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Review by Alastair Mabbott
TRYING to define Private Citizens isn’t an easy task. The adjective most commonly attached to this novel since its hardback publication has been “hilarious”, though I found the characters’ emotional wounds too raw or too deep to laugh for long. It’s also been repeatedly held up as a satire, but that feels a little off the mark too: the world Tony Tulathimutte writes about here is only a slightly heightened version of a reality that’s come to feel very familiar.
Set in San Francisco in 2007, it charts the courses of four young people who were friends at Stanford and fall back into each other’s orbits a few years later. At college, they’d taken their future prosperity for granted, but are finding that the adult world is more of a struggle than they’d expected. The only one enjoying any material success is Asian-American coder Will, but he’s had to learn to play second fiddle to his ambitious girlfriend Vanya’s tireless efforts to secure funding for her disabled community website. She’s now pressuring him to sacrifice his privacy so that she can turn their relationship into an online reality show.
Funding is an issue for Cory too. Her boss having suddenly died and bequeathed her his socially-aware fundraising organisation, this dreadlocked vegan lesbian political activist now has a responsibility she never sought, and has to reluctantly turn to her rich capitalist father for advice. At the same time, bi-polar scientist Henrik is on the brink of a crisis because his funding has been cut and he’s out of a job, while his former lover, Linda, is on a quest for extreme experiences which consists largely of drugs and “sexual freelancing”.
I’d say it’s less of a satire than a social novel, in which four neurotic, self-absorbed young people are left to fend for themselves in the world that shaped them into what they are: a world where identity politics are at their zenith, race is a more complex, multi-faceted issue than ever before and victim-blaming is the get-out clause of choice for not having to take responsibility for one’s actions.
Thankfully, the 33-year-old author is completely at home in this millennial environment. A novel like Private Citizens attempted by a writer of the Amis, Barnes and McEwan generation would be horrendous. But Tulathimutte has a natural grasp of matters ranging from the dynamics of a vegan houseshare through Asian-American stereotyping to the software and processing power required to produce virtual porn. He uses Private Citizens like a particle accelerator, encouraging elements of contemporary culture to clash into one another and examining the effects of the fallout on his deeply flawed characters. It’s true that they’re not easy people to like. They’re solipsistic, and have a tendency to overthink, like the pretentious young people they are. But, even in this thrillingly sceptical vision of the noughties, Tulathimutte respects their humanity, ensuring that their painful growth is at the heart of the novel, and that they’re never reduced to a means by which he can simply show off his cleverness.