Review of Private Citizens, a novel by Tony Tulathimutte.

I found this book on some "best books of 2016" list and it most likely caught my attention because its noteworthy putative feature was being smart, clever, intelligent, whatever. I was not disappointed. It was in fact scintillatingly brilliant. Scintillae all over the place. All over the cover too. Of course, about a third of Amazon reviewers didn’t seem to get it at all, but that’s fine. That’s how I know it probably is high quality.

It reminded me a lot of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace which I reviewed and the author explicitly admires. Both books use extremely fine writing to construct a relatively prosaic plot as a vehicle for exploring privilege, class, society, and personal development set in modern life. Modern in this case means its novelty has been praised as the first Great American Novel TM about the experiences of millennials. Still following Wallace, this book did all that through a very bizarre (to me) lens of heavy substance use and abuse. It is a testament to how well crafted both of these books are that I considered them so intellectually sharp and yet they involve supposedly smart characters up to their yellowy eyes in bad life decisions and poor impulse control. For example, the most straightforward item on my personal intelligence test: if you are an American millennial and you smoke cigarettes I simply can not think of how I might excuse you up and over my cut off that delineates the irredeemably stupid from the needs-more-information. Overlooking that, there’s much to like.

Although following the petty lives of party people is not high on my list of preferred plot directions, the point here was, I suppose, to hold a mirror to ordinary life for this particular demographic. In that I think it succeeded well. The scathing satire of life in the Bay Area, with its bizarre juxtapositions of social justice warfare and tech bourgeois posturing, was spot on.

The pacing and structure were good. While the characters themselves aren’t quite believable, I think it is understood that they are caricature scaffolds for larger than life renderings. The erudition and writing were top notch. The author is clearly a true natural talent and he clearly put a lot of effort into this.

Of special note, this book was also a master class for what I call "gems". It’s not enough for a novel to just follow the main characters as they slog through one of the seven basic plots. It’s not enough that the world they inhabit be richly furnished with coherent detail. It’s not enough for the characters to be intricately detailed themselves. It’s not enough that the author writes reasonably clear English. Even having a mind blowing plot twist or visionary sci-fi vision is not enough to sustain hours of reading. What I call "gems" are little quanta of satisfaction the reader picks up throughout the book, ideally on every page. They are like the gold coins or prize bubbles you pick up along the way to the boss fight in a video game. These can take many forms.

  • Outright Puns

    • "Asian by occident."

    • "…the bland reading the bland."

  • Word play

    • "He added that, considering her injuries, she really ought to be dead. He was right. She was tragically prehumous."

    • "I think the rape scene felt a little forced."

  • Superb figurative language

    • "…giggling like a smug piccolo."

    • "…a chin like a Barbie doll’s ass."

    • "[Her] glare struck him like the handle of a flashlight."

    • "Polishing an exoskeleton of confidence."

  • Some interesting factoid or connection

    • "I saw this talk on prospect theory that’s totally relevant here."

  • Bons mots

    • "V:You’re so cute! You want to be famous?" L:"Not for being cute."

  • Philosophical curiosity

    • "Why were atoms mostly empty?"

  • Wisdom, insight

    • "Parties aren’t fun. That you could have fun at a party only confused matters."

    • "Continence was a cornerstone of civility."

  • Subtle logic twists

    • V:"You’re being contrarian." W:"Yes! I’m being contrarian!"

  • Cool epigraphs

    • "Machines take me by surprise with great frequency." --Alan Turing

There are plenty of other forms. Some which I didn’t notice in this particular book include puzzles, riddles, outright comedic jokes, running gags, clever historical connections, some bit of science or technology where the author actually Did The Math. Etc. Basically the prose form of any dazzling nugget of thought designed to stitch together satisfying connections in your mind. The presence of gems separates books you loved reading from books you are glad you read.

Really my biggest problem with the book is that I had a hard time sympathizing with the characters who, for all their intellectual noisemaking, were often pretty dopey. Emphasis on dope.

