Review: Private Citizens
I brought Private Citizens out with me today, on a Saturday afternoon of writing, coffee, and salad, to write a review. But sitting here, reflecting on the first novel of Tony Tulathimutte, which I mostly read in Australian airspace, I can’t tell whether to write a review or put it next to my keyboard and try and copy its moments of perfection.
There are chapters in Private Citizens which are perfect. Perfect. They are capsules of fiction which softly share moments or epics from the lives of the novel’s main characters. Reading them was dazzling.
The main characters of Private Citizens are four friends who live in an almost biblical San Francisco that serves equally biblical punishments: Linda, a gorgeous, nihilistic 20-something year old, Cory, a die-hard liberal navigating the roundabout of American activism, Henrik, a silent, self-educated stud, and Will, a completely original yet self-hating, self-destructive programmer. The novel begins in a car, where they are driving somewhere together. As it happens, that is one of the worst parts of the book. If you make it through the emo and trite beginning, you will suddenly find yourself on an incredible trip.
The moral system of Private Citizens is an interesting one. It is both incredibly cynical and hilariously emo. The definitive quality of an emo story is the relationship of an individual to the world around them. In an emo story, the central character is a feeling, complex, profound person, unique, flawed, and always trying. But everyone outside of the central character is completely flat. That’s where the cynicism comes in. I am complex but no one can ever understand me. Everyone outside of me is a stock silhouette in a crowd. Flat characters make hard decisions without complication. They act without thinking. They don’t try to understand you. They could never understand you. You are complicated and they are simple. That’s the social system of an emo world. But Private Citizens’ cynicism doesn’t hold up because of the out-of-this-world brilliance of its characterization. Its central characters are complete human beings, not characters. Their backstories happened. Their trials and tribulations are intense memories which they navigate, often alone, but sometimes, movingly, together.
Aloneness is an important theme in the novel. That’s where I think comparisons to David Foster-Wallace come from. I started but didn’t finish Infinite Jest, but the part that will eventually bring me back is the gorgeous scene where the main character wanders alone through his home, deathly anxious, emotionally paralyzed, waiting for the weed to come. The clearest comparison can be made to Chapter 2 and the story of Will’s time alone at home with Vanya gone for work. I was particularly stunned by Tulathimutte’s writing about Will’s friendships:
He had other friends, technically: in the year after college Will had aggressively lurked at house parties, weekly dance nights and karaoke, street fairs, even Cory’s fundraisers. He’d been a regular everywhere, and made lots of friends, but only the kind you ran into at other parties, who were glad to chitchat in a group setting but would never spare you individual time and would be sad for maybe five seconds if they heard you’d been tortured to death: which was to say, online friends. He had thousands. As a linking node, a degree of separation, Will succeeded. Cumulatively, his social network contacts numbered the high hundreds, phone and email in the low thousands. He’d written a script to auto-sync all his phone, social network, and email contacts to a master spreadsheet because he distrusted the cloud. Each entry was tagged by date of meeting and relationship: Friends, Family, Client.
I hope you’ll keep in mind that writing like this doesn’t show up in these small paragraphs, but in a flowing story, gaining momentum. These words are most powerful in their context, but also poetic and eloquent here. Tulathimutte continues:
Filtering the spreadsheet, he sifted the ashes of his 239 Friends for someone to call. Besides Henrik, his Friends were virtually all women who’d rejected him, implicitly or otherwise. It took only one glance at their names, vintages from his cellar of shame, to evoke the years of overaggressive texts, simpering emails, defensive Craigslist ads (I don’t belong here, but), desperate dating site PMs (eighty attempts with only only reply, Yuck). But like a trail of blood drops ending, a mile-long string of zeroes terminating in a one, the entries ended on 10-09-2006. Vanya’s entry: Girlfriend. No more Friends after that.
