March 22, 2010
Staff Picks: Business in Fiction: The Privileges by Jonathan Dee
A review by Todd Lazarski
The Privileges by Jonathan Dee, Random House, 272 pages, $25.00, Hardcover, January 2010, ISBN 9781400068678
30-plus rapid-fire pages, opening with the line, "A WEDDING!" and closing with a conception, start
The Privileges, It's a sweaty, booze-fueled, sexual prologue; the breathless prose and multi-perspective narration immediately aligning Dee with the likes of other chroniclers of affluent angst and quirks - Jay McInerney, and more recently, Jonathan Franzen.
At this wedding, everyone is beautiful; everyone is young. And everyone, clearly, is bound for success. There is the archetypal disapproving mother, snarky outcast step-sister, wealthy disinterested stepfather, and dashing bastard father. And, of course, the friends: "[T]hey affect a good-natured snobbish disorientation, because they come from New York and Chicago but also because it suits their sense of the whole event, the magical disquieting novelty of it...." They get noise complaints at the hotel, have raucous sex, get drunk, start fights. In short they prove themselves the group of good-looking people we all agreed to hate in high school. But Dee doesn't paint in such broad, clichéd strokes. And what really sets the tone is the loving, playful banter between husband and wife, Adam and Cynthia.
What follows is a story about this couple, ferociously in love and assured in one another, living out their own top-shelf American Dream. Fast-forwarding after the wedding, Adam leaves a comfortable job at Morgan Stanley for a private equity firm with a “shitload of money behind it,” while Cynthia yearns for inspiration from home and raises their daughter, April, and son, Jonas, in the plush Upper East Side. Ok, so it’s far from rags-to-riches, and is mostly just riches. But how do Adam and crew reconcile the ease and comfort of their cushy upper-crust Manhattan lifestyle? That's where things, eventually, get interesting.
Excess, and yes, the titular ‘privileges,’ have been so documented before. Often Cynthia reminds why the rich historically play the villain, as she lays out the occasional laughable aside, (“[those] old skanks wish they were me”), snooty notion (she looks around a high-end hospice center and immediately develops a fantasy to buy it) or general haughty condescension (more than once a literal snap of the fingers grants her wish). At times she’s not far from a 2-D bullseye, straight out of McInherney’s Bright Lights Big City, illuminating the pitfalls of big money. Then there is teenage-something April, whose foray into the drugs and club scene of posh Manhattan eventually necessitates a public relations rep, and whose bacchanal ventures seem torn from the Paris Hilton/Britney Spears checkout-line pub and that sometimes border a bit on the worlds of Bret Easton Ellis.
Jonas, a young man struggling to come to terms with what he has, what he wants, and maybe most importantly, doesn’t want, acts as something of a conscience. At times he feels ashamed, other times, confused about the silver spoon he was born with. His sister prods him to ratchet up his existence as a student at the University of Chicago, scolding him for stooping and condescension before becoming bored with the city and ordering the family's private jet for a return to New York. Yes, it's that kind of family. Though Jonas’ tender-footed explorations into his own alternate possibilities halfway across the country - namely, the outsider art world of Middle America - and ultimate reconciliation, provide the book’s harrowing, genuinely frightening conclusion.
But still it is Adam – workout freak, sexual beast, financial wizard, impossibly benevolent and ever-patient husband and father – who has laid the seed, for both family and story. What motivates him to do it, and do it, and then get up again tomorrow morning and do it again is truly the point. And what motivates him is, perhaps, what motivates any of us. Multiplied by maybe about one thousand. His strive to leave a mark, and take possession, to gather for himself and family, is continual and all-consuming. Even evident when he discusses music: “the greatness of The Clash was indisputable, he supposed, but were kids Jonas’ age really still listening to it? Wasn’t that the whole point of music – that you had your own?” Ownership and achievement are at once both ends and means. Is he wrong? Dee doesn't answer. But when the quest for distinction eventually pushes him to gamble and splurge in a torn-from-the-headlines insider trading scheme, at times you wonder why he risks everything, unnecessarily perhaps, but a part of you also wonder why he doesn’t go much, much further.
By the end, The Privileges proves itself more Tom Wolfe-ian – think Bonfire of the Vanities – than anything Dickens or Gatsby. Actually, such even-handed depictions of the upper class, when the greed and vice of Wall Street is so rightfully scorned on the front pages every day, proves rather refreshing. Judgment is hardly passed, indictment only vaguely hinted at, for really Dee is about creating a picture – deep, expansive, seductive, at times illuminating, and always, surprisingly fair.
Throughout, The Privileges offers an intimate portrait of the formation, rise and maturation of a family. But more importantly, for the business book reader, it’s a well-rounded, even-handed drawing of greed, wealth, success and the changing definitions of all those things in modern day, Madoff-era New York City. It's also, thankfully, compulsively readable. If biographies or non-fiction management guides litter your day-to-day life, this is what you take to the beach.
About Sally Haldorson
Sally Haldorson's job as 800-CEO-READ’s General Manager is to make 800-CEO-READ a great place to work for our employees, and a consistently high-performing customer service organization for our clients, authors, and our partners in the publishing industry. In addition to her General Manager duties ensuring collaboration, integration, and quality, she reads, writes, reviews, curates, and edits for the company. Helping craft The 100 Best Business Books of All Time used parts of both skill sets. Outside of work, she is most likely to be found hitting a tennis ball around or hanging out with her boys (husband, child, dog) at home.