Books: In the Looking Glass: 'Private Citizens'

May 5, 2016

Private Citizens

Private Citizens, Tony Tulathimutte’s debut novel, follows the misadventures of four recent college grads as they navigate the pitfalls of post-college life and reckon with various strains of guilt, addiction, neurosis, mental illness, and the list goes on. Truthfully, the protagonists have little in common but their alma mater. There’s Cory, a queer-curious Jewish activist who has inherited a startup that’s basically bankrupt; Will, the tech-savvy child of Asian immigrants; Henrik, a floundering grad student who spent his childhood “in the black four-speed single-cab Chevy S-10;” and Linda, a tortured English major with a proclivity for self-destruction. Throughout the novel, Tulathimutte’s fast-paced, talky narrative moves evenly between characters to create what feels like a set of novellas, in which figures from other stories occasionally make cameo appearances.

Bay Area hipsters, tech-fueled gentrification, privilege and power; the novel’s social milieu is ripe for satire, and Tulathimutte pulls no punches. Of San Francisco, that “little ukulele-strumming cuddle party,” disillusioned Linda says: “it was nothing but a collapsed soufflé of sex kitsch and performance readings… the Mission was annexed by Silicon Valley. City Lights was a good name for something that obscured stars.” Later in the novel, two identically dressed hipsters at a house party (actually one person, reflected in a mirror) ramble on about how “because-bohemianism-was-once-defined-by-the-but-like-Zymunt-Bauman-says-there’s-no-more-outside-to-be-inside-because-of-the-apppropriation-dissemination-and-fragmentation-of-tastes-via-the-Internet-like-there’s-no-more-culture-as-such-only-content-coursing-through-platforms,” a jaw-droppingly wicked string of socio-theoretical babble that continues for three pages. Uninterrupted.

At times, the novel becomes relentlessly discursive, which, after several pages, can feel suffocating, the characters’ torrent of language -- theorizing, self-narrating, postulating -- trapping them, and, consequently, us, in their fraught millennial minds. An excerpt from Henrik’s first romantic overture to Linda:

This stuff bothers me because I’m implicated. Even while I’m tempted to flatter myself for my self-awareness, this one aspect of misogyny haunts me only because it affects me. Which makes me one of those Enlightened Creeps who’s read a few books and declares himself an ally, even delivers feminist sermons and beatdowns to the point where feminism becomes another arena for male competition… All my self-flagellating right now is the worst kind of self-pity because it’s actually bragging; look how sensitive and self-aware I am. Even pointing out how I’m bragging makes me look knowing and forthright. 

And so on.

Reading Private Citizens is a little like following the social media platforms of four brilliant, cynical, friends -- news feeds dialed to full volume and constantly updated with unsolicited information. One wearies from the bombardment of the millennial mind, writ large across the breadth and duration of the novel. The characters spend more time swirling through the drug- and technology-induced hazes of their personal lives than interacting with one another; when they do come into contact, it’s mostly superficial interactions and smooth veneers.

                                                              Tony Tulathimutte

When, near the end of the book, each character has sustained some measure of personal crisis, one begins to wonder what the future holds for them. We don’t fully believe in their power to engage in meaningful human relationships; sure, they’re “friends,” but in a flimsy, Facebook-y way, connected mostly by the happy accident of their undergraduate years, a socially engineered network created by the ultra-selective Stanford Admissions Committee. There’s a sense of arbitrary connection, of individuals distanced by the myopia of the moment and their overly theorized selves. Even their acts of compassion—hospitality when one of them falls homeless, for instance -- have a hapless Couchsurfing quality. But one can’t judge them; in our generation, even the most intimate forms of social interactions are mediated, either directly or indirectly, by technology.

A novel of its time, Private Citizens (and its edgy millennial author) has been heralded as a gutsy, satirical portrait of today’s generation. Yet, the feeling I experienced most strongly while reading it was that icky mix of fascination and embarrassment that one experiences when discovering someone else’s secrets. Not to be overly dramatic, but while deep in the throes of the characters and their internal monologues, I felt as though I’d stumbled into some awful dystopia from which everyone but the narrowest slice of the population, the privileged, post-college, Bay Area millennial, had vanished, leaving us -- and only us -- to star in the self-absorbed melodrama of our too-small lives, confronted roundly by our generation’s flaws and foibles. Presented with such a close portrait of my generation, I found myself asking: is this really who we are? If so, do we like ourselves? And if this is the Great Millennial Novel, do we like it?

It’s no surprise that some of the most compelling moments in the book are when the characters are displaced from their meandering, 20-something reverie by life-altering circumstances, as when Cory’s father calls with the news that he’s been diagnosed with cancer and needs her to return home. Made to confront the painful entanglement of one generation’s privilege and politics in that of the generation that preceded it, Cory finds the myth of young adulthood -- that it’s possible to escape the long reach of one’s origins -- shattered. Toward the end of the novel, Will’s character also experiences a profound shift, a turn that startles but, in a way, is precisely what we’ve been waiting for: an interruption of our self-narrated, overly self-aware lives; something to perturb our sense of self.

One might strain for a glimpse above the fray, but there is nothing beyond the frayed millennial psyches of these protagonists. Seldom do they stop to listen, which points to the heart of our generation’s malaise. All talk. All the time. Tony Tulathimutte has written a smart novel so tightly bound by the anxieties of the millennial mind that one won’t find a more searing portrait -- or looking glass -- anywhere else. And yet, great fiction? Like many feel about today’s young people, maybe time will tell.


Mia Ayumi Malhotra

Mia Ayumi Malhotra is the author of Isako Isako (Alice James Books, forthcoming 2019), winner of the 2017 Alice James Award. She received her MFA from the University of Washington and is a Kundiman and VONA/Voices Fellow. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two daughters.