Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens: Finally, Millennial Heroes and Heroines in a Great American Novel

Photo: Amazon, Lydia White

The quartet of protagonists in Tony Tulathimutte’s first novel, Private Citizens, are a set that could only have been brought together by the diabolical forces that conjure undergraduate dormitory assignments. The college in question is Stanford, class of 2005, and the core ensemble is ripe for a type-by-type satire of down-at-the-heel elite 20-somethings in the last days of the Bush administration. There are Linda, a tattoo-sleeved hedonist in flight from writer’s block who weaves a semi-professional path through parties and sex dungeons, fueled and numbed by alcohol and various powders; Henrik, a burnt-out, laboratory-bound grad student with a secret history of manic-depressive breakdown; Will, an Asian-American freelance coder with a porn addiction almost as debilitating as his identity-based inferiority complex; and Cory, a dreadlocked, Jewish, queer-curious, and lonely liberal activist with an eating disorder and a habit of checking her privilege to the point of personal stasis. Tulathimutte is a slapstick curmudgeon who goes hard on his characters, setting in store for them sufferings that run to extremes of physical disfigurement. The novel is as funny as it is dark, and things get very dark, indeed. Eyeballs are amputated — the technical term is enucleation — and the hyperbolic elements occasionally make the reader’s eyes roll, but who ever said realism was worth it for the laughs? It’s tempting to call Private Citizens an “identity politics” novel, and the idea of identity is the object of a lot of its satire. On a deeper level, it’s about four people passing through the jungle of what they can’t help but think of as “piddling” 20-something dramas on the way to figuring out who the people are beneath their personal brands.

An initial setpiece places the four principals in a car on the way to a northern California beach two years after graduation, at the end of the summer of 2007, the last time we’ll see them together, with the exception of flashbacks, until the novel’s end. The first two-thirds proceed in pairs of chapters that grant each character their own novellas, told in close third-person narration. It’s hard not to sense the spirit of Jonathan Franzen hovering over Private Citizens, both in its structure and in Tulathimutte’s way of dealing his characters bespoke moral corrections. Like Franzen, he can at times turn his narrative into a snowblower of up-to-the-minute lifestyle detail. But in Franzen’s last two novels, the information overload had the whiff of secondhand trivia gleaned from old media. Tulathimutte gives the impression of having done his fieldwork, even if much of it transpired behind a screen (as it must in the millennial trenches).  Social novelists who place limits on their internet access now do so at their own peril.

The sections in Private Citizens devoted to Cory and Will veer into workplace and Web 2.0 satire. Linda and Henrik live at the economy’s precarious fringes, and are granted more generous backstories. The book’s heart is with them; Cory and Will more often carry it into sociological terrain. After Cory’s boss dies at his desk — the first of many more or less forgivable plot contrivances — she learns he’s bequeathed her the company, a nonprofit called Socialize. Its feel-good-about-partying business model (“We promote culture, send business to local merchants and venues, and route disposable income to social causes”) has turned out to be nonviable, and the same goes for Cory’s love life, as well as her attempt to start a warehouse commune. With not a little shame, she goes pleading to her father, an eccentric, self-made millionaire provider of moving, cleaning, and landscaping services. He directs her to a cultlike Silicon Valley management-training course called Handshake Workshops, which activates her capitalist management skills without derailing the narrative for too long. It’s worth noting that Cory has managed to graduate from Stanford in 2005 and hold down a job without learning to use email — the most improbable aspect of her misbegotten quest for ethical purity. But its setting aside, Private Citizens doesn’t quite qualify as a “Silicon Valley novel”; even Will the coder sits outside its culture — he’s a slacker. The “techbros” overheard in the novel and glimpsed at parties are roundly disdained.

The riffs on Socialize are funny, but Tulathimutte finds sharper, more absurd satirical fodder in the entrepreneurial aspirations of Will’s girlfriend, Vanya. She is a cunning creation, and indeed may be said to embody the characteristics Tulathimutte is most interested in mocking. She’s a former teenage beauty queen, and a vain one, who maintains and enhances her looks with various surgeries. She’s unstoppably “aspirational,” and a determined lifecaster bent on turning pro. She’s also paraplegic, paralyzed below the waist as a result of a beauty-pageant accident that might be offensive if it weren’t so silly:

[A]t fourteen, she finished third for Miss Teen Dixie Doll, behind identical twins who’d split the tiara. During the onstage group photo, the flashbulb caused one of the eliminees at the top of the bleachers to snap a kitten heel and crash forward onto the quarterfinalists, the semifinalists, then Vanya and the twin queens, all sixteen cascading down the steps in an anorexic avalanche. Under the scrum of Misses, Vanya broke her nose and fractured her pelvis and spine. A stray flake of bone had her in agony until after two days she awoke with no feeling below her navel.

