#18) The “Millennial Novel”: Private Citizens

citizensTony Tulathimutte is a really great writer and his name is extremely hard to spell. He is the author of Private Citizens, the highly touted 2016 novel about a group of four 2o-something friends finding their way in contemporary San Francisco. Stylistically comparable to Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, Tulathimutte retains his own distinctive voice, speaking in a language that the millennial generation understands. By turns hilarious and disturbing, the book is recommended reading.

Eric:

When you had asked me for my initial thoughts on Private Citizens, I said that it had prompted me to give up my dream of being a novelist. That was an exaggeration, for sure, but not a complete exaggeration. Tulathimutte is a major talent. His book is fast-paced, wide-ranging, and indicative of an intensely curious mind that knows a lot about a lot of things. It’s also insanely, exhaustingly clever. After only a few pages, I felt like there was no way I could ever do this, which is correct. No one could, except him.

Private Citizens is also significant for being, as some have called it, the first great millennial novel. The author has rejected the very idea of generational novels, for compelling reasons. But this one is undeniably millennial, with characters that seem familiar even if they aren’t especially likable. I can’t say I really liked any of the people in this story, but I read about them anyway.

Matt:

The book definitely feels familiar – the young people who star in this book think and talk like many of my friends and I do – but I start to get lost when we use words like “millennial.” I’m also kinda suspicious; it smells like marketing language to me. But maybe I’m just not paying enough attention to the zeitgeist. What does the word mean to you?

Eric:

Generational markers have their limits, but they aren’t useless. This is a book about four young people who come of age early in the 21st century and get caught up in a lot of the things that young people have tended to catch in the past decade or so – some politics, some activism, some drugs, a lot of relational conflict, and a variety of emotional crises. The Internet features prominently, and there is a ton of trendy lingo that Tulathimutte manages to employ without being annoying.

Importantly, too, the story is set in San Francisco. It features a bunch of Stanford grads, and there is a lot of talk about start-ups and communal living and being successful in the company of a bunch of smart and driven but not necessarily stable peers. There is a balance of male and female characters, they are all more-or-less equally interesting, and their discussions always have something to do with race, sex, class, etc. They’re smart kids, loose in the city, making a bunch of mistakes and discussing it all in a high-toned vernacular.

(In that sense, it’s all vaguely Dawson’s Creek-ish, but again, not annoying.)

Could this book have been set in New York, with a less diverse cast, like some comparable stories? Maybe, but I sort of doubt it.

Not only is Private Citizens very sharply written, but as you mention, a lot of it just rings very true. You and I are on the front edge of millennialism, and often I think we may have missed the crest of the wave. But Tulathimutte makes me feel within the orbit, at least. Like I know (or knew) these people personally.

Matt:

You’re right – all of that stuff (especially the San-Fran-tech startup-race-sex-class stuff) feels like it’s at the center of many young people’s experience right now. And you’re right – that stuff distinguishes this generation in some ways (just like flappers and the Charleston would have a few generations back). In many ways, young people have different economic outlooks, different politics, different views on art, and different relationships than our parents’ generation did.

What I want to know, though, is how all of those differences have changed young people’s sensibilities – their felt experiences of being in the world. I’m pretty sure they have – sometimes I can feel it in conversations with older people – but it also feels pretty tricky to put into words.

Here’s one possibility, though: I don’t think there’s ever been a generation before in which our economic prospects were so tied up with self-branding. Some of this can be exciting: it’s now possible to start and run an internet business from anywhere in the world. (I’m about to try it myself – I’ll keep you posted!) I’ve met lots of people in the web-entrepreneur world who’ve turned hobbies or on-the-side skills into a full-time livelihood.

This often means that their personal interests and quirky habits become public. This isn’t necessarily bad – and it doesn’t require that you commodify everything you care about – but it does blur the lines: work/leisure, public/private, professional/personal aren’t necessarily such firm dichotomies anymore, at least in this community.

You see this in Private Citizens, too, though Tulathimutte’s depiction of the web-personality character – what was her name? – isn’t so sanguine: she’s a pretty nasty person. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Eric:

I like that observation – this is a rootless generation, unlikely to be born and raised and housed forever in a single place, almost certain not to settle down into one 40-year career. Because the old economies have changed, young people today are more likely to strike out on individual prospects rather than attaching themselves to already-established institutions. They will probably (but not necessarily) go to college – after that, all bets are off.

There’s also a renewed sense that commitment and hard work in a particular direction can launch you into incredible success. With a little help from social media and a little more from luck, you can get yourself recognized with minimal time and effort. If you want to be a singer, you can start a YouTube channel and start raking in listeners. Or if you have a business idea, you can crowdfund it with help from your friends. Or if you have programming knowledge, you can create a popular app with a million 99-cent downloads. Now that some of the traditional paths have been dried up or closed off, technology offers itself once again as our lord and savior.

And the emphasis on self-employment and/or self-expression goes a long way toward explaining the charges of narcissism that are routinely leveled at millennials. I’m not really on board for that, but a lot of the markers do make my skin crawl – from ubiquitous profiles and selfie sticks all the way up to creating “your brand,” which is an expression I despise.

The character you reference – whose name I also forget but who is, I agree, horrible – takes all of this to its logical extreme. She marks the one point in the book when I thought Tulathimutte was pushing it (almost) too far. But there are consequences to the shallow culture of celebrity the world has embraced in the last two decades, and she represents those unequivocally.

Matt:

I like that both of us have now mentioned that character and our intense dislike for her, without providing any specific details that would allow readers to understand our enmity. (This is our oblique way of promoting your book, Tony. We take cash or check.)

I also hate the phrase “your brand,” though I’d never sat down and thought about why until I read what you just wrote. First stab: I think it’s because, when you meet people and form relationships in real life, you have no need for a brand. You’re just you. Sure, you’re pretending some of the time in order to avoid awkwardness or figure out if you trust the other person, but if the relationship’s going anywhere, the general direction is going to be away from false fronts and toward honesty.

Personal brands, though, aren’t for people you know. They’re ways to connect (“connect”?) with people you don’t know – and won’t know. They’re ways to get people to identify with an image you project of yourself – as opposed to the bed-headed, stained-pajama’d version of yourself that is sitting behind a screen, creating that image.

Of course, sometimes these barriers break down. I know web entrepreneurs who’ve formed real friendships with people who started out as fans or customers. But if you do get to know a member of your brand’s audience, the brand itself becomes less relevant; you eventually stop relating through the brand and start relating as a person.

Eric:

Before social media we all tried to put our best foot forward, as they say, and that did mean projecting an image of ourselves that we believed would be appealing to others. This was a difficult proposition, and I don’t think the girls in high school ever saw me in exactly the light I was trying to cast. In that sense, the current climate of self-promotion is just a much-amplified version of what went on back in the AOL Instant Messenger days. But that level of amplification has consequences for a culture, and Tulathimutte paints these darkly.

I’m not sure where we go from here, or from what social-economic-cultural vantage the young millennials will look back upon these days. But hopefully they won’t have lost the ability to evaluate it honestly, or to separate the artificial from the real. Those are skills you’ve always had in surplus. Maybe that can be your brand?

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About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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