, you had to seize your future, pull it up out of the stream of time, and in doing so you separated yourself from the legions of pathetic, sullen yes-men who had faith in the world as a patrimony.’ Patience, apparently, is not a virtue for the young and successful.

What’s interesting–and puzzling–about this novel is that it isn’t the familiar morality tale you might expect. Adam and Cynthia may profit from financial schemes that aren’t entirely above board, but neither faces a Sherman McCoy-style fall from grace for doing so. Inevitably, money does not shield them from problems, particularly where their children are concerned; but neither does it destroy them. It is their children, April and Jonas, who, as teenagers, seem to bear the emotional burden of their parents’ wealth, each struggling in very different ways to shape meaning from a life that has given them everything: April observes that she can ‘feel herself forgetting what is to feel.’

Dee’s portrayal of Cynthia and Adam is the most perplexing element of the novel, and potentially its most revealing. No, Adam and Cynthia are not especially likeable, and yes, they’re obviously flawed: narcissistic, vain, and spoiled, despite the strength of their determination and their unfailing commitment to one another (there is ‘no wrong for Adam but whatever was wrong in [Cynthia’s] eyes’). But their flaws lack punch: they’re both so beautiful and resolutely un-damned, despite their choices and their actions, that they don’t feel real. Together, they are an unshakeable force: ’”they can’t touch us,”’ Cynthia reassures her husband, and ‘they’ could be anyone who isn’t part of their unshakeable folie a deux.

But perhaps Adam and Cynthia’s apparent distance from reality is part of Dee’s point: in creating this unshakeable bond, immune to any outside influence, they seem to benefit only themselves; it’s as if they’re only truly aware of one another, despite their eventual philanthropic endeavours and the travails of their teenage children. Their refusal to look anywhere but forward–Cynthia describes the past as ‘like a safe deposit box: getting all dressed up and doing downtown and having a look in there isn’t going to change what’s in it’–is a familiar human mistake, an arrogant refusal to learn from what has gone before. Adam and Cynthia’s desire for wealth and privilege begets just that: just that and nothing more. That they face no moral inquisition, that they are accountable to no one, is simply a mark of modern living–we may like to think that the scales of justice keep us all in check, but the reality is far more arbitrary.

Dee raises many complex and pertinent issues in this novel, but, despite his eloquent prose and deft avoidance of cliches and moralising, The Privileges suffers from a weak ending. Maybe it was Dee’s intention not to have a clear resolution–perhaps there can be no real ending for a story such as this, as there is no end to the desire for privilege and the inevitable casualties that result from it. But the final hundred pages or so feel oddly disconnected from the rest of the book, and its abrupt finish, which leaves more than one loose thread dangling, sadly undermines the novel’s power.

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