I got a text from a friend recently: “Too sick to read, so I’ve been hate-watching Girls, which is the absolute worst. I so hate Millennials right now.” Keep in mind this came from a 30-year-old who fits quite tidily into the Millennial category, whereas my age lands me squarely in Generation X, the “slacker generation.”
But I’d just finished reading Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte. I could relate to hating Millennials.
Tulathimutte’s debut novel takes place in San Francisco in 2007. Ten years later, reading the novel already feels like getting a glimpse of the distant past, a bit of time-traveling into a city about to be savaged by tech wealth. Tulathimutte, a graduate of Stanford and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, started writing Private Citizens almost a decade ago, a time described as “too recent for retro and too distant for novelty, that everything considered fashionable then tends to give off a stench of expired cool — MySpace, American Apparel, Burning Man, feather earrings.”
Cory, Henrik, Will, and Linda are four young college graduates in their mid-twenties stumbling through post-graduation lives in San Francisco. Will is a wealthy internet-porn addict with a major complex about his male Asianness. He is dating Vanya, a beautiful woman who became paraplegic after an accident on a beauty contest stage, and who aspires to be an Oprah-like internet guru for young, disabled women. Cory works at Socialize, a startup that organizes fundraising events for vaguely noble-sounding nonprofits. Henrik is a failed researcher with deep mental health issues. And Linda, well, she’s someone who might have been easily described as a “hot mess” back in the mid-aughts. She can’t maintain relationships, aspires to be a writer without actually writing, and stumbles through San Francisco in a haze of bad relationships, half-friendships, and bad drugs.
As you can imagine, these kids aren’t destined for much of anything good. Luckily for them, aside from Henrik, they all come from wealthy families. Will and Cory, in particular, are buffered from real failure by economic privilege — one of the novel’s more interesting elements.
Like Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, if you read Private Citizens straight, or looking for some kind of heart, you’ll be disappointed. No, this novel begs to be read with an eye and appreciation for satire as well as over-the-top plot theatrics. I can’t get into it without spoilers, but suffice to say, Tulathimutte isn’t afraid of drawing blood — whether through violent plot twists or vicious characterizations. No one is spared.
Take this description of Roopa, Cory’s roommate at the SoMa commune, a converted cookie factory where “navigating to her bedroom in the far corner of the warehouse was like strolling down Market Street, with its miscellaneous zoning and visible class gradients.”
Roopa was big on food fads, and her current regimen was a self-invented one she called “ruminarianism”: every day she rode the BART to Berkeley or Piedmont, wandering in meadows to pick mushrooms and herbs while listening to her iPod, then Dumpster-dove at Trader Joe’s, all for a meal she’d spend two more hours cooking. She grew chanterelles in a Mycodome and sage and holy basil on a bathroom windowsill. Before this, she’d abjured meals in favor of chewing on little biscuits that looked like oil pellets; before that it was a low-fat raw vegan and Master Cleanse.
Private Citizens is lit up with passages like this. Tulathimutte writes like he’s tossing firecrackers: quick and brutal bursts of language and narrative. It’s a style that’s exhausting, pretentious, and exhilarating all at once — kind of like San Francisco in 2007.
Tony Tulathimutte appears at Books Inc. Opera Plaza on April 6. Details here.