If I have to suffer reading some inexactly crafted writing my favorite authorial sin by far is having characters who speak dialog that is far too intelligent to be realistically extemporaneous. The book featured plenty of that. I’ll close with this example which I really enjoyed. I’m not endorsing the premises or anything. Probably. It’s just a good example which also highlights many other style and substance features of Tulathimutte’s writing.

From page 228

"…You’re so nice. Don’t you hate stuff? That’s how I spend, like, two-thirds of my time. I eat popcorn and I judge. How can you not hate?"

"I do hate."

"Oh yeah?"

"A lot. Like a Walmart of hate."

"Name one thing."

Motionless pondering for twenty seconds. "Misogyny."

"How brave. Why not just say war? Or airplane food?"

"I know, it makes me look pious and now I regret saying it. I guess I specifically mean male romantic entitlement, the thing that made it seem wrong to talk to you. And how it’s formed this sort of ecosystem of creep archetypes that feel almost like Darwinian adaptations to feminism."

"Like what?"

"Well." Seeing him muster his words is like watching a hydroelectric power plant. "First you have the sociopathic bros who see life as a nonstop pussy safari and devise entire social conventions around exploiting female fears. The Apex Creep—alpha-male and pickup-artist types. Just relentlessly catcalling and macking. Polishing an exoskeleton of confidence. They’re usually considered idiots but actually they’re as rational as mosquitoes. They play the numbers. Emotions are just levers on bipedal sex kiosks. Existence is reduced to sham evolutionary behavioralism. They muffle their consciences by insisting that women play the same game—gold diggers or skanks who want to be dominated, and any who deny it are ugly fat dyke feminists.

"Then there’s the Rage Creeps, those wounded pressure cookers. If out of sheer resentment they don’t aspire to become Apex Creeps, then they’ll define themselves to the contrary, which convinces them they’re good guys. They think it’s romantic to aggressively offer themselves up for exploitation, be kind attentive friends for however long they think it’ll take for the girl to come around, but when this doesn’t pay off in sex, it putrefies into stalkery rage, so they get to play both the victim and tragic hero. I’m sure this isn’t news to you so maybe we should talk about something else."

"No. Proceed," she says, lighting up a cigarette.

"The Noble Creep. The high-minded ambitious dude whose band or social cause or novel is so important it dwarfs any woman’s needs. If his girlfriend says he’s negligent or domineering, she’s being petty. Why’s she gotta be like that? Can’t she be supportive? Any philandering or abuse is justified, though if she tries to be equally aloof then sayonara. He might be self-aware enough to tell himself he’s not sexist since he treats everyone equally like garbage, though the practical truth is that women have to put up with a lot more of it. On the other hand there are the Needy Creeps with disabling dysfunctions, addicted, lovelorn, mentally ill or whatever, who consciously or not use their brokenness to make women responsible for fixing them, especially those who can be convinced it’s a form of empowerment.

"Women can and should hit back. But some end up calling their harassers fags or virgins or saying they have small dicks, which is more effective than calling them creeps, but it validates creeps' cynical assumption that women are shallow bitches who only value masculinity.

"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. They’ll say mock-humble stuff like I hope to empathize, but I’ll never truly understand the struggle of women, though they secretly think they deserve extra credit because, unlike women, they’re being altruistic.

"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 pointing out that I’m pointing it out makes me look complex and quirkily neurotic. It’s exhausting but I don’t know what else I can do except acknowledge it.

"I’m sure there are men out there who do treat women fairly, but I assume some enabling x factor of privilege, like it only works because they’re rich or good-looking, or worse, because they don’t think about this stuff. Men can be feminists, but I don’t know if straight guys can avoid being creeps, not here and now. The structural power advantage is always there, even if it’s not leveraged. So usually I avoid women, confirming the guilty suspicions that feminist men are silly effete intellectuals who would be sexist if they were man enough, so that sexism becomes almost this sexually selected trait. It’s also just defensive pessimism: I’m not shy, I respect women! A vicious circle that keeps me insulated from and sensitized to emotional engagement, amounting to nothing except a feeling that I’m right. Which I’m not."