Vanya’s start-up is Sable, a new kind site for the disabled: “Disability forums tend to devolve into group therapy,” she tells Will. “Sufferers bursting to swap sympathy and pain management tips. It’s not fun. It’s a conversation able-bodied people can’t participate in, and the biggest threat to mainstream penetration. Sable will fight negativity content filtering, crowd moderation, and aggressive brand management.” The result is well-funded by VCs, and monstrous. Vanya and Will become the stars of a 16-hour-a-day self-surveillance webcast called WHEEL and DEAL. In Will, Vanya is paired with, scrutinized by, and becomes the tormentor of her dialectical antithesis. Her feel-good public projections are matched by his multivalent self-loathing. His is the shame of the child of immigrants and the porn addict, two vectors that converge as he’s holed up at home while Vanya’s away raising money and he moves from watching to editing — “there was one way to get Asian men into porn: in post production.” The sequence is one of the novel’s comic peaks. Will volleys between fits of self- and hard-disk erasure, and Vanya-induced overexposure. The sacrifice of his privacy comes at a tremendous cost.

Anyone who objects to satirizing the wheelchair-bound should refer to the assassins of Infinite Jest, but a more striking parallel between that book and Private Citizens, though there’s no telling if Tulathimutte intended it, is Linda, who, in her addled nocturnal wanderings, struck me as a cousin of Wallace’s disfigured beauty Madame Psychosis/Joelle Van Dyne. As a stunted writer, Linda is also the voice of Tulathimutte’s drive-by lit crit:

[S]he tried a fiction writing workshop, where, inspite of its idiotic mission of focus-grouping literature, she could at least set her own agenda. But she quickly wearied of her classmates’ manuscripts, about characters with pounding hearts and wry grins who’d sig and shrug and fail to meet her gaze, who held dying grandmothers’ hands’, helmed starships, attended dorm parties, came out. They were so serious about it! And they got foot rubs of praise, the bland reading the bland—product of a contemporary literature rife with domestic angst, ethnic tourism, child prodigies, talking animals, period nostalgia, affected affectlessness, atrocity porn, genre-crossovers clad in figleaves of literary technique. No ideas, only intellectual property; no avant-garde only controversy; no ars poetica, only personal essays; no major writers, only writing majors.

Well put! (Tulathimutte is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.) The criticisms leveled at Linda’s own writing — that she’s “contemptuous” of her characters, “dictionary-happy,” and deficient in the “empathy” department — have the ring of anticipated knocks at Private Citizens. A more generous reading might see them as the hurdles of his own style the self-conscious Tulathimutte knows he’ll have to leap before the novel’s end. For his characters, there are pits to climb out of. Linda hits bottom after a party where she recklessly and unwittingly smokes heroin, the victim of a hit-and-run that puts her in traction and knocks out her front teeth. The accident reunites her with Will, never a close friend, and as such, one of the few her hedonist hustling hasn’t alienated, and Henrik, who also comes to Will after a hiatus from medication, induces a breakdown. So begins the novel’s redemptive downslope.

Henrik, the son of an itinerant Vietnam veteran who kept him out of school until he clandestinely self-educated through correspondence schools and improbably got himself into Yale, then transferred after a suicidal brush to Stanford, is the novel’s black box of depression. We hear him as he tries to talk his way into the middle-class liberal mind-set of his peers — just the bourgeois mentality Linda relentlessly rejects. Without sacrificing any of its antic humor, its characters’ habits of constant self-criticism, or its recourse to brutal moral comeuppance — even Vanya, at last rejected by Will and reduced to crawling away from him with her elbows, becomes an object of readerly sympathy — Private Citizens resolves into a comedy of remarriage and a traditional arc of reckless youth adjusting to the humbling requirements of adulthood. The loose bonds of friendship trend toward the familial. Will, Cory, Linda, and Henrik will have to go about the tedious business of learning to care for each other. We know millennials as bogeychildren of alarmist trend pieces and the catchall hand-wringing of an aging commentariat. Tulathimutte is on the front line of writers showing that they’re also worthy heroes and heroines of the American novel.

*This article appears in the March 7, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.