— I am intrigued by fiction that is willing to enter the “business” world (Tom Wolfe and Joshua Ferris come to mind) and there are not a lot of literary novels that venture into that territory.
— James Wood wrote a very perceptive and positive New Yorker review which was my first introduction to the book. The subtitle to the review (“Two novels about money without morals”) is recommendation enough.
— When the physical copy arrived, it featured cover blurbs from Richard Ford, Elizabeth Strout, Tom Perrotta, Jay McInerney and Jonathan Franzen. The publisher is obviously swinging for the fences. And, perhaps, that range of endorsements might be the first “pink” flag that says the book is not all that it might be.
— Mrs. KfC reads almost all the non-fiction books about the current financial collapse (Too Big to Fail, The Quants and The Sellout are just a start — if you are interested, please lobby in comments for a guest post. I will do my best to convince her.). She both summarizes and evaluates them for me so I was hoping that I could come up with a return favor from the fiction side of things.
And in his opening pages, Dee meets those high opening expectations. Adam and Cynthia are 22, he is already employed on Wall Street, and they are about to be married. The opening words of the novel:
A wedding! The first of a generation; the bride and groom are just 22, young to be married these days. Most of their friends flew in yesterday, and though they are in Pittsburgh, a city of half a million, they affect a good-natured snobbish disorientation, because they come from New York and Chicago but also because it suits their sense of the whole event, the magical disquieting novelty of it, to imagine that they are now in the middle of nowhere. They have all, of course, as children or teenagers, sat through the wedding of some uncle or cousin or in quite a few cases their own mother or father, so they know in that sense what to expect. But this is their first time as actual friends and contemporaries of the betrothed; and the strange, anarchic exuberance they feel is tied to a fear that they are being pulled by surrogrates into a world of responsible adulthood, a world whose exit will disappear behind them and for which they feel profoundly unready.
[ASIDE: Mrs. KfC and I did live in Pittsburgh for a few years at about the same time this wedding is set. I’m pretty sure we belonged to the Club where the wedding takes place. Despite its football team, Pittsburgh, in modern America, is in “the middle of nowhere”. Undoubtedly, that influenced my opinion of the opening section of the book.]
That is an entrancing opening. If you weren’t the first couple in your demographic group to be married, you were still at some version of this wedding and Dee captures the life-expanding questions that simply being there brought to mind (“Oh my God, we are starting to move on — what next?”). The “first” wedding is one of those gates of growing up and the 32 pages that he spends on it are a set piece of exceptional brilliance (and yes, I don’t often get that excited). Of course, it turns into an unmitigated drunk but wasn’t that the case for most of our first wedding experiences — of our generation, not our relatives or remarrying parents?
Cynthia gets pregnant on the honeymoon and that will add another dimension to the evolution/isolation of Adam and Cynthia. Having married early, they have moved on from their single friends; having a child early, means they are a decade or more younger than their fellow parents. At the tender age of 22, they have ensured their isolation forever.
Part two of the novel jumps ahead seven years. Adam and Cynthia now have two children (April, 6, and Jonas, 5). The couple went through three nannies in two years after Jonas was born; Cynthia has been a mother and homemaker ever since. She is already showing a tendency to evolve into the nomadic Manhattan lady who lunches (and keeps redecorating ever larger new apartments). Adam spent four years at Morgan Stanley but he was going nowhere (no MBA), so he has moved on to Perini Capital, a private equity firm, “an outfit with a shitload of money but so few people worked there that Adam knew everyone’s name by the end of the first day”:
The money, pre-bonus at least, was actually a little less than he’d been making at Morgan, but it wasn’t about that. It was about potential upside, and also about his vision of what a man’s work should be: a tight group of friends pushing themselves to make one another rich. No hierarchies or job descriptions; there was the boss and then there was everyone else, and the boss, Barry Sanford, loved Adam from day one. Sanford was a white-haired libertine who was on his fourth wife and had named the company after his boat.
At this point in the book, author Dee has done everything 100 per cent right — and he will continue to do that for the next 100 pages. Adam and Cynthia are not just successful, they are mega-successful. They don’t actually try to do it or know why they succeed or put much effort into it, they just are (and as Wood notes in his review, Dee conveys this in a non-emotional kind of language that is particularly effective). Yet, they are very, very isolated and they are bored because things are too easy. A chance encounter at a charity event on the Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier that serves as a naval museum on the Hudson River, moves the book into its next phase. Adam meets a young broker of dubious ethics; almost on a whim, he decides to start a shadowy, illegal network that will indulge in insider trading, based on his knowledge from Perini. As far as he is concerned, there is no morality, amorality or immorality to the enterprise:
In the rare moments when he stepped back and thought about it at all, it was vital to Adam’s conception of his professional life that he wasn’t stealing from anybody. There was nothing zero-sum about the world of capital investment: you created wealth where there was no wealth before, and if you did it well enough there was no end to it. What Adam did was just an initiative based on that idea, an unusually bold manifestation of it. Why should he be restricted — or, worse, restrict himself — from finding a way to act on what he was enterprising enough to know and to synthesize?
Adam actually extends this perverted logic — in his view, his insider trading scheme becomes a self-administered bonus plan. He only makes about $500,000 a year off it (much less than his legitimate income) so it is hardly a big deal, but it does open some new opportunities. Cynthia, meanwhile, is growing into her role as a New York uber-wife. She may be decades younger than the Botoxed matrons around her, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t exercise her considerable influence, particularly after the couple sets up their charitable foundation. Once Adam moves on from private equity Perini to the hedge fund and derivatives business, things become even more interesting, and lucrative of course — bigger money means bigger chances for abuse (Dee is only too accurately reflecting reality on that point).
And, unfortunately, this is where The Privileges starts to fall apart, at least for this reader. Dee does such a good job of setting up his story — the couple who have nothing but privilege and who enjoy exercising it — that it is obvious they will face some kind of judgment. Not only do Adam and Cynthia need to pay a price for this life of success, so do their children.
It is not a spoiler to say that that is where Dee takes the book, but I won’t say how. I will observe, however, that in making the choices he does at that point it is almost as though the author became frightened of how good his book is. Big ideas (and he certainly does a good job of introducing them) deserve big, explosive failures — Dee opts instead for much more introverted outcomes, that just are not up to the rest of his book.
That is only my impression, so if you are inclined to pick up The Privileges please ignore my grumpy opinion of the conclusion. Most of the novel does deliver on the promise of the blurbs and it rightly deserves to be included in the relatively small group of novels that turn literary attention to the corporate world. I am hoping that in a few weeks, my opinion of its ending will become more friendly — at this point, however, I do wish Dee’s editor had sent him back for a rewrite of the last 80 pages. Don’t in any way let that stop you from buying and reading the book. The parts that do work are more than enough to offset those that don’t.