Scenes like this resonate with me partly because sometimes I think I am a bit of a lonely person. Loneliness is a state of mind: I love people, am often surrounded by love and friends, but if I am alone for a while I feel psychologically very separate from everyone around me. And the circular and neurotic thoughts that characters often have when they are alone too long in novels like Private Citizens and Infinite Jest and The Sellout and that novel where a woman steals a soft green purse - I can’t remember the name right now - really resonate with me. It’s hard to explain. Maybe I’m not lonely and that’s just what it feels like to be an individual when the scale shifts from more external communication to more internal communication. When you are mostly communicating internally, your energy bottles up and you experience strange and unusual feelings. Maybe that’s why many writers love to be alone.
I love Will. His confidence and his loneliness. His sense of self. His cynical and sparklingly perceptive reflections on being an Asian man in America. I hate his self-hatred, the way he lingers in his past, and his absurd self-destructiveness. His vanity and low self-esteem are what ultimately serve his biblical punishment: the loss of his eyes. (Note: I refer to Will as Asian, and not as a particular Asian nationality throughout the review because though his character is referred to as Thai - his girlfriend says she thinks he is Thai and he doesn’t correct her - he only refers to himself as Asian).
Vanya and Will’s relationship is the most interesting of the novel. We see her both in his emo perception - she is outside me, she is beautiful, and a woman, and white, therefore she will never understand me - and as a full, fascinating human being, a childhood beauty queen who becomes physically disabled at a young age and exudes confidence and power from below him, in her wheelchair. She is also, if this can be said, deeply shallow. She is dedicated to her shallow vision of the world, which is perhaps the most multifaceted explanation Tulathimutte gives of the tech world: She is agnostic to the idea of an ethnic background, a natural appearance, an inner life, a personal history. She is obsessed with personal growth, achievement, creating the future. She is shallow. But she is shallow in an expansive way. She doesn’t spend time reflecting, ruminating, having obsessive thoughts, questioning. She simply does things. She takes opportunities. She is ultimately a villain, a manipulative white girlfriend who pressures her self-hating Asian boyfriend to get what he considers racist eyelid surgery. Surgery that is meant to make Will look more white. But Will is also a villain in his own way. He is constantly presented with choices where the correct, rational, non-destructive choice is clear to the reader and clear to him. But Will always makes the wrong choice, the choice that will cause him harm. His story arch is one of the things that makes Private Citizens a great novel.
Chapter 7, the story of Henrik’s childhood in a mobile home, is one of the other sections that makes Private Citizens great. It’s hard to pull an excerpt out of this chapter because it’s so strong and genuine on the whole. It doesn’t gain its strength from its word choice — it is a special, extended story that feels incredibly true and gives the moments from his life that happen later in the novel so much heaviness and impact.
It’s difficult to finish this review because I would love to pull more excepts of gorgeous, emotionally accurate writing from this novel. While some parts of Linda’s story make up my least favorite sections of the novel - some of the book’s most stereotypical character traits which feel unrealistic, and the incredibly bad diary portions in the end of the book - Linda ultimately feels devastatingly realistic, and she receives one of the other biblical punishments of the novel: the loss of her two front teeth. She, like Will, rears through life in a totally self-destructive way. Like Will, acting self-destructively is her life philosophy. Their relationship feels very real. When they are together, bantering, they are the best, most confident versions of themselves. Her inner monologues, incredibly, annoyingly melodramatic, do reflect the way some young people feel about the present and the future: the agonizing present will be forever unless you light it on fire and chemically convert it to the future. This is the typical childlike and teenage way of thinking about the future: The present is forever. When your parents leave the house, they may never come back; when you feel sad, it is oppressive. You see sadness everywhere on the horizon.
It’s hard for me to recommend the novel to everyone because of the parts I really disliked, which eviscerate the tech world, the activist world, the art world, and almost everyone surrounding the main characters in an overly simplistic, cliched, and uninteresting way.
But the great parts of this novel are some of the best, most contemporary fiction pieces I have read, expressing experiences that rarely make it into books. The story is a contemporary Tragedy. The characters I deeply love each end up each in their own great calamity: Eyeless, toothless, jobless, children of dying fathers, stripped of their pride and their background, stripped of their vision of who they would become. But the story is also lightly, glimmeringly hopeful. At the end of the novel Linda, Cory, Henrik and Will are no longer alone: they are deeply, memorably together.