Here’s another Pulitzer finalist, a well-wrought work, full of interesting characters and situations, that is just not my kind of book. My fault, I know, not Jonathan Dee’s, not the committee’s, but there it is. The Privileges follows the fortunes of an wealthy Manhattan family from parents’ wedding day to a time (purposely vague) that coincides with the late-adolescence/early adulthood of their son and daughter.
This is not as bad as Tinkers (See March 13, 2011) for me, a book which leads from nowhere to nowhere else in languid boredom. Of course,that one won, while Privileges was just short-listed, so maybe that explains something. However, the spoiling thing about Dee’s saga is that we are led over the decades from incipient crisis to semi-catastrophe without anyone’s suffering much of anything. Maybe that’s the point of the book–that it’s an amoral universe, and money buys the capacity to insulate yourself from serious pain–or even bumps or bruises. Dee says in a post-script interview that he’s not interested in judging his characters and that his novel is not a fable whereby just desserts are meted out in the end. Fine, no problem. I don’t care that Adam makes millions off insider trading, then makes millions more when he’s forced to move from one station in the financial market to the other. I don’t require that his wife force him to fess up when she finds out about his misdeeds. I don’t even necessarily want the kids to face up to the character deficits that lead them into life-threatening situations.
I do care, as a reader, that I’m never treated to any serious internal conflict on the part of anyone, no matter how dire or self-inflicted their predicaments. I feel no pain, no sorrow, no regret, no moral choices of any magnitude whatsoever. This, in a work that is ineluctably voice- and character-driven and in which the author has the opportunity to let us in on every dark musings. Maybe the interesting thing about the characters is that they have no dark musings. That their lives are just a series of semi-related things that happen. If so–what’s interesting about that? The closest we come to true pain is the wife’s last days with her father, which reads to me more like the beginning of something than the end. The next closest thing is the escape of the son from a semi-philanthropic misadventure in which in seems to choose to retreat into the haven of wealth. Other than that, it’s all gain, no pain in a world in which husband and wife love each other so much (at least according to others’ testimony) that they are charmed and untouchable. Charming, but not moving.
Anyone want to argue? I’d love a discussion.