ARTS & CULTURE
02/18/2016 11:16 am ET

The Bottom Line: ‘Private Citizens’ By Tony Tulathimutte

A funny, unflinching portrayal of young people today, nasty neuroses and all.

William Morrow

If a friend or a relative or a paranoid new love interest ransacked your apartment, dredging up the diary you kept in college but never bothered to throw away, the collection of beer caps or stamps or thingamabobs, the extra-lacy underwear, would he be surprised by what he found?

It’s a question on dating sites everywhere, a litmus test for secretiveness. But the truth is, no matter how much we strive for honesty -- factual or emotional -- most of us have sides of ourselves that seldom leave the confines of our own cagey heads, or at least our own search histories. Often, if Tony Tulathimutte’s new novel Private Citizens is to be believed, those selves-within-ourselves can be pretty nasty.

His debut book follows four friends who’ve somewhat begrudgingly reunited in San Francisco a few years after graduating from Stanford. Will is a programmer whose porn addiction could only be cured by his unrelenting obsession with his newish girlfriend Vanya, a super-hot paraplegic girl who devotes most of her time and conversational energy to establishing herself in the startup world. When she jets off to New York to pitch an empowering disabilities site to investors, he busies himself by finally meeting up with one of his old friends again.

Cory is a dorky, well-meaning vegetarian and bike devotee who inherits the startup she’s been working for, Socialize, when her boss dies suddenly, seemingly from stress alone. Faced with the company’s massive debt -- mostly racked up from a refusal to establish an online presence, or, y’know, a mission statement -- she decides to call her father, a self-made biz guru who speaks mostly in indecipherable anagrams.

Although she identifies as queer and is shy about dating women, Cory harbors mild romantic feelings for Henrick, a biology grad student whose research has failed to secure government funding. Overmedicated and under-interested in his field of choice, he reflects on his childhood as a state-hopping trucker’s son, squeezing in autodidactic reading materials to fill the silence of the never-ending car ride. His upbringing might’ve made him socially awkward, but for Linda, a Kerouacian breed of millennial with warring interests in irony and sincerity, but mostly just a self-destructive want to “burn, burn, burn,” he’s the perfect match. The two dated in college, before their explosive breakup obliterated the idea of speaking terms.

Tulathimutte reveals the intimate details of these characters’ lives in winding, disparaging interior monologues, diary entries, email conversations and coffee shop debates. A neurotic rant about the pressure to be a male feminist, but the smarminess of declaring oneself as such sets off Linda and Henrick’s budding romance. A detailed evaluation of yoga as a patriarchal hobby pandering to the male gaze but disguised as genuine exercise frames Cory’s negative thoughts about her roommate. A passive-aggressive fight about Will’s girlfriend’s insistence that eyelid surgery isn’t racist because it was first practiced in Asia is a catalyst for their downfall.

The unpacking of socially accepted logical fallacies might not sound like the stuff of an engaging novel, but, somehow, it is. Tulathimutte punctuates these long-winded critiques, sometimes stuffed uncomfortably into the mouths of his characters, with absurd humor and hilariously uncomfortable descriptions of sex.

This isn’t Franzen we’re talking about. Although Private Citizens sheds light on political issues and the wayward ways we discuss them by relishing in its heroes’ impurities, Tulathimutte likes his characters, and it shows. Ultimately, their unhealthy modes of communication and self-destructive habits triumph over the sheen of living an Instagram-worthy life nonstop. Our gritty, messed up private life, he seems to say, is worth preserving.

The bottom line

A funny, unflinching portrayal of young people today, nasty neuroses and all.

Who wrote it

This is Tony Tulathimutte’s first novel. His writing has been published in Vice, AGNI, Salon and The New Yorker.

Who will read it

Anyone interested in biting satire that’s not too cynical. Anyone who loves to hate Silicon Valley.

What other reviews think

Kirkus: "A satirical portrait of privilege and disappointment with striking emotional depth."

Publishers Weekly: "Tulathimutte exhibits a talent for satire, and a willingness to embrace brutal reality and outright absurdity."

Opening lines

They were on a day trip, a nothing, the four of them in a hot car speeding north. All the passing and now-passed road looked faint through the filthy windows, which threw full light onto their laps. It was ten A.M., any promise of an early start already squandered, and look, peach weather.

Notable passage

After a nap, it was evening, then it was night. She regarded her notebook with groggy dread, with loathing that her bottommost yearning right now was for yogurt. It was absurd that she could articulate exactly how she wanted to write but couldn’t write it: both dirtbag lowbrow and Olympian highbrow (that was how she faced the world: one brow low, the other arched high). Not a voice of her generation, but the voice of degeneration.

Private Citizens, $14.99
By Tony Tulathimutte
William Morrow Paperbacks
February 9, 2016

The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

 

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